Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Humor in our program this week

The Cleveland Orchestra's program this week may not be an obvious source for humor. It consists of:

Wagner: Tannhauser Overture
Schumann: Piano Concerto (Radu Lupu, soloist)
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

One of the pleasures of playing in an orchestra comes through the sharing of great stories regarding such repertoire. Here are mine:

I remember when I was studying with Willard Elliot, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Principal Bassoonist at the time. The upcoming concert featured Tannhauser Overture.  I had tickets to hear it and mentioned it to Willard in a lesson.  He became very excited and urged me to listen for the high E in the bassoon part in the middle of the piece.

Since I was only familiar with the opening section and only had a feel for the piece as a whole, I had no idea what he was talking about.  Since the opening chorale presents the biggest challenge in the piece, I had only copied the first page of the bassoon part anyway. I was an impoverished student and was trying to save money!

I went to the concert and waited for the passage with the E to come up.  Before it, Willard actually stopped playing and switched reeds.  He had made a special reed just for this passage! The E came zinging out over the whole orchestra!  At the end Willard was smiling and laughing during the applause, enjoying his success with one of his colleagues.  

Next month I'll play this piece on our tour in Chicago's Orchestra Hall, where I originally heard the "E".  If I get the E to come out, I doubt if it will carry like Willard's did!

The next piece is the Schumann Piano Concerto.  There is a great story told about Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim who are friends.  Barenboim had been engaged to play the piece with the New York Philharmonic with Mehta conducting.

The first movement starts with a big orchestral chord closely followed by a solo entrance for the piano.  At the concert, Mehta started the orchestra before Barenboim was ready, so there was some roughness in the start of the piece!

The second movement starts with a few piano notes closely followed by the orchestra.  Barenboim made a point of starting this movement before Mehta was ready and got his friend back for what he did in the first movement!

We are playing Ein Heldenleben many times this year.  It seems like wherever we are on tour, it's the big piece.  I'm keeping track of the number of performances in my part.

The more I play it the more comical it seems.  The whole thing seems like a really corny silent movie with a very broad plot.  The hero is blustery and self-absorbed, the beloved's music is treacly sweet with lots of ornaments and portamentos.  The critics are obtuse and obnoxious.

The first section presents the hero's motive in over-blown (sometimes literally so!) late-Romantic style.  It is in the form of an opening movement concerto tutti section. 

We get a huge dominant prep on Bb with lots of pregnant pauses. Normally this would signal the entrance of our noble protagonist as soloist, (cf. the preparation and entrance of the solo cello in Don Quixote).

But no! During the pauses, the critics are sharpening their pencils, getting ready to write a damning review! The final G.P. precipitates a raucous critical attack.

The rhythm of the critic's motive involving the tubas fits perfectly with the syllables of the name of a local music critic!  Note that some of the critics go home before the concert is over.  They have already filed their reviews with the newspaper -- only the tubas remain near the end to intone their prohibition against writing parallel fifths!

Even the battle scene strikes me as funny.  The entry of the three off stage trumpets reminds me of the 3 Stooges (Hello, hello, hello!)!

Does anyone out there have any good stories to relate?

If you're in the area this weekend and can go to the concert, I hope you'll enjoy it!

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