Friday, October 28, 2011


We arrived in Luxembourg yesterday.  It's a charming town with a very different character from Paris.

The old city is built on the various levels of a river basin and ravine.  There are ruined forts and a large castle, lots of moats, vestiges of the Middle Ages all around.

The main part of the old city consists of a large pedestrian zone overlooking the river.  There are lots of retail stores and restaurants in this area.

The other component that is noticeable in Luxembourg is the vast EU headquarters.  Just outside the old city there is a huge corporate office park where all the bureaucrats work.  Across the highway there are art galleries and the concert hall.

The hall's interior is beautiful, spacious and comfortable for players and audience.  The acoustics are good.  It's easy to hear each other on stage and there is nice feedback coming from the hall when you play.  It's not Carnegie Hall, but much better than Paris!

Everyone seemed more relaxed in our concert here last night.  I was more comfortable and found a new reed for the Mendelssohn.  There's hope for my reeds for the rest of the tour!

Looking out in the audience while warming up, I noticed a sea of grey, black and blue suits.  This is certainly a government town!  No one seemed to be trying to make a fashion statement.

The audience received our performance warmly.

We have a concert tonight featuring the Shostakovich Cello Concerto with Truls Mork.  His only performance with us is tonight.  We rehearsed the piece just once this morning.  That's the way things go on tour sometimes!


Our next stop was Paris.  We played two concerts in the Salle Pleyel.  This hall was opened in 1927.  On the first concert, Ravel conducted the world premiere of "La Valse". Stravinsky conducted the Firebird Suite on the second half.

Here is the place where Ravel lived during that time.  It's on the Rue Carnot right near the Arc d'Triomphe.

The Salle Pleyel, like all the other concert halls in Paris is surprisingly mediocre.  It has bright, boomy acoustics and it's very hard to play together on the stage.  There is a strange ricochet in attack from the back of the orchestra.  Articulation is very immediate and harsh.

We spent most of the morning rehearsal before our first concert working on ensemble issues caused by the bad acoustics.  We've played this repertoire a lot lately, so it's certainly not the case that we aren't familiar with it.  The hall environment made things difficult.

I'd like to digress a bit and talk about reeds and touring, as this was my main concern for these concerts.

We were about halfway through the tour at this point and the reed I liked best for the Mendelssohn 3rd Symphony was getting a little old and tired.  I spent a couple of hours in the hotel room breaking in several new ones I'd brought with me, but weren't ready for "prime time".

I really wanted to use something new for the Mendelssohn concert; something that responded easier, had more stable pitch and required less manipulation for dynamics and colors.  However, it became clear in the rehearsal that this hall exacerbated extremes in dynamics, colors, articulation such that fitting in and even hiding in certain passages was the wiser choice.

Oddly, I had no trouble projecting.  This is often difficult in brash, splashy concert halls, but not this one. So it was back to "Old Faithful" for the concert.  I found the concert a very stressful, difficult experience, but the audience was very appreciative, nonetheless.

You may wonder what I do to test my new reeds and how I know when to put them in the game. A hotel room is a very tough environment for good feedback on the reed's sound, so I rely on feel in the embouchure and how the reed takes the air I give it when I doubt what my ears are telling me.

I take a dial indicator with me and take the reed down to within a couple of thousandths of an inch of finished measurements.  The back of the reed near the collar may remain between .035 - .032" (about .002-.005" thicker than finished), but I take the tip area down to exact measurements or at most .001" thicker. 

The crow pitch should be an F. This ensures that the reed will play well in tune and be stable, but flexible when necessary and have decent response.

After checking several reeds, sometimes it's not clear which one is really the best. To sort them out I do a couple of tests.

  • Crow the reed starting "ppp" until a multiphonic starts to sound.  Blow a crescendo and see how long into the crescendo the multiphonic lasts.  A good reed will start the multiphonic early and remain that way longer into the "f" than others.  This reed will have a large dynamic range and play very softly when needed.
  • Put the reed on the bassoon and play some hairpin long tones to see how the reed handles dynamic changes.
  • Play slurred broken arpeggios to see how the reed handles changing modes of vibration. The smoother the better.  This quality can be improved by making sure the blades are symmetrical in thickness and contour at all points.
If a reed passes these tests, then I'll feel brave enough to try it in rehearsal.  Once in the performance space I almost always tweak the reed somehow, whether it's opening or closing the tip with pliers, scraping the tip some more, removing cane from the channels, etc.

