Thursday, January 23, 2020

The devil's in the details (Columbus Symphony Russian Winter Festival II)

This week the Columbus Symphony is performing a program of exotic masterpieces as part of its Russian Winter Festival.

This is the program:
Prokofiev - Lieutenant Kije
Borodin - Polovetsian Dances
Rimski-Korsakov - Suite from The Golden Cockerel (Le Coq d'Or)
Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture
(And there's also an encore which shall remain a secret.)

The bassoon is not featured heavily in this program as a solo instrument but there is always plenty to keep us occupied.  The details can be daunting.....I noticed that there were 3 intervals which captured much of my attention this week.  An interval, in case any non-musicians are reading this, may be defined as the distance between two notes.  And one of the main intervals vying for my attention this week is the one which opens the first movement Lt. Kije bassoon solo (played here with a metronome on 80 and a drone on Bb):

Often there is a noise between the high Bb and the F below it, thereby ruining the interval.  Smooth playing is one of the great challenges of bassoon playing...left to its own devices, the bassoon sounds pretty rough and rocky.  But in the hands of an aware player, many of those rough edges are smoothed out.  It takes some work though.  To master the interval from high Bb to F, the air and embouchure must be subtly manipulated AND the finger movement from the Bb fingering to the F must be absolutely perfect.  We must will the bassoon to cooperate, as thortugh we're reining in a defiant toddler.

In that same solo, sometimes the Bb to the E natural is also a troublesome interval, benefiting from an embouchure shift on the E.  And finally, the low D to the low Bb might be awkward.  For me it requires a forceful movement of the left thumb.  By this point in the solo, the player has surely moved back on the reed, so the main problem here is the swift and strong motion of the left thumb.

I recommend practicing this solo with a metronome.  The reason is because this is one of the many solos in which the bassoonist tends to lag behind.  Practicing with a metronome prepares the player to keep the tempo moving throughout the solo. I looked at the score to see if there was a tempo marking, and sure enough there was: 80 beats per minute.  As always, though, I practiced with the metronome on faster and slower tempos so that I'm prepared for anything.

Many recordings of this piece feature faulty intonation in this bassoon solo.  Practicing the solo with a sound drone on Bb will greatly reduce the chances of playing out of tune on the solo in the orchestra. This level of preparation may seem like overkill but I think pays off.  It's better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

There is a tricky technical passage in the second movement of Lt. Kije which presents a different type of interval challenge - one that is solved by the fingers exclusively - between low Eb and low Gb:

I use the alternate F# key (little finger right hand) but it can be difficult to slide the little finger from the low F key to the alternate F#.  Once again, extra force is needed.....that little finger has to work hard to move cleanly from F to F#.  I recorded myself (with my phone) playing the first 2 bars of the passage a couple of times, clearly establishing the difference between the quintuplet and the four 16ths.  With a precarious passage like this one, recording it accurately provides a degree of assurance for later playing it in the orchestra.

All four of the above mentioned intervals benefit from isolated practice (meaning practicing only the interval).  I recall many a lesson with K. David Van Hoesen when one interval would be played over and over, with discussion, until it really sounded ultra smooth and connected, with the first note clearly leading to the next.  He frequently began lessons by asking to hear a broken arpeggio all slurred, paying very close attention to each interval.

The 4th movement of Lt. Kije features two bassoons and a tenor saxophone in a unison soli beginning a beat before 46:

Good intonation and ensemble are of paramount importance here.  The staccatos are ideally crisp, with clear accents, including the accented eighth at the end of each phrase (which may be the opposite of the way we often end phrases!).  The sixteenths are best double-tongued because of the tempo and character.

That reminds me of something that happened during this afternoon's rehearsal.  Our music director Rossen Milanov summarized with one word what he wanted from the orchestra: character. Similarly, my teacher K. David Van Hoesen used to insist that his students play with character and commitment at all times.  That's a valuable goal to have in mind throughout our musical endeavors.

The first time I ever used double tonguing in an orchestra was in the Borodin Polovetsian Dances.   At the time I assumed it was difficult because I was a double-tonguing novice, but I have since learned that it's an unusually taxing passage (occurring twice, with different notes):
score pages from Borodin Prince Igor (Polovetsian Dances) with tongued bassoon parts encircled
The first and second bassoons both play the exposed passage, and the tempo is extremely's in one, at a tempo of approximately 108 (remember: this is the beat per measure---it's darned fast--if the 6/8 were in two instead of one, the tempo would be 216 per beat!).  I doubt that there's a bassoonist on earth who'd be able to single tongue this, and even double tonguing it isn't easy, probably because it's relentlessly fast and it goes on for a long time.  Especially during my first experience playing this piece, I was really, really glad that I had learned to double tongue.

