Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mozart 2nd mvt. - Context

Mozart Bassoon Concerto, 2nd movement:  Context

Using the same argument as I did in a previous blog about the opening phrase of the first movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, I'd like to look now at the second movement.

This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written for the bassoon, in part because of its sublime first phrase:

In nuts and bolts music theory terms it can be described as a  long note rising a perfect fourth with a grace note above that decorating a 4/3 suspension on a strong beat and a resolution.

The argument I used for the first movement was that Mozart, when writing the first phrase of that movement was using a motive he'd developed over time and used in other pieces prior to writing the Bassoon Concerto.  He used it again a few times after that.

The same holds true for the first motive in the second movement.  Here are some prior examples:

Below is the opening of the first movement of his first string quartet, written well before the Bassoon Concerto (followed by a listening example):

Next is the second movement of the Symphony #21(In the listening example, the second movement starts about 7 minutes in.):

Next is his string quartet, K. 172(note the same intervals and suspension in the 1st violin on beat 3):
In this listening example, the second movement starts at about 4'15" in.

Here is Mozart's ultimate setting of the figure:  "Porgi amor", the Countess's aria from The Marriage of Figaro.

You can see and hear how rich the raw material of this motive was for Mozart!

By the way, I can't claim to have discovered any of this myself!  Stanley Sadie in his book, "Mozart, the EarlyYears" makes the connection between the Symphony and string quartets excerpted above and the theme for the second movement of the Bassoon Concerto, calling it the "Porgi amor" theme.

Musicologist Neal Zaslaw, draws a similarity between the theme and "Che faro senza Euridice" from Gluck's "Orfeo et Euridice" from 1764.  This was a highly influential opera and "Che faro" is the most performed aria from it.  Perhaps Mozart knew this music.  Look closely at measures 3 and 4 and you'll notice a similarity.

A conclusion to be drawn from all this is musical themes don't exist in a vacuum.  They are permutations of motives with the composer has been working, sometimes for years.  They bubble up from a holding place somewhere in the brain and get reworked and put in a new context.  Old wine in new bottles!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Listening choices - YouTube, Naxos, etc.

As I said in a previous blog, today we have more access to media than ever before.  We can listen to much of the classical repertoire for free and often watch a video of the performance. 

As an "old guy" I can bear witness to these changes and find them on the whole to be very positive developments. I don't use these new resources as much as younger musicians do, since I still have an extensive library of CDs, LPs and even a couple of 78 rpm records (also some wax cylinders!) to refer to.

In the "old days" there were certain "gate keepers" -- record companies, critics, agents, sponsors who chose musicians for their projects.  In most cases these musicians had paid their dues through auditions, competitions, concertizing, etc. Although there was certainly cronyism at times, mostly the performers were given recording opportunities based upon the marketplace as controlled by the record companies and the buying public.  If it didn't sell, you weren't given another opportunity.  If you didn't perform in support of your recordings, generally they didn't sell well.

While my above description may be over simplified, this was basically how it was.

Today many of the gate keepers are gone or are much less powerful.  More opportunities are available to enterprising, self-motivated musicians. 

As I've said before, though, with increased freedom and opportunity comes increased responsibility. When control is taken away from critics and record companies, the listener has a much wider field of performances to choose from.

In the classical world this poses an especially thorny problem. Classical music is by definition devoted to quality.  In order to grasp the full essence of a great piece of music, it's very important to seek out the performances and recordings that best showcase this.

Over the past couple of years, I've noticed my students have been using on-line sources like YouTube, I-tunes and Naxos Music Library more and more for their study.  I think everyone would agree that, along with many excellent performances, there is a lot of junk on these sites.

People use them for many different purposes - entertainment, serious study, novelty, etc.

