Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas for Bassoon!

A former student of mine suggested I write a post about Christmas music. It's a busy time of year for musicians, so I waited until now to put my thoughts together.  I thought it would be interesting to share some comments about how the bassoon figures in holiday music.

I hope some of you will reply with descriptions of your experiences.  What seasonal pieces feature the bassoon prominently?

The Nutcracker

This juggernaut of a piece for the orchestra confronts many musicians at this time of year. If it were played just occasionally it would be universally hailed by musicians as one of the greatest pieces of ballet music. Instead, many musicians look upon it as a chore.

Reasons for this include:
  • Multiple performances of it are what keeps many ballet companies afloat for the rest of the year.
  • The score is very challenging. At a time when many musicians are looking forward to a holiday break and trying to shop, plan for travel, etc., having to be "on" for so many performances can put you over the edge.
  • The piece, if performed with a live orchestra, is often done in one of two published reductions, making life difficult for the smaller set of musicians in the pit in order to keep costs down for the ballet company. More about this later.
  • 10-20 performances of any piece can lead to boredom, cynicism, etc.
The piece was such an instant hit after the premiere that Tchaikovsky grew to hate it later on.

For the bassoon player there are many challenges in both the 1st and 2nd parts.

Shortly after the Overture there is a section of eighth notes in 6/8 time at a fast tempo.

 This is the 1st bassoon part. As you can see there are a lot of challenges presented here. The difficulty is exacerbated by the poor manuscript, someones annotations and a misprint in the next to last line.  There is an engraved edition of this, but I thought I'd show you what sometimes is available.  Add to this poor lighting in a crowded pit and you've got the potential for a meltdown!

By the way, does anyone know who "Girko" is??

Here's the version of this passage in the reduction I used to play with the Hartford Ballet.

The reduction is scored for just one bassoon, so the arranger put the original second bassoon part (a bit easier) in here, thank goodness!  In our performances the tempo was often about ♩. = 132-138! As you can see, I kept track of how many times I played the passage cleanly.  In 1989 I was 9 for 12 -- not bad!

In this version, the bassoon played many of the English Horn solos (no English horn!) and some low horn parts.  The reduced string section and smaller wind complement combined with a dry pit acoustic made playing this harder and rather dissatisfying.

However, there were some things in the reduction that made more sense than the original.  For instance, in the March just after the passage quoted above, the articulation is continuous, since there is just one player.  A good chance to practice double tonguing!

The end of the Arab Dance presents difficulty of another kind. 

The first bassoon part ends on a high B with a morendo to "ppppp" - one "p" short of the famous "6-p" four-note passage in the 6th Symphony.  You've got to wonder if Tchaikovsky could really tell the difference if one played "pppp" instead of "ppppp"!

High B is a notoriously unstable and often sharp note on most bassoons. The passage is made even more difficult by 
  • The printed dynamic 
  • The chord to which the note belongs is a G major triad.  Thus, the B, being the third of the chord needs to be lowered to ring with the strings.
  • It needs to be tuned with the second bassoonist, who has a B one octave below.
With a little luck there will be applause in your performances and any intonation trouble will be covered up!

However, there are some ways to lower the high B securely.  I use this fingering for a lower, more stable B:

xxo /  ox0
c          F#

By the way, high C can be fingered this way, too by lifting the middle finger of the left hand.

Before I leave the Nutcracker I want to say that, after many years of playing it, I still find things to enjoy about it.  I think my favorite part of a performance comes at intermission when many parents take their children to the lip of the pit to look at the instruments and musicians.  In the dark, lit only by stand lights the instruments have a magical shine to them!

The Messiah

This hoary piece is a staple at holiday concerts whether performed in full or just selections.  I've performed it many ways, including some performances in which the bassoon played ALL of the basso continuo parts.  I needed a very soft reed for this and lots of stamina.  I don't think my cellist friend was happy about me horning in on his solos!

