Saturday, November 26, 2011

Varied program follow-up

There are some nasty viruses going around in our area.  While John has recovered, he wasn't quite ready to resume his usual role by Friday, so I'm playing the whole program on these concerts. Phil Austin, our recently retired second bassoonist, is back substituting on third bassoon for Till Eulenspiegel.  It's fun to play with him in the section again!

When faced with a sudden increase in your workload, it's important to prioritize.  It may be unrealistic to expect everything in the parts to feel comfortable and secure by concert time, so learning to let go of certain things that aren't vitally important is helpful.

What to Look For

I'd never played Strauss' Aus Italien before, so that piece required the most study.  I did some listening and as much practicing as I could in the short time between assignment and performance.  Listening with the music in front of me, I picked out sections where there were bassoon solos and important lines so I could make sure those were in really good shape before the concerts.  Also, I always look for any "pp" passages or anything low and soft because those spots often require delicacy and finesse.  It's also good to know what instrument(s) you're accompanying in those places before you play them.

What to Let Go Of

With a long, taxing piece like the Strauss, it's necessary (considering the heavy program and my short learning time) to find places in the music that you can let go of, if needed.

At the end of the first movement, there is a soaring bassoon solo with a couple of high Bbs that is preceded by a taxing five-bar passage of whole notes. If I had an assistant playing this line, I could rest and get ready for the solo.  Indeed, in the "old days" of the Cleveland Orchestra (including my first year) we routinely played these big pieces with extra players doubling the lines to beef up the woodwind texture in tutti passages.  The players could also be used to give the principal players some relief.

Since it was one on a part, I had to play the passage before the solo.  It was exposed enough that the 1st bassoon voice would be missed.

In situations like this I try to play as comfortably as possible.  That means not too loud or too soft.  Both extremes tire the embouchure.

In "ff" passages there are opportunities to either lay out or play less to save the embouchure as well.

In cases where time is really short for learning a piece, you can also let up on tutti passages of extreme technical difficulty.  It's better to stay out of the way and let the other bassoonists or whomever you play with carry the ball.  Fortunately, unlike some of his pieces, the Strauss had no extreme technical passages.

Till Eulenspiegel 

Moving up to first bassoon for Till Eulenspiegel offers some challenges.  I would include this piece, along with some others such as Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2 and the Firebird Dance Infernal in a list of pieces that you should practice on a monthly basis whether you are playing them or not simply because the passages in them are so difficult as to be nearly impossible to learn in a short space of time. That way, when a performance of one of these comes up, you're ready.

One of the few advantages of growing old is that there's not much you haven't seen or practiced before.  It's nice to be able to rely upon years of experience when a tough piece of standard repertoire comes up.

The passage excerpted in the previous post is just one of several in Till that offer a supreme challenge to the technique of any bassoonist.  Years of slow practice and previous experience in performance made it possible for me to brush these passages up and get them ready for performance in just a few days.

Nevertheless, I found myself having trouble with a particular three-note combination in this passage. It's the Till motive. 

When playing the slur, sometimes a note wouldn't speak or there would be a squeak in the middle of the motive.

After trying it many times and getting frustrated, I decided to take a more calm approach and see if I could figure out what actually was going wrong.  I was able to narrow it down to two technical problems.

1. I wasn't always covering the half-hole going from G# to A.  While not hurting the A, it really caused trouble with the F, which sometimes squeaked or didn't speak at all.

2.  Sometimes I was glossing over the fingering for F after the A.  It's important to "gun" for the A to get the spirit of the motive clear, but since the tempo is so fast, it's easy to miss the F on the way to the B.  By focusing more on the F and really trying to feel the F fingering in my hands the motive came out clearly.

I did a lot of slow practicing to get a clear feel for the left index finger closing the half hole and for the fingers in both hands feeling the F fingering securely. By the way, there are some fingerings for the F that make this slur easier, but they all sounded false and out of tune when I tried them.

I tried very hard to relax and be calm when the passages came up in rehearsal and performance, too.

Everything came out clearly in the performance last night, but I've got two more to go.  We'll see how it goes!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A varied program - or a week the life of an assistant principal bassoonist

This week the Cleveland Orchestra plays a really nice program.

Strauss Till Eulenspiegel
Mozart Piano Concerto #17 with Jonathan Biss
Strauss Aus Italien

Our conductor is the MET's new principal conductor, Fabio Luisi.  My part assignments are 3rd bassoon for Till and 1st bassoon for the Mozart.  This looked like a nice week for me because the Mozart has a terrific bassoon part and I'm finished with the concert by intermission and can go home then!