Here are some guidelines I'd follow if I were a young bassoonist:
  1. Before listening, educate yourself on which soloists, ensembles, etc. are considered tops in their field.
  2. When possible, try to choose recordings by those artists.
  3. Remember that many of the best performances have yet to be uploaded to YouTube and other sources. There is a whole ocean of great recordings from the past out there. You might be missing something.
  4. Therefore, if you are a college music student, your school's music library is probably your best source for listening! Don't be afraid of those dusty LPs sitting on the shelves!  A little crackle and hiss won't hurt you!
  5. Regarding style, remember that amongst bassoon players there is still something of a divide between German, French, and American styles and sounds.  Some of the best bassoon soloists are German or French, but sound, vibrato, etc. may not be what we go for in the U.S. and vice versa.
Below is the first page that comes up on YouTube when searching for "Mozart Bassoon Concerto".  On the page you will find a few commercial recordings, several live performances by students, one recording on trombone, and even a clever ad for an old Sony cassette player being sold by a former student of mine, using a performance she did of the Mozart while studying with me to demonstrate the cassette player.


Next I searched for "Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto".


Note the first several names on this page:  Heifetz, Oistrahk, Perlman, Jansen, Kremer, Chang.  Violinists visiting this page will have a much easier time finding great performances of this piece than bassoonists will on the Mozart page!

What gives here?  Certainly there are more famous violin soloists than bassoonists, but where are the recordings by Thunemann, Turkovic, McGill, Garfield, etc. on "our" page?

Who has an opinion on this?  Let's hear from you!

Monday, February 13, 2012

On-line sources -- good or bad?

Technology is neither bad nor good.  It's in the use of technology where we find good and bad choices. The classic example of this is in the harnessing of the power of the atom. 

Through technology, musicians today have more access to music and recordings than ever before.

Through YouTube, I-Tunes, Naxos Music Library, IMSLP and other sources one can find just about anything, much of it free or extremely inexpensive.

With this much access also comes responsibility.  In a discipline like classical music, it's important to be discriminating.  However, none of these sites offer critiques, editors or even aggregators to help the consumer find the best edition or best recording. While you can find discussion of the merits of a performance on YouTube, often the commentators are anonymous.

In a performance on YouTube of a mass by Josquin des Prez, we don't know whether the commentator is a musicologist/conductor who's specialty is music of the Northern Renaissance or simply an enthusiastic teenager reacting to her first hearing of this kind of music.

Like most things on the Internet, discernment is in your hands.

In a previous post, I discussed some disturbing trends in interpretation of the first phrase of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.  One commentator, Mike Macaulay may have uncovered one of the reasons for the tendency to play the first note short and accent the second note.

Here is the first page of the concerto as listed on IMSLP:

This is the Peters Edition.

 Here is the first page of the Universal Edition.

As you can see, no staccato, no accent.  We are left to ask, "WHO put them there".  This question can only be considered if you have access to the earliest source.

Not until we are able to see the original or "Urtext" can we really be sure what the composer left and what an editor has added.  

Note the dotted line slur in Universal measure 4 and the editor's suggested rhythm for the grace notes in measure 5. Both suggestions are made so that we can see the original AND the suggestion at the same time.  This is correct practice for editions.

In the case of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto we don't have the original manuscript. The Universal Edition uses the first edition, second printing of the piece published by Andre Offenbach in 1805.  Mozart's widow, Constanze sold many of her husband's manuscripts to Offenbach after his death to pay her debts. This is the earliest edition we have and, therefore, must be considered the most authoritative.

For years many American bassoonists learned the Mozart Concerto using the edition made by J. Walter Guetter, one of the preeminent bassoonists of the 20th Century.  This is the edition I used when first learning the piece.  While the edition contains many fine ideas for interpretation, it is vastly different from the Universal.

I was shocked to see the Universal Edition after so many years with Guetter. There were so many mannerisms in my interpretation that no longer made sense after looking at the Universal.

Here's an edition of Milde Concert Study #27 from IMSLP:

Here is the first page of the Merseburger Edition which dates from between the World Wars.

In the Merseberg, there are NO dynamics on the page!  This leaves a lot of leeway to the performer.  With leeway comes responsibility.  That means applying your own musical logic and instincts to the piece along with your understanding of acceptable performance practice, even music theory.

In the IMSLP edition, many of these questions have been solved for us already by the arranger, Alek Ferlazzo.  However, unless we see what Alek was working with, we don't know which decisions are his and which were made by Milde. This is important to know.