I feel it's necessary to try to adjust the reed to the space in which it's being used.  Some people are nervous about making such adjustments while rehearsing or playing a concert, but, if the reed's nearly finished anyway, the adjustments I make are minimal.  After many years, I know a few things to leave alone (e.g., heart of the reed, shape, very tip). These are all set in place well beforehand.

Back to Paris!

I had some wonderful dinners in the Latin Quarter on my time off and went on a walking tour of composers' houses and apartments.  One place of importance for bassoonists is the Theatre des Champs Elysee, where the Rite of Spring had its infamous premiere in 1913.

I found the Parisians less haughty and condescending than I had heard or noticed in the past.  We had great weather and I tried what little French I knew. Maybe that helped!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pyrenees hike!

We had a free day after our Friday concert.  Some of the orchestra stayed in Madrid, others went to Valencia (our next stop) a day early to look around.

I had other ideas.
Early that morning, Dan McKelway (Assistant Principal Clarinet) and I went to the Madrid train station and rented a zippy little 5-speed Diesel Citroën.  Armed with maps, backpacks, boots, trek poles, etc. we drove 5 hours north to the Adresa National Park in the Pyrenees, just south of the French border.  Dan had chosen an area that we could drive to and get right on a scenic hiking trail that would get us into some mountainous terrain quickly.
We stopped in the little village of Torla, just short of the park entrance and found a great hotel with a world-class view that had a room available, checked in and put on our hiking clothes and packed our backpacks. 

We drove to the park entrance, parked, found the trailhead and set out at about 2:00pm.

For the first two hours we hiked steeply up the side of a mountain through beautiful wooded terrain. 

Near the tree line we started a long traverse towards a coll.
Our goal was a climber's hut called El Refugio de Girza.  We could have dinner or at least a snack there and then hike back to our hotel.

The weather was perfect – blue sky and between 40-60°, depending upon altitude and whether or not you were in the sun.  Because we were in a park, the only people we saw were other hikers (very few that day and most going the other way because it was afternoon).

No ski slopes, only one jet trail, no planes, helicopters.  In other words, very remote and pristine countryside.
For a long time we couldn’t see where the hut was, but we knew it was there from our maps.

In a few hours we started to lose the sun and it became apparent that we weren’t going to make it to the hut.  It came in view and we hiked further towards it, but decided to turn back because of the time.

We took a different route that featured some adventurous descents at first.  We navigated a short section of cliffs where chains and posts had been pounded into the rock to help you rappel down the rock face.  After our decent we followed a very wide path near the bed of the river that must have filled up this gigantic valley at one time.

It was good that the path was wide and rather level, because for the last 2 hours of the hike we were in darkness, using our headlamp and flashlight to find our way!
We got back to the parking lot and found the car, drove to the hotel room, dumped our packs and went into the little village to find dinner.  It was late and the town was so small that we weren’t sure we’d get anything to eat.  The thought of going to bed hungry after a day full of physical exertion was not a happy one!
We did find a restaurant that was still serving dinner.  We found the dining room full of fellow hikers and enjoyed the food and atmosphere!
The next morning we got up early and wandered into Torla for a short look around before getting in the car again.

To my surprise, the village was alive with runners preparing for a race.

A half marathon was to start in just a few minutes.  It was a point-to-point race, staring in the village and ending in another, completely up hill!!
We checked out of the hotel shortly after the race started and got on our way to Valencia.  While driving I kept noticing large fields of cane growing by the side of the road.

We got to Valencia with time to spare, but had trouble finding a drop off place for our rental car.  With time running out before our evening sound check we parked the car near where we thought was a likely place by the train station and took a cab to the hotel, checked in and walked to the concert hall.

After the concert, we found the return lot with help from the hotel concierge.  Then we went out to a restaurant in the old section of Valencia for a dinner featuring the local dish, paella.


Greetings from Madrid!

We arrived at our hotel around noon and I began to settle in.  I’ve found the best way to beat jet lag is to get out and get some vigorous exercise.  Fortunately, there was a park nearby that was perfect for runners and walkers. 
Later that night I got together with a friend at his hotel for drinks and something to eat.

His hotel was near the Puerta del Sol (the location of huge protests this spring) and had a beautiful rooftop restraurant terrace.

The concert hall in Madrid is rather nondescript looking from the outside, but very fine on the inside.  It has good acoustics, tending towards the clinical and dry.  

