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Gustav Mahler

When he began writing Das Lied von der Erde in 1908, Mahler had recently experienced the 3 blows of fate which had been foretold in his Symphony No. 6:  he had lost his post as director of the Vienna Opera, his 5 year old daughter had died of scarlet fever, and he had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition.  In July 1908 as he worked on Das Lied, he wrote to his confidant Bruno Walter:

If I am to find my way back to myself, I have got to accept the horrors of loneliness, since you do not know what has gone on and is going on within me. It is, assuredly, no hypochondriac fear of death, as you suppose. I have long known that I have got to die. . . . Without trying to explain or describe something for which there probably are no words, I simply say that with a single fell stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind I ever achieved. I stand vis-à-vie de rien , and now, at the end of my life, have to begin to learn to walk and stand.
Each of the 6 movements is an independent song, beginning with Drinking Song of Earth's Misery and ending with Farewell. Chinese poems (loosely translated into German by Hans Bethge) were the source of the text for this symphony/song cycle with 2 vocal soloists: mezzo (or baritone) and tenor.  Mahler called this work a symphony, although he did not number it, perhaps due to superstition about composers not living past their 9th symphonies.  (Das Lied was written after Symphony No.8.)  Bruno Walter called Das Lied  "the most personal utterance among Mahler's creations, and perhaps in all music."

Although Mahler's score calls for a large orchestra, much of the writing in Das Lied is transparent.  Only the first, fourth and sixth songs call for the entire orchestra to play at once.  Some passages in Das Lied are more like chamber music, with only a few instruments playing at a time.

Additionally, Das Lied has been successfully arranged for smaller ensembles, most notably by Glen Cortese (2006) and Arnold Schoenberg (begun in 1920 and completed by Rainer Riehn in 1983).

Mahler is one of those composers who had a tendency to extend the limits of his musicians and their instruments.  He wrote for the bassoon as though it's an easy instrument to control in low-pitched ppp passages and to play in tune during section unisons on both ends of the instrument.  He's famous among bassoonists for writing outlandish trills, some of which are downright impossible. He called upon the bassoons for many different purposes, from mournful to mocking.  Mahler probably made each of us better bassoonists by pushing us thus.

Many Das Lied bassoon passages are rather exposed, even in the original full orchestra version. One example may be found at 15 in the 2nd movement (Der Einsame im Herbst - The Lonely One in Autumn) where the bassoon plays with only the violins at first. before the oboe enters:

But the main bassoon solo of Das Lied occurs in the 6th movement:

I think it's a good idea to attempt to really understand who Mahler was in order to prepare for performing his works.  Last Sunday the Columbus Symphony presented a private showing of a film about Mahler (Mahler auf der Couch) for the musicians and ticket-holders for this coming weekend's Columbus Symphony performance of Das Lied von der Erde.


This fascinating film explored Mahler's marital drama which resulted in his 1910 session with psychoanalysist Sigmund Freud. Of course, the sound track was to die for (from his 4th, 5th and 10th symphonies).  I learned a few things about Mahler from this film.  For example, I guess I should be embarrassed to admit that I didn't realize that during his lifetime, Mahler was better known for his conducting than for his composing! 

As soon as I returned home from the movie I began researching Mahler's wife Alma and Mahler's famous meeting with Freud.  There's really not much known about the details of that meeting, aside from a few clues from Alma.  We do know that Mahler's childhood was quite tragic, and it's safe to assume that this was discussed.  Mahler's parents bore 12 children, yet only 6 survived beyond infancy, and Mahler's favorite sibling, a younger brother, died in Mahler's arms at age 13.  His parents fought bitterly and brutally.  During one of their fights, young Gustav Mahler ran out into the street where he came upon an organ grinder playing merrily.  This juxtaposition of emotions is key to understanding Mahler's music.

If you live anywhere near Columbus, Ohio, by all means come and hear this weekend's performances of the incomparable Das Lied von der Erde conducted by our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni and featuring two out-of-this-world soloists: Sasha Cooke, mezzo and Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor.  (We rehearsed with the soloists this morning and were absolutely blown away by them!)

Masterworks 8:

Song of the Earth

2012-13 Masterworks Series
Lead by CSO Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni and featuring guest vocalists Sasha Cooke and Anthony Dean Griffey, this rapturous program includes one of the Romantic era's most definitive compositions, Tchaikovsky's moving String Serenade, written as an homage to Mozart, and concludes with Cortese's orchestration of Mahler's infinitely ingenious combination of song cycle and symphony, The Song of the Earth.
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
Sasha Cooke, mezzo
Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor
TCHAIKOVSKY Serenade in C Major for Strings
MAHLER/CORTESE Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth")
Song of the EarthVenue: Ohio TheatreFriday
Feb. 22, 2013 - 8 pm

Feb. 23, 2013 - 8 pm
Masterworks Series Sponsor:

Get tickets to this weekend's concerts for just $15! Just use the code EARTH when you order through or the CAPA Ticket Center (39 E. State Street/ 614.228.8600).


