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.


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  2. Hi Barry, great blog! I was curious, being in the amazing position that you are in, having to play both Principal and 3rd bassoon at potentially a moments notice, do you make specific reeds for the different positions? You mentioned that a reed may present itself as great for a tenor range solo, or great for playing low and soft, do you alter your reeds specifically in the blank forming process, or is it more in the finishing stage that this occurs? Or perhaps a piece of cane presents itself as being good for one or the other? Just curious, and what a great story of dropping your rake and running to Severance, I'm sure you have a lot more to tell!

    Anthony Georgeson

  3. Hi, Anthony,

    I wish I were better at predetermining how a reed may turn out. The reality for me is that I really don't know what role a reed will play until it's almost finished. I do some tests and see how it performs, noting its strengths and weaknesses. Then I'll mark the reed or put it in a particular reed case so I don't mix it up with the others.

    I know some bassoonists that use different shapes and I've done a little of that.

    I do enjoy playing 3rd bassoon. Having played most of the 1st bassoon rep, it's fun to play and hear a piece from a different perspective. Some 3rd bassoon parts are really challenging - last page of Don Quixote, Siegfried (opening of the opera and throughout), Mahler 9th, etc.