The Orchestra always presents a good program with a fine conductor around Thanksgiving.  In Cleveland, many people like to show off the Orchestra to their visiting relatives over the weekend, so we usually have packed houses.

This morning before the first rehearsal a phone call from Severance Hall came telling me that John Clouser was feeling sick and may not get through the morning rehearsal.  I was home raking leaves, since the rehearsal was completely devoted to Aus Italien, which I don't play.  A few minutes later I got another call asking if I could come play the rehearsal, since John had gone home. I dropped my rake and got in the car!

I made it there for the last part of the rehearsal, so at least everyone played some of the piece with an intact first bassoon part.  I'm assuming John's just got a flu bug and will be OK for our performances, but this could potentially change my outlook for the rest of the week.

As Assistant Principal Bassoon, it's my job to understudy programmed pieces I'm not assigned and be ready for situations like the above.  I have had to play concerts without rehearsal on any of the music with short notice before, so I've been in more nerve wracking situations than this one and done just fine.  I spent the rest of the afternoon today after the rehearsal listening to and practicing Aus Italien and brushing up on the 1st bassoon part to Till Eulenspiegel, just in case. With any luck I'll be back to Plan A tomorrow morning!

At any rate, here's how I plan to "attack" the Mozart and Till Eulenspiegel.  The Mozart requires a clear, resonant bassoon sound with a solo presence, whereas Till has a few soft low passages and lots of technical parts, but little of importance for the 3rd bassoon.  I may use my #1cc bocal for the Mozart since it has a really singing tenor range and use my #2cc on the Strauss for its great sound, scale and secure pitch in the low register.  Some reeds may also commend themselves to me, but I'll save my choices until after I've tried them in rehearsal tomorrow.

When practicing the Till 1st bassoon part, I recalled a few things that the bassoonist must notice that aren't apparent in the part. Some of them come in the passage with the most difficult technical passage that's closely followed by the Till theme.

The beginning of this part is almost unplayable at the proper tempo, but can be managed with lots of hard work.  Matching the tempo of the first four bars to the rest of it can be tough because of the urge to rush when things get easier!

Starting at 33, the bassoon has the main theme but is marked "pp".  I have never been in a situation or heard a performance in which the bassoonist could really afford to play this "pp" and be heard.  Strauss' scoring is just too thick here.  The bassoonist must play this theme at "mf" or even "f".  I would also do this when playing it alone, such as at an audition.  This shows your knowledge of the context for the solo and comports with what experience tells us you must do.

There is a famous misprint at the end of the passage.  The bassoon line is in unison with the viola part, which goes right up to the C. The bassoon line should ascend to a high C, not go down to an F.  There is a clef change missing in the part!  The bassoon re-enters at 35 in bass clef.

Audition recordings

The Cleveland Orchestra will be auditioning bassoonists this January for our open Second Bassoon position.  Applications have been received, resumes reviewed and some have been invited to audition.

Like many orchestras, we acknowledge the possibility that there may be some inexperienced bassoonists who deserve to be heard at the live audition, but may not be invited based upon their resumes.  Therefore, those not invited based upon how they look on paper are given the option to submit a recording of their playing for review and possible invitation.

Those who choose to do so must record a short list of repertoire and send it in before a deadline.  The audition committee for that position listens to all the recordings and makes a decision in each case whether or not to invite.

It would be easy to be cynical about this part of our audition (Are they really listening to my recording or is this just a way of trying to seem inclusive and fair?).  However, two of our most recent hires started their auditions with their recordings.

Today our committee listened to the recorded bassoon applicants.  We heard 25 recordings.  Each person recorded the exposition of the first movement of the Mozart Concerto, Marriage of Figaro Overture, Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony second movement solo and the second bassoon part to the slow movement from the Brahms Violin Concerto.

Out of the 25 applicants, only one person's playing stood out as acceptable. While some of our committee members were unable to listen with us and, based on this a few more may be invited in addition to this one, it was surprising to us how poor the quality of the field was. 

We discussed this briefly afterwards. I thought it might be helpful to some of you to read a summary of the most common faults we heard.

1. Almost all of the applicants exhibited intonation trouble.  The opening of the Mozart can be quite revealing.  The skip from F1 to Eb3 was rarely in tune = F1 sharp, Eb3 flat.  The first trill was generally out of tune.  The low notes in the Brahms were almost never down to pitch.