3 years ago | |
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About imageA couple of years ago there was a TV show entitled Minute to Win It in which contestants were given 60 seconds to perform ridiculous, outrageous feats for the chance to win a million dollars.  Maybe the concept is not all that different from what we bassoonists go through to win auditions......certainly most audition candidates are given a bit more than one minute to prove themselves, but not much more.  Most candidates do not advance beyond the preliminary round, which often lasts just a few short minutes for each candidate (after countless hours of preparation!).

My former teacher K. David Van Hoesen told me recently that "back in the day", orchestral auditions were very different from the way they are now.  Bassoonists were invited to play for the conductor and maybe a couple of orchestra members.  In stark contrast to today's staggeringly lengthy audition repertoire lists, there was NO list of required repertoire.  There was no official announcement of job openings - auditions were held by invitation only, so anyone who wanted a job had to be already known.  The candidate would show up in a hotel room or at a hall and play whatever the conductor asked for from memory.  That's right - there was no printed music.  And there were no restrictions on what the conductor might ask to hear.

These days, orchestras must figure out ways to handle very large numbers of audition candidates. It's not unusual for auditionees to be sent to a large mass warm-up room upon arrival at the audition site.  It can be baffling, especially for stressed-out auditionees, to figure out the best possible use of time in that situation.  It might be difficult to hear oneself because of the number of bassoonists playing, yet it can also be daunting to expose oneself in front of competitors if there happens to be a moment in which the others stop playing.  Unless you have a very clear mission to accomplish in the mass warm-up room (such as running through your usual warm-up routine, or testing reeds) then it might be best to just sit calmly in (or outside of) the room.

Next, each candidate may be offered 10 minutes in a private room, at which time the excerpts to be performed will be identified.  At this point there is a fork in the road.  If you plan to use your own music, then you must spend/waste valuable minutes frantically sorting through pages and pages of repertoire to get to the required material, and you may even have to mark the specific measures in your part.  If, on the other hand, you have chosen to use the orchestra's provided parts which will be set up on stage, then all you have to do is briefly and efficiently prepare yourself for each excerpt to be performed.  For example, if the Marriage of Figaro Overture is one of the excerpts to be heard, maybe you'd calmly, quietly and slowly play the first few measures.  The real preparation has been completed by now, so you are just offering yourself brief reminders.

Chances are, you have memorized each excerpt, and it's possible that you typically play those excerpts with your eyes closed.  Why, then, do so many of us insist upon using our own parts during auditions?  For those who are particularly visually oriented, it may be disconcerting to see a different edition on the stand at an audition.  If you are that way, then it makes sense to use your own music.  The fact of the matter is that during the audition, most of us probably do look at the music, even for memorized excerpts.  Try to figure out in advance if  you will come undone at the sight of a part which is laid out differently from the one you are accustomed to.  Have you ever practiced at home using your own part and then used a visually different part during rehearsals?  Did that faze you?  Make your decision for auditions based upon your tendency.

When you are summoned to go onstage, if you have elected to use your own parts, you must juggle your music along with your reeds, water, bassoon and seat strap.  If you are nervous enough, there is a chance of dropping/dumping at least one of those items, and hopefully it won't be the bassoon.

One you have arrived at your chair onstage, each second matters.  Speaking from the perspective of an audition committee member, I can say that the committees are sometimes bored and tired.  It's not easy to remain alert for hours on end to fairly evaluate potential new orchestra members.  Because of that, it's advisable to move at a reasonable pace rather than taking too much time.  But don't rush yourself through your excerpts!  It can be challenging to find the right pacing, and that's where experience (auditioning experience) can prove to be valuable.  It's not unusual to hear about musicians who took 50 or 60 auditions before finally winning.  (Imagine the cost of taking that many auditions!)

Should you play a few warm up notes or not?  The answer is that you must decide well in advance.  Some audition winners do not play any warm-up notes before beginning their excepts, and some do.  If  you decide that you will, then by all means PLAN your warm up, make sure it sounds good, and do not stray from that plan.  

If you are planning to switch reeds at any point, have the reeds ready (soaked and wrapped in damp paper towel, for example).  Of course, it's ideal to use the same reed for each excerpt, but here's one example of how playing an audition is very different from actually doing the job.  On the job, for example, I would definitely have a special reed (one with a 100% reliable low E) for the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6.  And I'd have a high reed for the Rite of Spring.  Reed needs vary from player to player depending upon reed style and the characteristics of the specific bassoon, but for me, specialized reeds for high or low solos are best.  Yet I will be the first to admit that for an audition, it's somewhat preferable NOT to switch reeds, since switching is risky and time-consuming.

And what about the perennial question of  whether or not to take a beta blocker such as Inderal?  Many musicians believe that usage of Inderal in small dosages can reduce the anxiety associated with taking an audition.  Nervousness will still be present, but anxiety will potentially be reduced.  Some musicians report a decline in the emotional aspect of their playing while on Inderal - that may be a stiff price to pay for the reduction of anxiety, and that's why each individual must decide for him/herself.