This was one of the very first pieces of classical music I played with an orchestra.  I was in junior high school and my mother played the bass in the orchestra with me.  I'm sure I stuck out with my awkward sounds, but it remains one of my fondest memories!

As most of you know, there is little for the bassoon to do in this piece except "ghost" along with the bass line.  To keep from becoming bored, you can try to match articulations with the low strings and inflect your line to match the bowings.

It's instructive and fun to transcribe some of the famous arias from this oratorio and play them.  You can learn a lot about Baroque style and ornamentation by imitating the vocal soloists. Try "Every Valley", "But Who May Abide", "Why Do the Nations", etc.

Ottorino Respighi

Respighi wrote two pieces that feature Christmas music.  I played his "Laud to the Nativity" for the first time this month.  It is scored for two flutes, oboe, English Horn and two bassoons, two pianos, chorus and three soloist.  The woodwind writing is very colorful. Listen to the opening of the piece:

His "Adoration of the Magi" from the Botticelli Triptych has major bassoon solos throughout.  This is one of the joys of the literature for the bassoon.

Who would like to add their favorite holiday piece or performance story to this blog?


Monday, December 17, 2012

Kent/Blossom Music

My New Summer Job

In the past I've had the opportunity to teach and perform at some of the best music festivals in the country. I have fond memories of my time on the faculty of the Interlochen Arts Camp and the Brevard Music Center.

Now a new chapter in summer teaching opens for me as I join the Kent/Blossom music faculty this summer.  This will not require moving my family to a remote, woodsy location as before, however.  We can stay at home while I make the half hour car ride from my house to the Kent State campus to teach a few times a week during the five-week summer session.

I will succeed John Clouser as the bassoon teacher at Kent/Blossom.  Students who are interested in working with me in the summer now have an opportunity to do so in a more formal setting. Included in participation are:
  • private lessons
  • bassoon studio classes
  • chamber music and coachings with Cleveland Orchestra members
  • side-by-side orchestra performance with TCO
  • free attendance at all TCO Blossom Music Center concerts and Kent/Blossom faculty chamber concerts
Anyone interested in applying may do so by going to the Kent/Blossom Music admissions page.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Great Coffee in Cleveland!

I found a terrific coffee bar yesterday!  It's called Rising Star.  Located in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland, it occupies a former firehouse on the corner of West 29th Street and Church Street just south of Detroit Avenue.

While primarily a small batch roaster that supplies to local restaurants and individual customers, it has a storefront and bar in the firehouse building.  I visited the storefront yesterday and spent some time talking with the owner and employees.

These guys are devoted to finding the best quality sources for coffee, and using the best methods for roasting, grinding and extracting the brew.  Most roasters use coffee brokers to purchase their lots, but Rising Star goes directly to growers (the owner had just gotten back from Peru when we spoke yesterday) to sample the coffee in person. They also rely on samples sent from growers.

They buy only micro-lots of coffee.  All the employees I spoke with sample LOTS of coffees on a routine basis to keep current with what's out there.

They deliver or ship their coffee within one day of roasting to guarantee freshness. You can also pick up orders in the store.

The coffee is roasted in the firehouse behind the bar area.

You can watch the roasting while you drink.

The employees are very open about the business and really enjoyed talking about coffee with me.  They have a very unpretentious attitude about their craft and offered me some tips on how to improve my home roasting and my espresso making.

Although the store's offerings change regularly, yesterday they had two espressos available -- one single origin from Bali and another that was a blend.  There were three different coffees available brewed -- one from Peru, the Balinese and one from Guatemala.

There were also specialty iced coffees and sweets available for purchase.

Perhaps most interesting was that they offer three different ways of brewing the coffee :

Pour over:


Vacuum pot:

Each order of coffee is made individually.  No one is in a hurry to process your order.  Shots are pulled carefully and with attention. No beans decaying in Lucite bins, no giant carafes with brewed coffee mouldering in them, no coffee blackening on burners.

The coffee has not been roasted off-site at some indeterminate date.  