2. Many players had trouble with keeping a steady pulse in the Concerto and in Figaro.  Lots of rushing!

3. Very few had a good grasp of the Mozart style.  So many people played the first note with no vibrato or life in the sound, landing with a heavy accent on the half note afterwards. We heard lots of heavy, aggressive playing with accented beats and rough articulation.

4. There was a lot of poor phrasing and a lack of legato in the Tchaikovsky.

I'm sorry if this sounds grouchy, but keep in mind everyone who made these recordings had the technology  to record these excerpts over and over and time to listen to the result to see if it was acceptable before submitting.

Thus, there's really no excuse for any of the infractions listed above. 

I'd like to address the rest of my comments to any younger players who will be making a recording in the near future for someone who will judge their playing.

1. Maybe it's a generational thing, but the easy access to recording devices such as a Zoom or other excellent portable recorders has made younger players more casual about the quality of their recordings.  Remember that the most important component of recording equipment is the microphone (or microphones).  There is nothing out there that can compare with the microphones to be had in a good recording studio. Garbage in garbage out.

Many young people routinely listen to music on their laptops or portable devices.  These will never compete with the quality of a good playback system in a good acoustical space.  It's impossible to tell how you really come off without this setup, even using headphones or earbuds.  Many of the sound files people listen to now are compressed or have a low bit ratio, so much of the quality is missing. We have gotten used to this.

We listened to the recordings in the Severance Hall sound control room played through the system speakers.

2. Here's where I really start sounding old. . . In my day of doing this, I used to pay someone to record me --  preferably in a studio where everything, including noise could be controlled.  I still think it's worth it, especially based upon what we heard today.

3. Along with paying someone and going to a studio, it's helpful to have a friend go along who can arrange things for you -- music, water, help move equipment if necessary, make notes during the recording and listen back with you.

4. The recording technician for two of my CDs says to budget recording time this way:  For each minute of recorded music, plan on 10 minutes of recording.  This 10-to-1 ratio will ensure you have the time you need to get a really good take for everything you play.  If you need more time than this, perhaps you aren't ready to do this project.

5. Save enough time to listen to individual cuts and listen especially carefully to judge the final product before sending out.  I'm sure if some of the applicants we heard had really listened to what they sent us, they would have done the recording over.

6. Make sure the beginning of your recording is especially excellent.  This may be the only part that's listened to.  I know we passed on many people today after just hearing the Mozart Concerto.
7. Remember that some of the people listening to you won't be bassoonists and won't know what's difficult for your instrument and, for that matter, won't care!   

8. With that in mind, try to listen to yourself in a more global manner.  There are many parameters used in judging someone's playing.  It seemed at times that many of the applicants we listened to were only concerned with accuracy or with rhythm.  What about a beautiful tone, good intonation, phrasing, etc.?

I'll close this post with a list I stole from a friend of mine, Dan Silver, Professor of Clarinet at the University of Colorado.  It's a great list of what comprises musical artistry.  Whenever I think I've mastered something, I find it helpful to look over this list and see what may be missing.  Thanks, Dan!

Musical Artistry   

·         Command of rhythm, pulse, ability to subdivide
·         Technical accuracy
·         Pattern recognition in reading music (scales, arpeggios, etc.)
·         Beauty of tone
·         Accurate intonation
·         Control of dynamics, large dynamic range
·         Control and variety of articulations


·         Variety of tone color
·         Seamless legato 
·         Even passage work
·         Appropriate vibrato


·         Playing exactly what’s on the page first
·         Clarity of the aural concept (what does the inner ear hear?)
·         Sense of style
·         Points of tension and release in the musical line
·         Control of line, phrasing
·         Use of rubato, if appropriate
·         Knowing context of specific piece
·         Performance practice
Physical and Mental

      • Mastery of the "Inner Game"
      • Body awareness and use
      • Stage presence, presentation
      • "X” Factor

Monday, November 7, 2011

Opera in Vienna

The Viennese treasure opera and Vienna's Staatsoper is one of the centerpieces of the city.  It was the first large public building rebuilt after World War II. The world's top singers and conductors perform there on a regular basis.

I had some free nights during our stay this time, but ended up not seeing any performances this time.  In the past I've enjoyed seeing Billy Budd, Magic Flute and the Viennese premiere of the complete version of Alban Berg's Lulu (in 1983).