I do believe that anyone taking an audition would benefit from some sort of stress reduction technique.   Deep breathing is particularly beneficial to wind players because our breathing is constricted by nervousness.  There are many deep breathing exercises which may benefit us, such as the one presented in this video:

As bassoonists, we have additional worries associated with air travel.  Many of us, myself included, have experienced the nightmare of being told upon boarding an aircraft that we may not carry on our bassoons.  This problem is more common these days with many flights being booked to capacity, thus reducing the amount of available overhead storage space available to each passenger.

There are ways to reduce your chances of being stopped from carrying on your bassoon.  If you're lucky enough to be flying on Southwest Airlines, you have the option of paying a nominal additional fee for early boarding.  That ensures that you will gain access to overhead space.  On other airlines there may also be ways to ensure earlier boarding.  On Delta, for example, some flights offer Priority Boarding for a fee, which ensures access to overhead storage. 

Be sure to check on the size of the aircraft before you purchase a ticket.  Smaller planes do not allow ANY carry-ons!  Also, limit your carry-on to your bassoon - if you attempt to carry on another item as well, you are reducing your chances of carrying on the bassoon.  This probably  means you will pay a fee to check a bag, but all of these extra fees pale by comparison to the price you'd likely pay, monetarily and otherwise, as a result of your bassoon being placed in cargo!

There is one very  important factor which we bassoonists must consider which other musicians don't have to worry about for auditions.  If you are traveling to another area for the audition, which is nearly always the case, then your reeds will be different at the audition site.  It's best if your schedule allows enough time to arrive in the audition city with adequate time before the audition to test and adjust  your reeds.

Of  course, this leads to the next problem we bassoonists face.  If you fly to your audition, don't try to carry on your reed-making tools!   The TSA does allow sheathed knives in checked baggage.  However, the TSA warns that "It’s important to know that even if an item is generally permitted, it may be subject to additional screening or not allowed through the checkpoint if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses other security concerns. The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items on the plane."  In other words, there's no guarantee that your reed knife will make it through the screening process.

There are many valuable books written about how to ace an audition, and there are numerous successful  audition coaches offering their services. (Don Greene is one of the best-known.)  But bassoonists face extra challenges well beyond the norm of an already overwhelmingly stressful undertaking!

Good luck to each of you who face future auditions.  In spite of everything brought up in this post, somebody will win the audition.  It may as well be you!

3 years ago | |
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Igor Stravinsky (1862-1971) wrote his Octet in 1922-3 during his early Neo-Classical period.  At this stage of his career he was abandoning his "Russian phase" which had brought us such works as The Rite of Spring and The Firebird.  His (which never caught on with audiences to the degree that his Russian phase works had) combined a formal, structured compositional style with modern sounding harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint.  (His third and final phase of composition was his serial period, in case you're wondering.)

Stravinsky himself conducted the 1923 premier of the Octet at the Paris Opera House, since he had disliked Serge Koussevitsky's conducting of the premier his earlier work Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

Paris Opera House where Stravinsky premiered his Octet
Apparently Stravinsky stated that "there is no interpretation" for the Octet, and that's part of the reason he insisted on conducting it himself (so that it wouldn't be ruined by a conductor's interpretation of a piece which requires no interpretation!).  What he meant by that, I think, is that he had been so clear in his markings (including metronome markings) that all that was necessary was for the performers to follow his instructions.  Here is a recording (divided into 2 parts) of Stravinsky conducting the Octet:

It's unusual for bassoonists to have the opportunity to perform the octet on an orchestral subscription series, but luckily for me, the Stravinsky Octet was programmed on a Columbus Symphony classical subscription series.  As you may know, this piece is sometimes performed without conductor, but seeing as how Stravinsky himself conducted the Octet numerous times, it seems judicious to follow his example and use a conductor.  Here in Columbus our associate conductor Peter Stafford Wilson conducted our performances.

The octet is scored for 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 bassoons, one flute and one clarinet......where did the odd instrumentation come from?  This is what Stravinsky told his biographer Robert Craft:

The Octuor began with a dream in which I saw myself in a small
room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some very
attractive music. I did not recognize the music, though I strained to hear it,
and I could not recall any feature of it the next day, but I do remember my
curiosity—in the dream—to know how many the musicians were. I
remember too that after I had counted them to the number eight, I looked
again and saw that they were playing bassoons, trombones, trumpets, a
flute and a clarinet. I awoke from this little concert in a state of great
delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose the
Octuor, which I had had no thought of the day before, though for some
time I had wanted to write an ensemble piece—not incidental music like
Histoire du Soldat, but an instrumental sonata.
There are plenty of bassoon-related challenges in the Octet.  The opening Lento calls for some tricky trills, such as the high Aflat to Bflat at the beginning:

 This is the fingering I found to work best (as you can see above, I wrote the fingering in the part because I was not familiar with it):
This trill is certainly awkward, though, and is not the most comfortable way to begin a piece.  With both the right and left hands involved in trilling, coordination is tricky.  Don't be surprised if your bassoon shakes, as if the entire instrument must participate in the execution of this dastardly trill.  
As you can see in the following excerpt from page 2, the bassoon is often called upon to play staccato in Stravinsky's works. If the notes don't have dots, then the abbreviation "stacc." may appear underneath the staff.  Typically, the "Stravinsky staccato" is ULTRA short, and it certainly seems that Stravinsky capitalized on the bassoon's ability to play staccatissimo.