The first entrance of the first bassoon in the Lento of Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or Suite presents a different type of demanding detail:

It looks's nothing but a D3 in whole notes, right?   Well....the clarinets begin the soft woodwind chord before the 1st bassoon enters, and they are playing very, very, very quietly, as only clarinetists can do.  The entering bassoon is sure to sound like a bull in a china shop.  I actually considered using my flat pp fingering (which means I'd add the first finger of the right hand) but I decided it was too likely to be flat, ruining the intonation of the chord.  So I'm suffering through the entrance with the normal fingering.  I try not to drink coffee within 30 minutes of playing a piece like this, because caffeine makes it harder to control delicate entrances such as this one.  The second bassoon enters a bar later on the B natural below the D of the 1st bassoon.  (I'd much prefer to play the easy-to-control, ultra cooperative B natural!)

In movement III of the Rimsky-Korsakov, the oboe begins an Allegretto solo in 6/8 with the bassoon entering later.  The parts are kind of similar; it sounds as though they are supposed to line up better than they do, as though the oboe and bassoon are clumsily and unsuccessfully trying to dance together. The bassoon solo should equal the oboe solo rather than accompany it, while matching the oboe's staccato and general style:

There is a technically difficult tutti passage in movement IV.  It looks easy enough, but at a fast clip those grace notes leading to the low F are pretty tricky, especially because they're repeated:

The bassoons certainly can't be heard well in the above passages, but it's incumbent on us to do our best to master our entire program including loud tuttis. 

Even Tchaikovsky's bombastic 1812 Overture has some details to fret over.  On the first page there is an exposed passage (beginning in measure 45 with the cellos) which is a technical entanglement in the triplets in measures 47 and 51:

In measure 47 above I use the most basic fingering for Eb (just the 1st and 3rd fingers of the left hand plus the whisper key).  With most reeds, that fingering is in tune on my bassoon although I suspect that fingering may not be useful on all bassoons.  I use that same Eb fingering again in measure 51.  It's a little bit disconcerting the use that fingering, since it's not one that we commonly use, and it can be unstable.  It's hard to trust the fingering, but it is technically preferable. 

As you can see, I wrote in the first note of the next line (Eb) at the end of measure 51 above.  Such visual aids seem to help in difficult technical passages. (No use making a mistake because we don't know what the next note is!)

These are just a few of the daunting details of the first bassoon parts for this weekend's Columbus Symphony concerts.  If you're in the central Ohio area, you can hear it live on Friday and Saturday night at 7:30pm or Friday morning at 10am.  Hope to see you there!


Thursday, January 9, 2020

Tchaikowsky: Manfred Symphony

Tchaikowsky's epic Manfred Symphony (1885) stands out in numerous ways.  It is a multi-movement romantic symphonic poem rather than a numbered symphony, it's Tchaikowsky's longest symphonic work, it's an example of Tchaikowsky using the idée fixe made famous by Berlioz, AND its score includes 3 bassoons often playing in unison in exposed passages.  There are so many exposed bassoon passages is the work that I'd definitely label it bassoon-heavy.

The Manfred Symphony is based upon the dramatic poem Manfred by Lord Byron.  The Russian journalist Vladimir Stassov came up with a sketch of a program for a 4-movement musical composition and asked composer Mili Balakirev to write the music.  Balakirev didn't want to get in over his head so he sent the sketch to Hector Berlioz (an obvious choice considering the success of Berlioz's Harold in Italy which was based on Byron's Childe Harold).  Berlioz, feeling old and sickly at the time, declined, and next Balakirev tried to pass off the project to Tchaikowsky.  Tchaikowsky also balked, not giving in to Balakirev's nagging until years later.  And once he did take on the task, Tchaikowsky quipped that it was "a thousand times pleasanter to compose without a program"!

Tchaikowsky provided the following description of his setting of Manfred in the score:
I. Lento lugubre (B minor, 338 bars)
Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fatal questions of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers terrible spiritual yearnings. He has delved into the occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved by him, gnaws at his heart, and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred's despair.
II. Vivace con spirito (B minor, 555 bars)
The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of a waterfall.
III. Andante con moto (G major, 282 bars)
Pastorale. A picture of the simple, free and peaceful life of the mountain folk.
IV. Allegro con fuoco (B minor–B major, 491 bars).
The subterranean palace of Arimanes. An infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the midst of a bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the spirit of Astarte, who pardons him. Death of Manfred.
In the Manfred Symphony the idée fixe melody, representing Byron's romantic protagonist Manfred, is presented in the opening by 3 bassoons and bass clarinet in unison. (An idée fixe is theme occurring in each movement of a work, lending unity and sometimes a sense of obsession.)