I tried the Balinese espresso.  It was one of the best shots I've ever had.  A lighter roast with a great mixture of tartness and sweetness.  This was followed by an aeropress Peruvian and then they offered me a pour over Colombian that was extraordinary.

The storefront is very basic with just a few stools and a table for eating and drinking, so if you go, don't expect a lounge atmosphere with Wifi and outlets for laptops, a fireplace, groovy music, etc. This is a workplace that just happens to have a coffee bar that serves the best coffee I've had in Cleveland!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Blue Bottle Coffee Comes to New York!

The Blue Bottle Coffee company has come to New York.  This may not be news to New Yorkers, but to me it's exciting news.

Blue Bottle is named for the first coffee house in Europe, started shortly after the Turks left their coffee beans on the outskirts of Vienna in the 17th century, setting off a caffeinated revolution in the West.

Blue Bottle is a Bay area roaster that serves coffee that has been roasted no longer than 48 hours prior to serving.  Anyone who has had a cup of coffee brewed from beans that are that fresh knows that the kind of flavor derived from such freshness CAN'T be achieved at your local Starbucks or any other shop where the beans are stored in grinders or (worse yet) those plastic bins without attention to the roasting date. 

Because of the gas exchange due to roasting, coffee has a shelf life.  As a home roaster, I know that coffee from the same batch tastes very different depending upon how long ago you roasted it.  Employees in most coffee shops can't or won't tell you how recently the coffee in your cup has been roasted.

Vacuum packing and other storage methods can prolong freshness, but in the end it's best to roast just enough for use within 48 hours or so. This is perhaps why many home roasting machines have a small capacity.

Thus, Blue Bottle and others that keep track of this stand out.  Care in grinding and extracting the coffee is also essential, of course.

Blue Bottle uses a pour over method for their drip grind.  Coffee for each cup is ground and brewed individually.  Nearly boiling water is used to wet the paper filter and warm the ceramic filter underneath, then slowly poured into the filter while it sits on a rack just above the cup.  Ideally the water is poured at the same rate at which the coffee is being extracted below.  This process takes several minutes.

The baristas in the basement of the Rockefeller Center are well trained and excited about coffee.  I caught one at a low period of business and he offered me a couple of samples of their different coffees.

For me, the real test of a good coffee bar is its espresso.  No milk to hid bitter or under roasted coffee!  At the Blue Bottle shop, much care was taken.  The shot was weighed on a scale (not unusual in the business).  More unusual was that the barista threw out a couple of shots after trying.  I think my shot came from the third attempt. This would be considered wasteful most places!

He extracted a very complex Yergacheffe for me.  A single origin, organic coffee from Ethiopia.  Getting good espresso from a single bean is a real treasure.  Usually espresso is a carefully mixed blend of four or five very different coffees combined to give the shot complexity, warmth and good crema. This shot tasted so good I didn't want to add sugar.  I've only ever done this with my brother's espresso before.

In another nod to Vienna, the espresso is served with a small glass of water.  In this case, sparkling water.

The baristas at the shop were passionate about coffee but not snobbish.  They had no problem making a sweet milk coffee drink for the next lady in line.

Besides the location Rockefeller Center, there are shops in Chelsea and Tribeca.  The coffee is roasted in nearby Williamsburg.  That is how they guarantee freshness.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Marathon That Wasn't

As many of you know, I have been training and raising money to run in the New York City Marathon this year.  You may also know the Marathon was canceled due to the devastation caused by Sandy.

I thought I'd write a bit about my personal experience in New York this weekend.

Yes, we did fly to New York on Friday, expecting the race to be on.  Every day, several times a day, the mayor, the New York Road Runners officials and Team Boomer (my charity team) through emails or the media told all of us that the race WOULD take place.

This situation obtained until Friday evening when Mayor Bloomberg canceled the race.  We found out while still on the plane at LaGuardia from the woman in front of us when she turned on her phone upon landing.

The mayor made the right call.  I just wish he'd made it earlier in the week.  Thousands of people traveled like us with the expectation that things were normal enough in New York for this event to take place.