A side note:  Google tells me that Alek may be a high school  bassoonist(?)  He obviously has great skill with Sibelius.  I want to commend him for his work and generosity in sharing his editions and uploads.

A similar situation applies in Simon Kovar's edition (International Music Company) of the Milde Concert Studies.  Kovar made many fine suggestions, but took a lot of liberties with his editing when compared to an older edition like Merseburger, Hofmeister or Cundy-Bettoney (which are basically the same).  The trouble is, once again, without access to these editions, we don't know what is the editor and what is Milde.

When I teach the Mozart I require my students to purchase the Universal Edition.  For Milde it's Cundy-Bettoney or Hofmeister.

That's enough ranting for one post.  Soon I'll devote some time to discussing the virtues and pitfalls of YouTube and Naxos.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mozart Concerto and auditions -- the first phrase

You're looking at what has arguably become the most important phrase ever written for the bassoon!

While there is much other great music written for our instrument, the nearly exclusive use of the Mozart concerto in auditions has made this opening phrase extremely important for bassoonists today.

At our recent second bassoon audition, I had a chance to sample what some of the best bassoonists do with this phrase in an audition.  Since it's the first music we hear from a candidate, the phrase serves as a musical handshake -- a first encounter with that person's musical beliefs.

Many on the committee that day felt the handshakes coming from the Mozart were more like vise grips!  Excessively firm and rough.  The first note was often played as though the person shaking your hand was in a hurry to get to the next person in line -- extremely short and accented.

Another trend we noticed was -- along with chopping off the first note -- a tendency to treat the second note like a stressed syncopation.  Thus, the first phrase came off sounding like "dut-DAHH"!

I've thought about this trend for a while and have come up with a couple of possible reasons for why this mannerism has grown like a virus.
  1. Nerves.
  2. Younger players (most of our auditionees were on the young side) listening indiscriminately to bad YouTube performances, etc. More about YouTube as a force for musical good or evil in another post.
  3. The half note on beat two, being longer than the quarter on beat one, will sound more stressed than the quarter on its own simply because it lasts twice as long. 
But is this effective?  Is this musical?

Is there a precedent in Mozart for this motive?  If so, can we understand what he might have thought it should sound like when composing it?

Let's take a step back and provide some context for the ConcertoWritten in the summer of 1774, it's generally agreed that this was Mozart's second original concerto, the Violin Concerto #1 being the first. The earlier piano concerti are all arrangements of works by other composers and heavily influenced by Leopold Mozart (whose influence is now given even more weight in the early compositions than was once assumed).

All composers used models for their early work. Even Mozart did not compose new pieces without referring to the work of others or his previous work.  This is especially true of his youthful compositions.

In understanding the context for the first motive of the Concerto, it's important to acknowledge that many composers used motives, themes, etc. over and over again, reworking them for the different pieces they were writing.  This is the nuts and bolts of composing.

All of which is to say that the first notes of the Bassoon Concerto are not a unique musical gesture.  They are simply one variation on a larger theme at work in Mozart's mind around 1773-1774.

Here is how the opening motive is stated in the Violin Concerto #1 of 1773.

Below is the opening of the Bassoon Concerto.

Note the following similarities:
  • Same key: Bmajor
  • Same orchestration: strings, two oboes, two horns. Note the chords on the first two beats in the violins are EXACTLY the same in each piece--  more about this later.
  • Same opening two-note motive - quarter then half note.
Now listen to the opening of both pieces:



I didn't label the two clips, so you might be surprised at how similar they sound at the start!

Above is the opening of the Violin Concerto #3, written shortly after the Bassoon Concerto.  Notice the similarity of motive (quarter, dotted quarter this time, though), with bar one on the tonic, bar two on the dominant.

Listen to the opening:


Once again, the similarity is obvious.

Now, let's look closer at the scoring.  It's interesting to note that each concerto begins with double or triple stops in the violins.  Clearly, Mozart wanted a full, rich sound on the first note.

 In order above are:
  1. Violin Concerto #1
  2. Bassoon Concerto
  3. Violin Concerto #3
If you accept my argument that these motives are closely related in rhythm and scoring, then it follows that the bassoonist should play the opening motive with this context in mind.