The Manfred Symphony opens with the idée fixe played by 3 bassoons and bass clarinet in unison.
There is usually an unspoken hierarchy for unison passages.  For example, if I'm playing in unison with a horn, I'm going to defer to the horn because it's a louder instrument.  In fact, in unison situations I almost always defer to the other instrument (unless, for example, it's a situation where blending is more important than playing underneath the other instrument).  The main reason for this is that the bassoon is the quietest of all orchestral instruments.  Also, the bassoon is like a chameleon, easily adapting to and blending with whatever musical environment it finds itself thrust into.  Generally, especially in unison situations, we bassoonists make better followers than leaders, let's face it.

Incidentally, when we play with other instruments in octaves or harmony (instead of unison) the priorities may be different.  Achieving the best balance sometimes means that the bassoon, perhaps playing in the lower octave, plays out more than the others.

In the opening of the Manfred, even though it's a unison soli I think it's appropriate for the principal bassoonist to play out like a leader.  There's only one bass clarinet, and the 2nd and 3rd bassoons are likely to follow the 1st bassoon. This passage (along with the later passages featuring the same instrumentation) is traditionally played without vibrato.  The bass clarinet doesn't use vibrato, and I think it might be nightmarish for 3 bassoonists to somehow try to sync their vibrato.  Also, there's no question that playing without vibrato makes it easier to tune with the other players.

This unison soli is played by bassoons 1,2 and 3 and bass clarinet.

The opening statement sets the tone for the entire work, so it's particularly important to aim for a strong but pleasant sound.  I "auditioned" my reeds by turning on a sound drone on low A and playing the opening on each reed.  I sought a reed which easily played in tune AND also had an appealing sound which projected well.  (And it also had to be a new reed, since that's what works best on my 15k Heckel.)

The Manfred Symphony is full of various types of unison soli passages involving the first bassoon, affording ample opportunity to practice being a chameleon.  In measure 38 of the first movement, the opening  idée fixe is stated a fifth higher, using the first and second clarinets instead of bass clarinet.  Here it seems wise for the bassoons to defer to the clarinets who are playing fortissimo.  (Bassoonists must be careful in ff passages to not ruin the sound.....we rarely truly play ff because of the undesirable sound which may result.  Clarinetists don't seem to share that problem with us.)

     Here the idée fixe is stated a fifth higher and the 3 bassoons are joined in unison by the 1st and 2nd clarinets.
Later in the first movement the first bassoon joins the low strings in a unison melodic passage.  Here the bassoonist is free to use vibrato to match the vibrating strings. Also, since this passage involves a large number of players, it's advisable for the bassoonist to play out in a soloistic manner.
Here, the 1st bassoon plays with the lower strings and vibrato is called for.
The second movement, a scurrying scherzo (which is one of my favorite scherzos ever) features some wildly whirling woodwind parts as well as plenty of staccato sixteenths.  When I listened to recordings of this movement without looking at the music, I imagined that the sixteenth note triplets, the staccato sixteenths and also the groups of 2 or 3 eighth notes were beginning ON the beat instead of where they really start (on the offbeat).  I had to re-program my brain with the corrected beat.
When listening to this movement without the music or score, it's easy (for me at least) to be fooled into thinking that each of the above passages are beginning ON the beat!
The 3rd movement offers yet another unison soli combination.  The English horn, 1st clarinet and 1st bassoon share this fff soli:
This fff soli is for English horn, 1st clarinet and 1st bassoon.

Another 3 bassoon/bass clarinet unison soli  appears fairly close to the end of the 4th movement:
Near the end of the 4th movement there is a return to the 3 bassoon plus bass clarinet combo.
The work ends quietly with important bassoon parts.  The 3rd bassoon has a very exposed passage in the last few measures:
The final measures, featuring the bassoons playing quietly
Clearly this monumental work requires much flexibility from the bassoons and presumably for the other instruments as well.  As far as I know, this is the only work for which Tchaikowsky wrote 3 bassoon parts. Sometimes those 3 bassoons play important parts in unison, and other times the 3rd bassoon is assigned challenging passages not included in the other parts.  His orchestration seems quite revolutionary and experimental.  (There are also 2 harps in this work, reminiscent of Berlioz.)

If you'd like to enjoy a rare opportunity to hear this work performed live, the Columbus Symphony is performing it this Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Ohio Theatre under the direction of Music Director Rossen Milanov.  Also on the program is the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Natasha Paremski.