However, when the race officials and volunteers were seen loading generators and tents for the runners on Staten Island (the starting point of the race) while rescue workers were still pulling BODIES out of houses nearby it became clear that holding the race was a bad idea.

This may have been the turning point in the decision to cancel the race.  Even thought the race was donating a large sum of money and aid to the relief effort, it just seemed wrong to a lot of people that this thing should go on.

Twitter and Facebook (one of the times I am glad I don't use either of these) were loaded with venomous, even violent threats against the runners.

I was able to contact my friend, bassoonist Louie Nolemi and his wife Joanne and hear that they were OK and helping out flooded out neighbors there.

Without much hesitation, my family and I decided to go ahead and spend the weekend in NYC.  For me this was never solely about the race.  I'd raised over $5000 for the Boomer Esiason Foundation and we had planned a family get together in New York for that weekend.  The race was just one of the events we had scheduled.

My older daughter, Grace, was to celebrate her 21st birthday with us there along with her boyfriend.  Unfortunately, her airline DID cancel her flight and the friends who were going to put the two of them up for the weekend had vacated their home in Larchmont, NY because they had no power! 

We also had big plans to spend some time there with my brother in law and his family.  His daughter, Allie is the one who has Cystic Fibrosis. John was also registered to run the race.

The hotel check-in was interesting because we hit the lobby just after the cancellation announcement.  The check-in line was long, packed with runners wanting to change their reservations or just leave to go home.  We saw a large group of runners from Chile and felt bad that they, along with thousands of others had made the long journey to the USA only to have their plans thwarted by the disaster.

Later that weekend we had a long talk with a couple from Englewood, NJ who were staying in the hotel because they had been displaced from their high rise condominium.  Eight months ago they had moved from their house in Staten Island to NJ -- a good decision in retrospect, but there they were with their dog in the hotel for an unspecified amount of time.

I wonder how many Manhattan hotels are now housing people displaced by the storm?  Was I taking a room away from a family that needed it?  We also noticed many Red Cross personnel in the hotel.

However, there were very few signs of the storms in our part of Manhattan (around Grand Central Station). Everything was open except Central Park (which opened on Saturday) and a couple of blocks around Carnegie Hall where a large crane had bent back on itself in the wind. You may have seen this on the news.

The Cleveland Orchestra is booked in Carnegie Hall for a concert on the 13th.  I wonder if we'll be going?  The streets surrounding the hall and the hotel the Orchestra will be staying in were closed off.

We spent our weekend visiting some of the famous places near our hotel.  My nieces had never been in NYC, so it was fun to watch them experience things like ice skating on the Rockefeller Center rink, going to Times Square, etc.

I understand that many runners went out to Staten Island to volunteer.  Others ran the course themselves on Sunday, there was even an unofficial marathon in Central Park, complete with water bottles and bananas for the finishers and cheering crowds.

You've got to understand that a runner spends a couple of weeks before the race recharging the batteries, tapering off the mileage and resting up for the race itself.  You become antsy, like a loaded gun mentally and physically during that period.  It feels good to let it out when the race happens.

When the race doesn't happen, it's important to find a release.  I waited until I got back home and went on a 14-mile trail run. It was colder than NYC (35 F), but the run felt good.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Performances to Share

I've just posted some performances of music I really like to play on YouTube.  These are pieces that are really great, but aren't played by bassoonists that much.

I post them in an effort to share my enthusiasm with you and encourage those of you out there who like them to learn them and play them.

1. Torriani's "Divertimento on Themes from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor"

2. Three Etudes for Bassoon and Piano by Jose Siquiera

3. Stanley Weiner's Suite for Bassoon and Piano

Saturday, October 13, 2012

2nd Bassoon Audition 2.0

I've been thinking about the 2nd bassoon audition we held last month.  It was interesting to compare and contrast it to the one we held in January.  Many of you have read my post about that audition.

