Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Barber and Saint-Saëns

This week's program features Samuel Barber's First Symphony, Camille Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony (The Organ Symphony) and Leonard Bernstein's Serenade for Violin and Orchestra.

Our conductor will be Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony's Music Director.  Unless you count Mitsuko Uchida's occasional conducting from the piano, this will be the first time since 1977 that a woman has conducted the Cleveland Orchestra!

I have been practicing the Barber for a couple of weeks now, since it has a very difficult set of bassoon solos.  The Saint-Saëns also has some tricky passages, so I've been brushing that up, too.

The solos and difficult passages in each focus mainly on fast articulation and tongue and finger coordination. To sharpen my skills in those areas, I've been practicing my scales at different metronome markings using different articulations.


I've also been practicing fast articulation using my single and my double tongue.  For me, the tempo for the 16th note passages in the Saint-Saëns first movement can fall at the upper range of my single tongue speed and can go into the lower end of my double tongue range.

This means practicing these passages between 69-88 for the dotted quarter.  The movement is in 6/8, so that means tonguing six 16th notes per beat.  The lower and upper range are really too slow and too fast musically, but you'd be surprised at what sometimes happens in a rehearsal or performance!  It's too easy to get locked into a particular tempo and then have to change speeds.  I'll try to avoid rigidity and hope to manage these spots at many different tempos successfully.

I have a clarinetist friend who believes you should prepare technical passages so you can play them faster than they should go.  That way the proper tempo feels more comfortable - not a "white-knuckle ride".  I also believe you should  be able to make a technical passage sound musical at a speed that is slower than ideal performance tempo.  This can also be a challenge. For instance, it's hard to phrase a solo like Bolero at =66, but I've had to play it at that tempo!

Back to the Saint-Saëns, though!  The passages discussed above present some specific problems for the woodwind section because they start after the beat, yet the pitch changes make the passage sound like it's solidly on the beat, yet phase-shifted over from the downbeats of the lower strings and timpani.

Success in this (together and steady) requires a certain amount of team work and cool-headedness in the woodwinds. The passage needs to start at the right time - one 16th note after the beat and remain steady throughout. Once you start it, you can't make an adjustment, so you have to start tonguing at exactly the right speed upon entering.  With variations in tempo from rehearsal to rehearsal and performance, this may mean switching from single tongue to double tongue if the tempo is faster than the last time through.  That's why it's important to cover many different tempos in your practicing.

What I've found in the past is that I'm able to use my single tongue (always a better choice when it's a comfortable speed) for the exposed articulated passages, but that my single tongue tires during the longer "ff" tutti passages, so I rely on my double tongue for those.  However, everyone is differently endowed with tonguing speed, so some others come to different conclusions than I do in cases like this.

Ironically, after all this sweat and labor, the effect for the listener should be a pleasant, slightly off-kilter murmur -- more of a texture than a riveting technical passage! Listen to this and you'll see what I mean!


Barber wrote this symphony in one movement with four sections.  The structure corresponds roughly to the traditional four movement symphony.  There is a slow, dramatic opening followed by a quick scherzo, a lyrical slow section and a dramatic ending.

These piece contains some thorny solos for the bassoon. 

You need nimble fingers and clean articulation to make these work.  The tempo can range from about dotted =138 to the printed dotted =152.  There are also some interesting dynamics in the solos.

I listened to a very fine recording by Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony for study, but I also want to mention a classic recording of this piece.  Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra recorded it in 1954.  My parents owned an LP of this and I listened to it growing up.

The performance features my former teacher, K. David VanHoesen.  It is one of the finest examples of his playing on record.  There are not many recordings of his playing, which is a shame, because he was one of the truly great bassoonists of his time.  He made this recording shortly after assuming his position as teacher of bassoon at the Eastman School of Music and joining the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra.  Prior to that he had been 2nd bassoon in the Cleveland Orchestra(!) for two years with George Szell.

There is a clip of this performance on YouTube.  The scherzo section begins about 6'45" in.  Listen for his brilliant technique and clear articulation. You may need to turn up the volume because the bassoon solos are in very light passages. The last one -- near the end of the clip -- is unaccompanied.

The part for the Barber is not in the public domain, but those wanting to learn it can find the major solos in Schoenbach's 20th Century Orchestra Studies. This would be another piece I'd include in a list of lesser-known orchestral bassoon parts to practice on a monthly basis.  I'd hate to have to sight-read this part!

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