 However, it was very easy to hear everyone and play on the stage.  Our rehearsals and concerts were sandwiched in between services by other orchestras.  There were two concerts each night.  We played the early shift on Thursday (7:30pm) and the late shift on Friday (10:30!!).

Other orchestras played on those nights, too.  The populace seems to be hungry for classical music!  Both concerts we played were packed – the first one certainly sold out.   

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tour Preparation

The Cleveland Orchestra embarks on a 3-week tour of Europe starting tomorrow.  For a short summary of its long-term goals in Europe, read this article in today's Plain Dealer.

However, I'd like to use this post to shed some light on what tour preparation is like for me in the week before I get on the plane.

The week before is always busy and stressful.  I must accomplish the following:
  • Teach extra lessons during the week, if possible, to make up for the time away.
  • Process reed blanks to take along.
  • Think about which tools I need with me.
  • Take music for all 1st bassoon parts for tour repertoire I'm not playing to understudy.
  • Refill prescriptions.
  • Fill out medical forms for doctors to use.
  • Do laundry!
  • Pay bills.
  • Call my credit card companies so they don't shut down my accounts when I charge things in foreign cities.
  • Pack for three weeks of changeable weather in different parts of Europe.
The staff behind the scenes of our orchestra works very hard before and during these tours.  Stage hands are busy carting out wardrobe trunks and instrument trunks and loading them after the last home concert.  Personnel, Marketing and Tour staff are very busy preparing and work around the clock during the tour.

We take two doctors from the Cleveland Clinic with us for medical help. These trips can be a wonderful working vacation for them (they often bring spouses) or an action-filled three weeks dealing with an emergency or two or flu outbreaks.

Logistics are different for foreign tours.  After the last concert at home we must have our trunks loaded with instruments, concert attire, music, etc.  We will not see these until Thursday (Saturday was our last concert).  Some of us hand-carry our instruments in order to stay sharp (pardon the expression!) in our hotel rooms prior to Thursday when we have our first rehearsal and concert.

This time lag is necessary for the travel time with the cargo and it gives us aday to pack and a day to start to get over jet lag before we begin the hard work of playing concerts in different locations.

Some of my tour assignments in the past have been light, so I've felt comfortable with packing my bassoon and not seeing it for a few days.  This time, I play Mendelssohn's 3rd Symphony on the first concert in Madrid, so I'm keeping my bassoon with me on the way.

Concert programming for the week prior to a tour can be unusual.  We use these concerts to try out tour repertoire before leaving.  This time there was a 24-hour period in which we played 3 concerts of different repertoire (with only the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in common)!  Since the tour repertoire is often large enough for three or four concert-length programs, the home concerts can become a hodge-podge predominated by pieces that we haven't performed recently or ones that are especially challenging.

In this busy time, I try really hard to carve out some time to spend with my family before leaving.  It's very tough on them when I'm gone.  I look forward to these tours with a mixture of excitement, anticipation and resignation.

There will be some free time on this trip, so I've got some tentative plans for some fun.
  • a hike in the Pyrenees
  • hunt for composers' residences in Paris
  • a free day exploring Cologne
  • seeing Das Rheingold and/or Barber of Seville in Vienna
  • visiting the Funerary Arts Museum in Vienna -- something I've never quite had the guts to do before
If some of these plans work out, great.  If some fall through, it will also be nice to just bum around, go out with friends or rest in my room.

I hope to blog pretty regularly while on this trip, so look for some posts in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Adaptability and the Stravinsky Mass

We performed the Stravinsky Mass last week.  It's a really quirky, fun piece to play.

The Mass is scored for 10 wind players and chorus.  It's best done in a church with small vocal forces.  Some parts are for solo voices and the top two lines are preferably sung by children.  It is acerbic, contains a lot of polytonality and is very concisely written.  There are no wasted or unheard notes in any of the wind parts.

My student, Joe Cannella, thought it would be interesting to hear how we put this piece together, given the small forces and unusual stage positioning.  Thus this post.

If you'd like a recording to reference while reading this, click on the link below.

This is the stage setup we used.  Though it seemed the most logical, the arrangement posed some logistical problems that needed to be solved.

Putting the brass on the front edge of the stage required them to hold back with attacks and delay more than usual.  Generally, those in the back of the orchestra work hard to stay on top of -- or even slightly ahead of the beat -- to make up for the distance between them and the front of the orchestra so the audience will perceive no  lagtime between them and the violins, for instance.  It was quite the reverse in this case, for I know our brass players had to delay entrances so they could be with the chorus.