In this post, I'd like to offer some follow-up comments. In particular, I'd like to focus on the perspective I gained by comparing notes with the non-bassoonists on our audition committee. 

Remember that it's usual for an audition committee to comprised of a majority of people who DON'T play your instrument.  Their perspective is somewhat different from that of a specialist and they potentially hold a majority in a vote.

For a candidate, then, it's vital to seek out opinions from non-bassoonists in preparation for an audition and try to weed out bassoon-specific problems from your playing.

Here are some of the recurring themes about some bad bassoon playing habits observed by my colleagues.

1. My colleagues wonder why the bassoon mechanism is so noisy!  Marriage of Figaro sometimes sounded like it had its own castanet accompaniment. Air leaking from the embouchure was also distracting.

2. Some candidates, including several in the semi-final round seemed incapable of playing a sustained musical line.  Lots of phrases in the Mozart Concerto were broken up by choppy articulation and accented downbeats.

3. Related to the above was a preponderance of clipped phrase endings, especially in the Concerto.  All phrase endings the first movement exposition are quarter notes.  So many people chopped them off, paying no attention to the finish and resonance needed for a graceful phrase ending.  I think this was partly due to nerves and the fact that most of the offenders were already thinking about the next phrase, forgetting to finish what they started.  Remember, have to paddle with one hand and bail with the other!

4. Double tonguing that sounds like machine gun fire.  My colleagues don't understand why this is necessary!  In the Marriage of Figaro, certainly Mozart's intention was simply to double the cello line in the bassoon parts, not to create a special effect.  Once double tonguing is learned, it needs to be musical, not a parlor trick.  In Figaro, the sound of the articulation should be like the fast bowing on the string you hear from the cellos.

5. Same vibrato for each excerpt.  Many players neglected to examine how they were using vibrato to add to the character of each excerpt and instead opted to use an unvarying default vibrato on everything.  Why would you use vibrato for the Tannhäuser Overture at all!  You are playing with clarinets and horns exclusively (non-vibrato instruments except in just a few parts of the world).  Furthermore, the Bolero solo requires a different kind of vibrato from a tutti passage in Brahms' Third Symphony.

6. Inability to change styles for each excerpt as needed.  Many of the candidates displayed no discernable change in style whether it was Mozart, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, etc.  Flexibility and versatility are essential skills needed in orchestra rehearsals where a conductor may ask a player to execute a musical 180˚
turn on his/her interpretation of a piece a few seconds after playing it for the first time.

7. Related to the above -- inability to resist the "pull" of middle-of-the-road playing, e.g., Figaro all played at "mp", Tannhäuser played "mp" at an Andante tempo with accented articulation.  These excerpts are easy to play when you ignore the dynamics and tempos indicated!

Again, these were comments I gathered from colleagues, some of them things a bassoonist might gloss over (key noise, rough double tonguing, etc.).  I think they are invaluable observations, ones to add to the list of priorities for the next audition you take.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Musical Back Burner

Pieces To Keep On The Musical Back Burner

The repertoire for this month's Cleveland Orchestra concerts contains a few pieces with some devilishly difficult technical passages. While the pieces I'm thinking of don't make it to the "Top 25" list of frequently asked audition material, I'd venture to say that most of us would need plenty of lead time to learn them for performance.

The first piece is Daphnis and Chloe, Suite #2. The Final Dance or Bacchanal contains some nearly unplayable passages for the principal bassoon.   

By using some harmonic fingerings the passage becomes easier to negotiate, but given the breakneck tempo usual in performance, it's still almost unplayable.  Certainly not something you could work up in a week's time never having played it before.

Likewise with this passage from the Russian Dance from the 1947 version of Stravinsky's Petrushka, which we're performing this week.

When taken at ♩=116, this is really challenging, too.  In fact, in the original 1911 version of the piece Stravinsky broke this part up, writing it for two bassoons alternating the triplet/eighth figure -- one plays one beat while the other rests -- to create a continuous line. He knew this was hard!