The passage which most musicians, bassoonists or otherwise, associate with the Octet's bassoon parts is the repeating 32nd note scale passages as demonstrated in Variation A below: (especially the downward scales beginning in the 4th measure):

The second bassoon continues the downward scales so that the 32nds sound continuous.  Even though this is what most listeners seem to notice, this is certainly not the most difficult aspect of the 1st bassoon part.

The following 5 measures leading into and beginning Variation C are even more challenging than the above scales:

Fortunately, our maestro conducted the measures before Variation C in quarters.  I spent considerable time practicing (with metronome) dividing the beat into 7 parts and into 5 parts so that I became comfortable with the relationship between the septuplet and the quintuplets. I didn't bother with the notes at first - I either just played on a single note or just used my voice.  (Rhythm is such an important aspect of music that it deserves to be practiced separately from the notes!)

Then at 33 (variation C) the tempo suddenly changes, and it's in one, AND the fingerings become treacherous at that point as well.  In fact, I made up a fingering for A# to B as an alternative to the standard fingerings.  I fingered A# as usual, then for the B, I added the B flat key while lifting the 3rd finger left hand.  That fingering combination, while somewhat more reliable than the standard fingerings, was still nerve-racking.  Despite that observation, I do recommend that fingering since I don't know of any better way to execute that passage.

Variation D is fast (quarter = 160) and light.  

The 16ths at 42 are fast, but playable after slow practice.

The low A, such as the one at 40 below, is suddenly loud and accented, and that happens repeatedly. (This is from Variation D pictured above.)  Due to the sudden dynamic change as well as the pitch tendency of the note, the low A is likely to be sharp in pitch if the player does not make an embouchure adjustment.  (The lower jaw should suddenly drop to lower the pitch.)

The 3rd movement (Finale) begins with a rather martial-sounding 1st bassoon solo accompanied by the 2nd bassoon. Especially for a bassoon solo, it's really long, lasting from the bridge at the end of the 2nd movement to #61, and should be played with lots of character.  Sometimes  bassoonists tend to automatically play at a healthy mf dynamic for any passage marked "solo", but watch out - this solo is marked "sempre p e stacc."!  It should be kept strictly in tempo, and short, light, and quiet.

As with so many Stravinsky bassoon parts, there is indeed a passage in the extreme high range.  It can be seen above beginning 8 bars after 61.  Because of that, it is necessary to use a reed which reliably hits high D.

At 66 begins a lengthy passage of continuous notes with no break.  I think it is important for bassoonists to learn to take very, very quick breaths for such situations.  The breaths should be so short that no time is lost and there is no interruption in the part.  If the staccatos are as short as Stravinsky intended them to be, then such quick snatch breaths are indeed possible.

I think it's a great idea for symphony orchestras to offer chamber works such as this one now and then.  The audience benefits from seeing and hearing the wind instruments up close, and the players get to enjoy the opportunity to perform chamber music for larger audiences - a win-win!

3 years ago | |
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Jean-Féry Rebel (1666~1747) was a child prodigy violinist who studied composition with Jean-Baptiste Lully and served as court composer for Louis XIV.  At age 71 he came out of retirement to produce a shocking ballet, Les Élémens, in which he set out to depict the settling of creation into its natural order.

Rebel wrote of the work :“I have dared to link the idea of confusion of the Elements with that of confusion in Harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes sounding together, or rather, all the notes in an octave played as a single sound”.  Yes, he really does begin the piece with dissonance - the first "tone cluster" in the history of music!  The man was indeed a rebel.

Although the original score is lost, fortunately the parts (or some of the parts) were preserved.  The bassoon part, assuming it's original, was written for a virtuoso, as evidenced by the following passage in the Chaconne, in cut time:

This reminds me of an intriguing fact I read recently.  Apparently double-tonguing used to be common on the bassoon in bygone eras, which explains some rapid tongued bassoon passages written by Handel, Vivaldi and of course Beethoven.  In more recent times, at least over the past century, double tonguing on the bassoon fell out of favor, possibly due to the fact that oftentimes it doesn't sound very good due to the presence of the reed in the mouth.  During the past 20 years or so, however, double tonguing has again become an important aspect of bassoon technique, fortunately for any bassoonist performing Les Élémens.

There is also a movement featuring the bassoon as soloist: 

Here's a performance of the entire work, with a dancer:

If you live anywhere near Columbus, Ohio, please do come to hear the Columbus Symphony with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni perform this piece live on Friday, Saturday or Sunday in the Southern Theatre.  Here are the program details and ticket-buying links:.