Das Rheingold and The Barber of Seville were showing on consecutive nights, but Rheingold was sold out and Barber had tickets starting at $160 and up and featured a less-than-stellar cast, so I opted out.

I did, however, find some interesting opera-related things to do on those days.  For lunch I met with Eric Halfvarson, the Hunding and Hagen in the Staatsoper's Der Ring des Nibelungen.  His father was the director of the high school choir in my hometown of Aurora, Illinois.

We didn't know each other, however, as he was out of high school by the time I started there.  We met for the first time over lunch last week at Maredo, an Argentinian-style steak house across the street from the Staatsoper.

I brought along our contrabassoonist, Jonathan Sherwin and Eric brought along Katarina Dalayman, the Brünnhilde for the Staatsoper Ring Cycle. It was fun to talk shop with them and peek inside the world of opera for a while!

That night I went with a friend to a lecture on Die Walküre, the Ring opera that was to be premiered that Sunday.  The lecture took place in the home of a former Episcopal priest who lives in Vienna.  He served us wine and finger food and then presented a lecture on the opera.  He does this on a regular basis, providing a preview to operas that are about to premiere at the Staatsoper.

The group at the lecture consisted of mostly English speaking visitors and ex-pats.  The lecture was very informative.  Our host used the Boulez/Chereau DVD of Die Walküre, stopping the opera when he wanted to elaborate on something.  By necessity, he left out large sections of the nearly 5-hour opera, but I would guess we watched about 2 hours of it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Coffee in Vienna

Coffee is an art form in Vienna.  A whole culture built up around the bags of beans the Turks left outside of the city when they were defeated in 1683.  Soon coffee houses sprung up everywhere.

There are many ways coffee drinks are made in Vienna.  Originally, the coffee was named according to how it resembled the color of the robes of various monastic orders.  Thus, you can order a Franziskaner or a Cappuziner (our Cappuccino).  I think there are others as well, but not as common.  The ratio of coffee to milk accounts for subtle differences in the color. 

In Vienna, coffee is always served with a small glass of water, the spoon resting on top of the glass.  It arrives on a silver or pewter platter.

The milk drinks are served with Schlagobers on top and sometimes with cinnamon or chocolate shavings.

A Grosser (or Kleiner) Brauner is straight coffee served with a small pitcher of hot milk for you to add.

Coffee houses are institutions that attract tourists, artists, writers, intellectuals, etc.  You should not be in a hurry when you enter one.  Each has its own special atmosphere and decor.  I visited three while here this time; Cafe Museum, Cafe Sperl and Cafe Schwarzenberg.

Here is a photo of my Franziskaner at the Cafe Museum.

This is my Cappuccino at Cafe Schwarzenberg.

This is my breakfast at the Cafe Museum.  You can see the Grosser Brauner coffee in the middle.  The red hat is keeping my soft-boiled egg warm.


Seven nights in Vienna!  We played four concerts in the Musikverein and one in Linz (about 2 hours by train).  The Musikverein is one of the world's great concert halls.  The acoustics are great, especially in the audience.  On stage you feel a little bit naked when playing, but you can hear everyone in the orchestra really well.

The weather was grey and humid, so my reeds felt a little mushy.  Our librarian brought next week's music, so I picked up my parts and looked them over a bit.

I stayed in an apartment near the Naschmarkt (Vienna's huge outdoor market).  

This is a great city for exploring by walking, taking a street car or train. Getting around is very easy.  Christmas markets were starting to appear towards the end of our week.

We are due to return in 2013.  Right now, I'm eager to get home and see my family again.



I went with a friend to Cologne on a day off.  Otherwise we would just have a few hours in the afternoon on the day of our concert to see the city. We were scheduled to fly to Vienna after the concert that night.

Cologne is one of my favorite cities.  It has a world-famous cathedral, the Rhine river, its own special beer (Koelsch) and way of serving it, lots of Roman ruins and friendly people.

I found a great coffee place there with lots of old espresso machines lining the shelves up high.


We climbed the tower stairs in the cathedral and were in the belfry when the bells chimed.

The concert hall in Cologne is fairly new and beautifully designed.  It is underground, below a plaza that goes out to the Rhine.  Skateboarding on the plaza is "verboten" during concerts because it can be heard in the hall. The hall is large, but gives an intimate feeling.  The audience is close and visible while you play.

Our concert went well. Afterwards I had time to go to a very old brewpub (dating from the Middle Ages) for a quick dinner before getting on the plane.