Therefore, a short, and unemphasized first note has no place in the style of the Bassoon Concerto!

The violin cannot play a note as short as the bassoon, since the violin is a naturally resonant instrument. (The bassoon is not - see Arthur Weisberg's The Art of Wind Playing for a good explanation of this phenomenon.) In addition, the violinist must grab two or three notes at the same time.  Time and space must be made for this to happen.

For the bassoonist to execute the opening in a musically appropriate fashion, therefore, he/she must leave time and energy for the first note to sound and place the second note carefully.

A great image for success in execution is to imagine two down bows. The first down bow uses the whole bow, the retake for the next note provides just the right amount of separation before starting the next note.

Here's a great example of this technique.  Joshua Bell plays the Saint-Saëns Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.  Start at about 9 minutes in and you'll hear the cadenza.  In it there is a series of dramatic down bow notes.  Notice the length and spacing required for this group of notes.  It's perfect for the opening of the Bassoon Concerto!


No syncopation!

I do not believe the second note (half note) is a syncopation.  A syncopation is rhythm in which a note other then a downbeat or a note on a strong beat is emphasized.  Look at the scoring of the three pieces above once more and you'll see that Mozart, in putting violin chords on the first beat, was quite clear that the second note in the bar should not be emphasized at the expense of the first note.

So what we are left with is two notes of equal strength separated by just enough space to make each sound clearly articulated. 

That was a lot of time and space spent on two notes!  However, as I said above, these two notes are often the first sounds someone who is evaluating your playing hears and thus, makes them very important.  It would be interesting to know what Mozart would have made of all this fuss about his little Bassoon Concerto!

Here is a link to a recent performance of the Concerto by David McGill, the Principal Bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It's one of the finest live performances of the piece I've ever heard.  The streaming will be available until the middle of March, 2012, so listen soon if you can.  The Concerto starts just before the 15 minute mark.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Orchestral audition perspective

Thanks for all the wonderful comments on my previous blog about the recent Second Bassoon audition we had here in Cleveland.  Since people have been responsive to this topic, I'd like to continue on this thread for a while.

Please reply, ask questions, give your experiences!  This is a crazy way to get a job and I can only offer my perspective and experiences (limited though they may be).

A Fresh Perspective

Today I'd like to offer a fresh perspective on performing an audition.  When taking an audition, it's hard to remember why you wanted to do this thing called music in the first place!  With the pressure, the nerves and the often depressing experience of being just one of many great musicians on the day, remember that you WANTED to do this, so why not try to enjoy yourself!

One way to show your enjoyment and love of the music is to try to imagine you're playing these excerpts for people who have never heard the bassoon before and don't know the music.

Forget about that panel of experts out there listening.  Remember, each of them came to music this way -- uninitiated and raw.  There's still a part of that in each of them you can try to reach.

How many times have you played the bassoon and had someone in the audience come up and say, "I didn't know the bassoon could do that - or sound that way!"  If they've never experienced the bassoon that way before, then they've never really HEARD the music you're playing before either. Try to play at all times with these people in mind.

I find it refreshing and empowering to try to be an ambassador for the bassoon. It's hard to do this in an audition, but using your imagination is helpful in avoiding letting your nerves get control of the audition.

Even more important, imagine yourself as an ambassador for the music you are playing.  You are playing some of the greatest music ever written and it's your job to show the listeners (even if they are really jaded orchestral musicians) the wonders of what you've brought to play.

Thus, the Mozart Concerto becomes a wonderful display of the nobility and grace of the instrument and not a grim minefield of mistakes waiting to be checked off by the committee.

You do have a heavy responsibility to represent our much-maligned instrument and its low-calorie repertoire well, however.  To do this you must play in a way that gives the listener a sense of the context each excerpt along with the style and flavor of each little one or two minute segment.  Remember that with a committee made up of mostly non-bassoonists, the general impression you leave must be very clear and distinctive.

In my experience, committees do not generally listen with music in hand.  Sometimes, only the bassoonists listening will know about a particular dynamic or nuance in an excerpt (and sometimes even they won't notice). Yes, the details are very important, but players often lose the forest for all the attention they're giving to the trees.