Although I was a little closer to the conductor than I like to be (!), it was nice to be able to see our brass players' embouchures and gestures.  This is never a possibility in the full orchestra.

Although we only had one (!) rehearsal for this piece, during it we were able to get comfortable playing together pretty quickly through watching and listening.

In our orchestra we look to the conductor (in this case, Franz Welser-Möst) for bringing us in, dictating tempo, etc. but not really for maintaining time and playing together.  We try very hard to bring a chamber music ethic to everything we do. Thus, it's more about listening, watching each other, remembering how it went in rehearsal than following the stick. 

This means being knowledgeable of other players' parts, especially when they directly affect your own.  It means communicating visually, writing in cues, listening and picking up on other people's body language all in the service of playing together.

Articulation/reaction time

One area of concern in this piece is matching articulation and judging reaction time for entrances.  There are parts in the score where it's clear Stravinsky wanted a blended chorale sound.

Other times he certainly wanted heterogeneous articulation for various reasons. In the excerpt below the bassoon provides punch to the trombone long notes but not much else.

This gives the bassoon/trombone line a harpsichord-like articulation with a little sostenuto thrown in.

Stravinsky and Prokofiev used this blend of two disparate articulations all the time.  Here it is in 2 bassoons in the Symphony of Psalms:

Going back to the section from the Mass excerpted above, the bassoon begins the passage with the oboes as part of a double reed choir, switch to spicing up the trombone line and go back to double reed choir again.  What I tried to do is match the oboe articulation (a bit longer, perhaps, than my usual Stravinsky staccato) and then be VERY crisp to make the trombone combination more pungent, then back to oboe choir.

I like to think composers like Stravinsky, Brahms, etc. enjoyed making the bassoon switch roles in one passage because they thought of it as a very versatile instrument!

Later in the Mass, Stravinsky turns the tables and has the bass trombone punctuate a bassoon line:

Read the Instructions Carefully

With the advent of the 20th Century, composers became less sure that their pieces would be interpreted accurately.  Mahler's scores abound with directions not to do this or that (nicht schleppend!).  Stravinsky didn't admonish as such in his music, but he was very meticulous when marking scores and parts.

The Mass contains some very unusual markings in the bassoon parts.  Notice in the excerpt below that, while everyone else is marked legato or slurred, the bassoons are marked marcato in articulation. The sound of everyone's long sustained playing can romance the bassoonist into skimping on the marcato, but then the passage would lose its flavor.  Perhaps the idea of a pizzicato bass is what's elicited here.  A commonplace in baroque music (think Air on the G string).

Another spot that warrants close attention is this passage from the Credo.  I scratched my head a lot trying to understand why the tenuto quarter notes are there.

Then in rehearsal, I heard Franz go over this passage with the Chorus alone.  He wanted a flowing line that led right to the last syllable of each phrase. In every case this coincided with my tenuto quarters.  So the tenutos (not in the Chorus lines, by the way!) serve as a landing place for the phrase and underline the Chorus' breathing and phrasing.  Smart guy, that Stravinsky!

Playing with a chorus

In the passage just above, I had to be careful not to drive the rhythm too much with all the meter changes because if I did, I would get ahead of the chorus.  Remember that mixed meter is just Stravinsky's way of grouping rhythms in a phrase.  Visually it looks fragmented, so I always try to look for the pattern or the big picture when changing meters. Also, the Chorus adopted a more flexible, flowing approach to the text and wasn't trying to be too rigid.

Going for the big picture helped me start with the Chorus and phrase with it. If the passage were purely instrumental, I might have given it more punch and drive, but it helped to think of it more this way:

Generally, a chorus acts just like any large group.  Members try to fit in, not stick out or lead; thus, there is a certain inertia in the action of a chorus.

Since we usually play in front of a chorus, I can't see it.  So there's a certain amount of "feeling" my way around, listening for breathing or movement, etc.  Balance is often an issue.  Sometimes music balanced in rehearsal without a chorus needs to be adjusted with the chorus. The Stravinsky, being for small forces, wasn't a problem, though.

The Mass has some wonderful moments. There is the typical high register solo for the bassoon:

In the Sanctus, Stravinsky depicts the smoke rising from the swinging censers in the procession through the nave of the church to the altar in the trombones:

This is played three times (Holy, holy, holy).

The bassoons outline the footsteps down the aisle in the procession described in Benedictus "qui venit" (who comes in the name of the Lord):