Masterworks 2:

In Nature's Realm

2012-13 Masterworks SeriesJean-Marie Zeitouni guides you through Beethoven's enchanting landscapes of the countryside in the refreshing Pastoral Symphony. Even though written in the 1700's, Jean-Frey Rebel's surprisingly contemporary tone poem Les élémens (the elements), depicts the creation of the world and all its creatures. The program is completed by Rossini's William Tell Overture painting a musical picture of a Swiss Alps dawn, storm, pastoral calm, and the famous cavalry charge gallop.Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductorProgram:
ROSSINI Overture to Guillaume Tell (William Tell)
REBEL Les élémens
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, Pastoral
Russian SoulVenue: Southern TheatreFriday
Oct. 19, 2012 - 8 pm

Oct. 20, 2012 - 8 pm
Oct. 21, 2012 - 3 pm

Masterworks Series Sponsor:
3 years ago | |
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In case you haven't heard the news, Billy Hestand is the winner of today's audition for second bassoon of The Cleveland Orchestra!

I had the good fortune to hear Billy play through the audition material a couple of days ago when he stopped in Columbus on his way to the Cleveland audition.  What a thrill it was to hear a bassoonist who was on the verge of winning a position in one of the world's greatest orchestras.  Clearly, he played like a winner.  He had what I would describe as the Cleveland sound - very beautiful and refined - never out of control or the slightest bit crass.  The beginnings and releases of his notes were subtle and perfectly controlled.  He found the right character for each excerpt, showing total command of the orchestral repertoire.  He was ultra prepared, calm and confident.

That's what a winner sounds like.  Congratulations, Billy!

William Hestand has been principal bassoon of the Brooklyn Philharmonic since January 2009, and has played second bassoon in the Lancaster Festival Orchestra since the summer of 2008.  An active freelancer, William has been heard in performance with The New York Philharmonic, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, American Composer’s Orchestra, and The Delaware Symphony Orchestra, and has performed under the baton of Pierre Boulez, Kurt Masur, Christoph Eschenbach, and Pinchas Zuckerman.  William received both his bachelor of music and master of music degree from the Manhattan School of Music where he studied with Patricia Rogers and Kim Laskowski.  An active chamber musician and solo recitalist, he has performed internationally for audiences in The Netherlands, The Dominican Republic, and has been heard at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall.?

3 years ago | |
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It's easy for a symphony musician to feel a bit like a fish out of water when performing Baroque repertoire. It's not unheard of for the training of classical musicians to include no Baroque performance practice whatsoever.  Sure, most of us have listened to Baroque recordings, but oftentimes contemporary performance practice is applied to Baroque repertoire.

The Columbus Symphony has performed a number of Baroque works recently with our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni in which we did actually follow Baroque performance practice.  (If you'd like to hear an example, InstantEncore is streaming our  Best of Baroque concert.)  But I haven't had enough experience in the Baroque realm to be able to state that I'm comfortable with it yet.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to perform with another orchestra.  One of the featured works was the Vivaldi Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Bassoon "La Tempesta di Mare" RV 570.  The first movement is featured in this video by La Orquesta Sinfonica "Kronos":

None of the recordings I found of this work had much, if any, ornamentation going on in the solo bassoon part, so at first I was planning to just play the printed notes.  But I have always been fascinated by Baroque ornamentation.  When I closely examined the bassoon part it appeared as though someone had penciled in some ornamentation which had been erased.  At first I ignored it, but eventually I became obsessed with the notion of adding ornamentation to my part.

I found a couple of YouTube videos of the piece which were pitched at A=440, and I played along.  I really liked adding ornamentation, and practiced doing so.  At first I used the faint traces of ornamentation which had been erased from my part, and using those markings as examples, I came up with some fairly elaborate ideas.  There wasn't enough room on the part to write out those elaborate ideas, so I wasn't sure what to do?  Should I write out a whole new part? Should I even be trying to plan the ornaments before I knew the tempos?  Or should I just "wing it"?

And how exactly does one "wing it" anyway?   How do we learn how to improvise ornamentation?  The only way I know of is to listen to examples.  When I was a student at Eastman I spent many an hour in the music listening library learning how to be a musician.  I was mesmerized by a recording of oboist Leon Goosens playing the Bach Arioso BVW 1056.  It included ornamentation which is forever embedded in my brain.

It's easy to find examples of Baroque ornamentation on YouTube.  Here's a gorgeous example by German oboe virtuoso Burkhard Glaetzner:

On the day of the first rehearsal of the Vivaldi Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Bassoon "La Tempesta di Mare" I had still not figured out what I was going to do......I wanted to use ornamentation, but fully expected that the conductor would put the keibash on that.  After all, I have never before used ornamentation in the orchestra.  I had other things to worry about anyway, such as whether I would double-tongue or single-tongue the many consecutive 16ths.

During the initial read-through of the first movement, I was a complete and utter coward.   I played it straight, without a single added note.  Luckily for me, we went back and read it again.  This time emboldened, I found myself adding notes and flourishes here and there which seemed to fit, kind of playing it by ear.

When we finished that run-through, I braced myself for the conductor to ask what on earth was going on with the bassoon.  To my complete surprise, he exclaimed that he loved the ornamentation in the bassoon!

The tempo was faster during the performance, which is one of the reasons why it's so exciting to be an orchestral musician.  (I mean that!  I love the thrill of having to adjust at the last minute as the conductor and musicians find themselves caught up in the moment.)  This meant that I had to switch to double-tonguing and it also meant that the ornamentation was different from what I had in mind.  It was a thrilling performance, the type that reminds us of why we chose to be musicians.