Once I played in an orchestra that played a concert at a clarinet conference.  I asked the young clarinetist in the orchestra next to me if he was nervous playing for all the clarinetists in the audience (which included Stanley Drucker and Larry Combs, for instance).  This guy was known for his arrogance and replied, "No, I'll just pretend I'm giving them all a lesson"!

I'm certainly not suggesting that you need to adopt this level of arrogance when performing, but remember, when you audition, it's your chance to show those listening how great the music that you're presenting is, how much you love playing the bassoon and what a wonderful time it is to share this with other people.

That's what it's all about, isn't it?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Neo-Ragtime CD

I'm excited about a new recording that's just come out. It's a 2-CD set of music inspired by ragtime by composer/pianist, Bryan Dykstra.

I'm playing on two of the pieces -- Curly Maple Rag and Lancashire Rag. These pieces were originally written for Chicago Symphony Principal Bassoonist, David McGill when he was playing in our orchestra.  The title of the first piece alludes to a type of maple sometimes used in bassoon manufacture.  The second is the name of the street on which David lived when he was in Cleveland.

I really enjoyed working on these pieces with Bryan, who is Professor of Piano at the College of Wooster here in Ohio.  He was inspired by the ragtime fad of the 1970's typified by the music of Scott Joplin used in the movie, "The Sting".  Bryan's compositions, while not slavishly imitative of Joplin's music, exhibit the same carefree lilt and danceable quality of original ragtime.

In addition to the two pieces for bassoon and piano there are many for solo piano, and other woodwinds with piano.

I'm especially happy with how the recording of my sound came out in this project.  The sessions were done at Audio Recording Studio in Bentleyville, Ohio by Bruce Gigax, who is also the audio engineer for the Cleveland Orchestra.  Bruce worked magic on my sound in his studio and the results really show!

Here is a short clip of "Curly Maple":


And here is one for "Lancashire":


The two pieces make really nice, short recital additions, maybe also as an encore or two.

For music, please contact one of our trusty double reed music dealers like Trevco-Varner or Gail Warnaar's Double Reed Shoppe.

For a CD, visit Centaur Records. I will not be selling this CD myself.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Miami Marathon

Along with 25,000 other people, I ran the Miami Marathon last Sunday. Actually, I ran the half marathon part of the race, as usual.

This was the fifth time for me for this race.  It's got to be one of the most beautiful race courses in the country.

This is a photo of the start of the race. It begins at the American Airlines Pavilion (on left in photo) where the Miami Heat plays their games.  I won't go in the building to see a game anymore because a certain former Cleveland Cavalier plays there now.

Then it goes over to Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway.  At this point the sun is not up yet.  The bridge has purple lights shining across the water.  To the south you can see the cruise ships docked at the port.

Once you get to the beach the sun has started to rise.  As you run north it's easy to see some of the clubs are still open and going strong.  There are a lot of spectators along the course cheering.

After eight miles, the course goes back across the water on the Venetian Causeway.  This part of the course is made up of roads through very exclusive residential areas built on small islands joined by bridges. Below is a photo of an aid station on the Venetian Causeway during this year's race.  It's a big job helping the runners to stay hydrated!

Once back in Miami proper, the course goes through a rather sketchy section of Miami before veering off from the marathon course to finish in a park just south of the basketball arena.  By now, if it's sunny, the usual heat and humidity begin to take their toll.  It's a good time to finish.

This year I took a little longer to finish - 1:39:45 or about 7:37 per mile.  My best for this course is 1:35:57. 

Since I'm a very competitive person, I thought about what might have slowed me down this year.

Besides being a year older, I missed a good couple weeks of training in December battling a nasty sinus infection, so perhaps I wasn't quite in tip top shape.

Also, it was hard to avoid indulging in holiday eating and drinking.  Being 5 pounds lighter might have helped.

Maybe the biggest factor was the start, though.  I think there were about 8,000 more runners compared to last year.  The corrals were jam packed with people.  It took me seven minutes just to get to the starting line after the start.  It took a couple of miles for the crowd around me to thin out enough for me to safely run my race pace.

I love running this race and will do it again if we're down there at the right time next January!