Petrushka gets involved in a lot of violent acts during his short ballet.  He's kicked by the Charlatan, he hurls himself into and breaks through a portrait of the Charlatan on canvas, and gets beat up by the Moor who finally slays him with a sabre.

It occurred to me this week that Petrushka the puppet reminds me a lot of another, more contemporary character. 

Back to the blog. . .

By the way, the Daphnis passage cited above can be simplified by giving the second bassoonist the second group of 16ths to play in each 16th passage.

Not wishing to encounter nasty surprises like these passages, I've compiled an informal list of passages that need regular technical maintenance work so that they can be ready when needed.  Warm and serve. . . 

These are passages that I'll try to work on during one or two practice sessions each month when I have time.

Here's a partial list:

  • Till Eulenspiegel tutti passages
  • Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2
  • Petroushka Russian Dance
  • Firebird Infernal Dance
  • Mozart Symphony 35 last movement
  • Stravinsky L'Histoire du Soldat Ragtime
  • tutti passages for other Strauss tone poems
  • Sorcerer's Apprentice tutti passages 

What's on your list?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cleveland Double Reed Activity



My recital last week went pretty well.  A good number of people showed up -- some bassoonists, of course, and a large group of people from my church.

Randy and I are captured in action above.

I raised over $600 for Team Boomer!  Thanks to all who have donated.  I've almost reached my fundraising goal and the marathon is still 6 weeks away.


This Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Frank Rosenwein, our Principal Oboist will play the Strauss Oboe Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra.  This is one of the great wind concertos.  I am playing the 1st bassoon part, so I'll have a good seat for hearing Frank's beautiful oboe playing.



The double reed fun continues next week when John Clouser will play the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.   John played the piece with the Orchestra several years ago at the Blossom Music Center.  This time it will be in Severance Hall on October 4th and 6th. The rest of the program is very colorful -- Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2 and Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night's Dream by Mendelssohn.

I hope some of you can attend these events! 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Our New Second Bassoonist

On Monday of this week we held auditions for Second Bassoon again.  The first time was unsuccessful.  I've written about this here and many of you have read it.

This day was different.  We hired Billy Hestand. 

Billy plays Principal Bassoon in the Brooklyn Philharmonic and freelances in New York City.  He has also played with the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra of St. Lukes, the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet.

Billy did his studying with Patricia Rogers and Kim Laskoski at the Manahattan School of Music.  He also studied with me at the Interlochen Arts Academy.  I'm very excited and proud to have him join us!

I will write more about this audition in the next few days.  In the meantime, I'm surveying a few of my colleagues on the committee for trends and such that they noticed in the bassoon playing we heard.

I felt the general level of playing was better this time around.  Most of the candidates played with a beautiful sound, fewer were strident or militant in their phrasing, articulation, etc.

Meanwhile, I think we're all happy to have the process behind us and excited to have Billy join us.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Benefit Recital


I'm playing a recital this Sunday.  Here are the details for any local people interested in coming:

Sunday, September 23, 2012, 3:00pm

The Federated Church
76 Bell Street  Chagrin Falls, OH 44022
(440) 247-6490


Hindemith SonateSaint-Saëns Sonate
Willson Osborne Rhapsody
Weber Andante and Rondo

my transcriptions of three works by Manuel de Falla

The recital is free with a free-will donation to the Boomer Esiason Foundation. I've written about my run for charity in a previous post.  The recital will help raise money for the Foundation's efforts to fight Cystic Fibrosis.  My niece, Allie has the disease.


The recital will serve several purposes. 

  1. I thought it would be a great way to combine music with my fundraising for Team Boomer just six weeks away from the New York City Marathon. 
  2. I realized it had been quite a while since I'd played a recital of "standard" repertoire.  My recent students had heard me play mainly new or off-beat repertoire. So I asked them to choose the rep for this recital with the proviso that they not choose anything that was ridiculously difficult!
  3. CIM is not an appropriate place for a benefit concert of this type, so why not give it at my church where I have so many supporters!
 I hope some of you can attend!