3 years ago | |
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My Columbus Symphony colleague violist Brett Allen recently wrote a blog post about his new composition for violin, viola, cello and bassoon.  Brett and I have already performed it with Quartet Amici here in Columbus.  It was challenging for each instrument, but the piece is a lot of fun to put together and is extremely appealing to the audience.

Here's Brett's explanation of his new piece, 4amici:

4amici: Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello & Bassoon

As unusual as the quartet combination of Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Cello may be, there does exist an ample body of repertoire for it. Out of the Classical period composers Franz Anton PfeifferJohann Christoph Vogel, Francois Devienne, and Franz Danzi all wrote for the combination. Though not household names like Mozart or Haydn, their output remains significant today for both showcasing the bassoon and tracing the development of bassoon technique.

In more recent times, and in like manner, composers Villa-Lobos and Vaughn Williams have works setting solo bassoon against a bed of strings, though not the exact combination under discussion. But, Bernard Garfield, long-time Principal Bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, now retired, has no less than three Quartets for Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Cello in his catalog, in addition to reams of other bassoon-centric chamber works.

When Betsy Sturdevant, Principal Bassoonist with the Columbus Symphony, invited me to play and compose for her Amici Quartet, I saw it as an opportunity to break the bassoon-showcase mold in some respects. I thought, "Bassoon, plus Violin, Viola and Cello. How likely is that? It sounds like a wedding gig where the 2nd Violinist became indisposed and the other quartet members went out and grabbed the first instrumentalist to come along - a bassoonist!" Such suspension of disbelief is possible only in music videos, but I retained the idea of this being some kind of pick-up group.    

That, plus I had just seen the movie, The Visitor. I won't give the plot away except to say that a burned out college professor gets hooked on hand drumming and starts showing up at community drum circles. The phenomena of drum circles is of huge interest to me because it is quite the opposite of my classical, tightly structured training in music. What I am saying is - it explodes my whole musical universe! No one brings music. No one comes "prepared." It doesn't matter how "good" you are. No one knows what's going to happen. There's no leader. It's entirely spontaneous. As the drumming rises in intensity, people start dancing and singing. All the while new and interesting drumming patterns are rising to the surface. There's no distinction between audience and performers. No one "performance" can be written down or recreated. No one owns it. No one says, "I invented this, I am a great genius." It seems to reach down deep in the human soul and call forth some primitive, essential need to express. Everyone goes away quite satisfied, the same as if they had just listened to Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

I went to work on my "4amici" quartet with all these things in mind. I had a vision, like a stage play. Four buddies (four friends, "quattro amici"), wandering about the city, decide to gather in a public spot for a jam session. In this vision each instrumentalist is an equal participant, it's not just the bassoon on display. Each one throws in a musical idea. One is thinking about half-steps. Another throws in a forceful downward third. Another takes that and turns it on its head. Before long some semblance of music takes shape. Suddenly, there is an interruption, ceremonial music, as if the mayor is passing by. Later, the same material is transformed into something that sounds like a war song from the old country. Then the strings decide to cut the bassoon out and do their own thing. But the bassoonist won't have it and crashes the party. And so it goes, on and on. Each section spins out new ideas and new sections. Where it is headed and where it ends is anyone's guess. Eventually though, as with drum circles, the high energy dissipates and everyone calls it a night.

Sample parts are available on Sheet Music is available for purchase here.

Thank you, Brett, for this most welcome addition to the bassoonist's chamber music repertoire.

4 years ago | |
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The Columbus Symphony's most recent Masterworks concert entitled "French Feast" included Ravel: Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe and Duruflé: Requiem, Op. 9 conducted by our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni. The feast offered a varying menu of challenges, from technical complexity to melodic simplicity.

Ravel composed the music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloe as a commission for Sergei Diaghilev.  It was premiered in Paris by Ballet Russe in 1912.  Many musicians consider this to be Ravel's orchestral masterpiece - its huge orchestra, (optional) chorus and lush, passionate melodies have made it a favorite of audiences worldwide.  Ravel extracted music from the hour-long ballet score to create two suites, the second (and more popular) of which includes the rousing "Danse generale".

Maurice Ravel in 1914.
Maurice Ravel in 1914

Daphnis is famous for its woodwind parts, especially the flute solos.  Although the bassoons are not particularly prominent in the piece, our parts are notoriously difficult, if unheard.  In fact, many bassoonists consider the Daphnis bassoon parts to be unplayable.  (No doubt, some orchestral bassoon parts truly are unplayable!)  If asked my opinion, I suppose I'd say that it is unlikely that any bassoonist would be able to execute each passage in Daphnis with 100% perfection at a reasonably fast tempo.  However, near-perfection is possible, and it's worth putting in the time to attempt to nail it reasonably well.

One thing I've noticed recently about practicing difficult technical passages is that it's helpful to keep track of progress.  I've developed a habit of penciling in my achieved metronome marking at the end of each practice session.  I mark it right in the music so that it will be visible each time I practice it.

It's extremely heartening to discover that with each practice session, the achieved tempo increases.  Frankly, I was surprised to see the evidence of progress - before I began keeping track, I often had the impression that I was just spinning my wheels.  Now I'm able to see actual proof of progress.  (If not, then it's time to re-assess one's practice techniques!)

I always start with the tempo at which I can play the passage accurately, which, due to the difficulty of the passage in question, is always very slow.  I do not allow myself to increase the metronome speed until I can play the passage perfectly several times in succession at the current tempo.  During each practice session, I begin at a tempo which is slower than my last highest tempo, to give my fingers and brain the benefit of slower-than-necessary review.

The most difficult section of the Ravel Daphnis 1st bassoon part!

Now to visit the other end of the French Feast spectrum: the Duruflé Requiem bassoon soloDon't be fooled by the fact that Duruflé's Requiem is only his 9th opus.  An incurable perfectionist, Duruflé has only 14 published opuses to his name; he was 45 when he wrote his Requiem, Op. 9 in 1947.  It's based upon the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead, and the Lux aeterna movement opens with a statement of chant melody by the bassoon:

To me, it's very daunting to play a simple melody such as this one. It has to be perfect.  That means the intonation has to be perfect, the sound has to be even, the articulation must be perfect, the slurs must be perfectly smooth regardless of the fingerings involved, and any markings in the part must be observed.  Oh, and of course the rhythm must be perfect.

Two of those requirements are easy to practice.  Intonation is practiced by setting a drone to a reference pitch (I usually used Bflat for this solo).  The drone can be played by certain types of electronic tuners, on a computer using an online pitch-producing tuner, or on an electronic keyboard which can sustain pitches.  Then the melody is played against the drone.  It's easy to hear any pitch problems.  Rhythm is easy to practice as well, with a metronome.  Despite the odd meters, I set my metronome to 88 to the quarter.  (Since I often practice with the metronome beating on the offbeats, it does not concern me when the metronome switches from beating on the beat to off the beat in this excerpt.)  But because I don't like to become locked into any particular tempo, I make sure to sometimes practice it at different tempos, even at times like this when the composer has provided a metronome marking.  Live performances are not metronomic, and I like to plan for flexibility.

The other issues (evenness, smoothness, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, tone quality) are best addressed by recording.  Although I own a high quality recorder, it's a big hassle to get it out, re-read the directions and figure out how to operate the #&*@% thing each time I want to record.  Since I always have my phone with me, I use that.   I have recorded thousands of bassoon passages over the past year or so - in fact, I wore out the battery of my last iPhone by recording so much.  Of course we always listen to ourselves while we're practicing, but the recorder offers the perspective of the outside observer, which often exposes hitherto hidden flaws.

If I had to decide which was more challenging - the worst fast passage of Daphnis or the simple melody of the Duruflé, I can say without hesitation that the simple melody is the greater challenge to me.  How about you?


4 years ago | |
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 The opening fanfare (entitled "Sunrise") of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30 (composed in 1896) is undoubtedly one of the most famous classical music excerpts in history, especially due to its feature in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's literary epic of the same name.  Strauss said that he hoped that his tone poem conveyed “an idea of the development of the human race from its origin…up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.”  The famous opening sunrise fanfare may be thought of as the dawning of life itself, and after exploring such aspects as religion, passion, joy, science, longing, convalescence and death, the piece ends with a musical representation of the World Riddle, which remains unresolved.  (Throughout the piece, C major represents nature, and B major or minor represents mankind.  At the conclusion, the B major woodwind chord co-exists with a C in the basses so that neither B nor C is established as tonic.)

When I first encountered this piece during high school, I was most taken aback by this section:

It looks awfully daunting, doesn't it?  It's totally playable, though.  It's in 4, at a tempo of around 100 per eighth note, up to the 4/4 meter which is also in 4 at the same tempo with one quarter note per beat.

Now that I'm older and wiser, I know where the true challenge lies in this piece - at the ending, beginning with the pickup to 55 and ending at 56:

At first glance, this doesn't look like much (kind of the opposite of the earlier excerpt).  But it's one of the most difficult bassoon passages in the orchestral repertoire.  If the player's embouchure is not in shape, this passage will be unplayable because of the endurance required, especially due to the range which requires a tighter embouchure.  Additionally, breathing management is an issue.  It's necessary to push a high volume of air very slowly through the reed beginning at one after 55.  The reason the air must move slowly is because of the dynamics, which begin at p and diminuendo to ppp.  It's easy to hyper-ventilate in that type of situation.  The remedy is to rapidly expel air first before inhaling, if there is a buildup of excess air (and you won't know until the time comes!).

Normally I don't worry about embouchure.  But for a passage like this, I do.  When the Columbus Symphony recently performed this work with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, I anxiously awaited the first rehearsal on Tuesday so that I was able to find out what the tempo would be for the bassoon passage near the end of Zarathustra.  (Of course, the slower the tempo, the more difficult the bassoon solo.)  The tempo was on the slow side, and I planned for the tempo to possibly be even slower in the performances (just because it's wise to plan to be flexible).

After Tuesday afternoon's rehearsal, I practiced a lot - much more than I normally would practice late in the day.  I practiced the Strauss passage many, many times, at excruciatingly slow tempos, using the metronome so that I couldn't cheat.  Every once in a while I practiced long tones or other music before returning to the Strauss solo.  The goal was to strengthen the embouchure and to become extremely accustomed to playing that passage.  (Familiarity breeds confidence.)

On Wednesday morning, I did not practice before rehearsal.  Why?  The goal all week was to have as fresh an embouchure as possible each time I played the solo in the orchestra.  So I practiced a lot, but always after rehearsals were finished for that day.  Wednesday after rehearsing with the orchestra I practiced until late into the night, but Thursday morning no practicing was allowed before the rehearsal.  Like any other set of muscles, the embouchure rejuvenates itself during sleep, so no harm is done by over-practicing at night.

On Friday we had a morning rehearsal followed by a concert at night.  I did not allow myself to practice at all until after the Friday night concert so that I wouldn't be "wasting" my embouchure before the concert.  Why was it necessary to practice after the Friday concert?  It's because the rehearsal and concert on Friday might not provide enough of a workout for the embouchure to sustain the high level of strength needed for the Saturday night concert.  Remember, this is not normal embouchure strength we're talking about - it's super strength.

This routine may seem eccentric, but it's what I had to do to be able to sleep at night during Zarathustra week.

The following Zarathustra 1st bassoon passage (sehr langsam tempo) would normally be a big deal, but it's a stroll through the park compared to the above solo!

Strauss had a knack for writing long, full-blown bassoon solos which pushed the boundaries of range, control and endurance.  It's surprising that excerpts from his works do not appear more frequently on bassoon audition lists!

That week's program, which also included Mozart's Overture to the Magic Flute and the world premiere of  Donald Harris' Symphony No. 2, was full of exciting moments.  Here is a video of our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni talking about the program:

"Life without music would be a mistake."
     - Friedrich Nietzsche

4 years ago | |
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Bassoonists are well aware of Mozart's incredible writing for our instrument.  His lovely bassoon concerto, written when he was 18 years old, takes the prize as the best-known work (by far) ever written for bassoon.  The bassoon parts of Mozart's wind serenades, symphonies and operas clearly show his extraordinary usage of the bassoon, and his late piano concertos perhaps offer the best examples of that.

Mozart composed K. 491 for himself to play in the Vienna concert series of 1784-6.  He was quite taken with the quality of the wind players in Vienna around that time and as a result, he assigned dramatic solo roles to the wind instruments rather than mere augmentation of the string parts which had been the tradition until that point in history.  In fact, some music critics have dubbed these concertos to be concertos for winds with piano obbligato!

I love the story about Beethoven, who upon first hearing Mozart's C minor concerto famously said "Ah, we shall never be able to do anything like this".  Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto, also in C minor, is clearly influenced by Mozart's K.491.

It's not uncommon for the winds to be moved to the front of the stage for these concertos so that projection and interaction with the piano are best enabled and the performance can be approached more like chamber music.  When the Columbus Symphony performed the Mozart Concerto No. 24 last week with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni and soloist Stewart Gioodyear, the Ohio Theatre stage didn't allow for such flexibility; in fact, the winds were unusually far back from the front of the stage.

There are many, many exposed passages for bassoons in this concerto, so I will identify only the standouts.  In the slow movement, practically every note is exposed, and the 1st bassoon becomes particularly important in the passage for woodwinds beginning at measure 20:

The tempo can vary quite a bit in this movement.  Stewart Goodyear's tempo was on the fast side.  Still, I do not recommend trying to double-tongue the 32nds, even though the flute, which alternates 32nds with the bassoon, is likely to be double-tonguing.  I think it would be nearly impossible to achieve the clarity and tone quality required for Mozart if double-tonguing were to be used here.  (In other words, double tonguing is likely to sound too harsh.)  Also, it's important to match, and not over-balance, the flute on the 32nds.  It can be difficult to judge balance with the flute being in front of the bassoon, so the conductor is likely to assist with that determination.   Also, the conductor may ask for the bassoon to echo the flute on the 32nds.  This is challenging, since the notes in question tend to sound loud, especially when tongued in rapid succession.  It's unlikely that Mozart intended for the bassoon to sound like a machine gun in the midst of this tranquil, lyrical movement.
This is the second page of the Larghetto:

Each note on the page is exposed, which is part of the reason why the concerto is so much like chamber music, with the bassoon rising to higher levels of prominence in certain passages such as the one beginning at 70.  The type of reed I seek for this type of playing has reliable intonation on Bflats, the ability to taper well, and a pleasant, round sound.  
The lengthy eighth note passage of the third movement is one of the bassoonistic highlights of the piece:

I like to practice it all slurred, which is infinitely more difficult than playing it articulated.  Psychologically it's good to practice with a handicap so that performing the passage as printed seems like a breeze.  (Also, it's great for tongue-finger co-ordination to practice all slurred!)
Today's wind players are indebted to the Vienna wind players of the late 1700's.  If their playing hadn't impressed Mozart as it did, our orchestra repertoire would probably be missing some great gems.

4 years ago | |
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