Friday, March 30, 2012

This week in the Cleveland Orchestra

This is turning out to be a very fun week in the Orchestra.

We started the week with 2 educational concerts with an animal theme.  The program included "Carnival of the Animals" and other music descriptive of animal sounds.  We played Leroy Anderson's "The Waltzing Cat", Arthur Pryor's "The Whistler and His Dog" and Paul White's "Mosquito Dance".

In the "Mosquito Dance", the bassoon plays about 10 notes.  It certainly plays the largest mosquito in the orchestra as all of the other sounds are very high and squeaky sounding.

The weekend concert is a performance of Charlie Chaplin's score for his movie, "City Lights" with the film projected on a screen over us.  More about this later.

The job of an Assistant (or Associate) Principal player in an orchestra involves playing many different roles. Often, the Principal player only plays a small repertoire of the 40-50 major works of the classical repertoire. 

My role involves playing many of these, too, but also includes such novelties as the Chaplin film score, any contemporary piece that is programmed, some pops and often a concerto or overture when programmed, as well as any 3rd bassoon parts in the larger scores of Strauss, Mahler, etc.

There are two ways of looking at this job.  One is to be envious of the Principal player, who gets much of the glory for playing the major solos (but also a lot of pressure!) and the other is to enjoy the diversity and novelty of the many different assignments.

I admit sometimes it's hard to avoid the first attitude, but when I really think about it, playing the contemporary works challenges me to keep my technique sharp and collaborating with a soloist in a concerto keeps my chamber music skills honed.  I also really enjoy the 3rd bassoon parts. It's hard to get stale under the circumstances!

It's also good to remind myself from time to time, how fortunate I am to have such a great job.  It took me 20 years of auditioning to reach this position and I try not to forget the struggle that younger players go through trying to establish themselves.

The assistant role differs from orchestra to orchestra.  Here in Cleveland we don't play that many pops concerts (although we're doing more than we used to), so that part of the job isn't as dominating as it is in other orchestras, for instance. 

This Saturday evening we perform "City Lights" with the film.  Chaplin wrote his own music for this movie!  The guy was a complete genius!   Does anyone know if he orchestrated it, too? I'll certainly ask our conductor.

The score is very lively and full of 20's style jazz, sentimental tunes and some Puccini-like melodies.  There are lots of bassoon solos.  One is a drunken duet with the trumpet, another that recurs many times is a jaunty staccato tune that is cliché bassoon writing.

The movie itself is one of the greatest ever made -- silent or sound era -- The ending is extremely poignant.  My 17-year old daughter, Maddy and I watched it a few months ago.  I was impressed by how this 81 year-old film completely won over my daughter (who is devoted to social media and multi-tasking).  My wife and she will come to our performance on Saturday.

Anyone local interested in seeing it can purchase and print (!) tickets online at the Cleveland Orchestra website.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Miami, part 2

It occurred to me that I spent a lot of time talking about the visual beauty of Schermerhorn Symphony Center, but have said nothing up till now about the acoustics.

Many of us enjoyed playing there, but felt that the sound was rather diffuse.  It was hard to tell if your sound was going anywhere.  The hall is not dead, just seemed to be lacking in focus.  Maybe the tall ceiling and lack of any acoustical backing to the ensemble (shell, etc.) made the sound seem unfocused.

I liked the way the hall brought the listeners close to the performers, though.

The next morning we flew to Miami.  What a crazy week in that city!

We found the city buzzing with various major attractions.

  • Spring break crowds
  • Sony-Ericsson tennis open on Key Biscayne
  • Ultra Fest - a big music festival happening just a mile away from the Knight Concert Hall where we play
  • The Home Show at the Miami Beach Convention Center
Miami can be a loud, vibrant place, but this time it was just out of control.  Car accidents, lots of drunk people of all ages, loud music everywhere!

I shouldn't complain, though.  I do love going there and am happy the Orchestra has a firm base there now.

Here's what we did:

  • Two symphonic concerts (same program as Nashville)
  •  Educational concerts with Tiempo Libre
Here they are playing Tu Conga Bach, a piece they performed with us last week.

I had some great runs in Miami and we played some really great concerts, so the week was a success.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

last week in Miami, pt. 1

The orchestra spent last week in Miami performing concerts and giving master classes.  This was the last of 3 week-long residencies this winter.

We started our week with a concert in Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center.  This is the home of the Nashville Symphony.  The hall, built in 2003, is a gorgeous structure patterned after some of Europe's 19th century concert halls.

We played in the Laura Turner Concert Hall.  It is a visually stunning shoe box style shape reminiscent of Boston's Symphony Hall only with a higher ceiling.

There are similarities to our home, Severance Hall, as well.  John Long Severance wanted to memorialize his wife, Elisabeth who had died just prior to the building of the hall.  The lotus blossom pattern from his wife's wedding dress is the predominate ornament in the hall.

You can see the lotus blossoms on the ceiling in the photo above.

At Nashville's Schermerhorn the following images recur in the architecture:

The passionflower -- Tennessee's state wildflower

The iris -- the state flower of Tennessee

And -- the coffee bean!!  Now that's what I call class.  The family who started Maxwell House Coffee was a major supporter of the Nashville Symphony.

Before the concert Jonathan Sherwin and I went out to meet James Keyes at his shop in Alexandria, just under an hour away from Nashville.  Sara Garing, a former Sherwin student, who now works with Keyes picked us up and drove us out to meet him.  Sara gave us a tour of the shop.

Jonathan and I then tried a bassoon outfitted with the Weisberg System.  Keyes is the only repair technician who installs this system on bassoons. This is a new key system designed to eliminate the need to flick the speaker keys with the left thumb -- a cumbersome, vexing exercise for bassoonists.  Here is a page with some good pictures of the keywork.

For a detailed description and words in favor of the system, read Robert Jordan's Putting the Know in Innovation. (just Google the title and you'll come up with a pdf of the article)

I am convinced that this system is superior to what is standard on the bassoon now.  There is absolutely no cracking when the famous five notes (A2, Bb3, B3, C3 and D3) are articulated.  Slurring from these notes to the lower octave is facilitated as well.  The pitches have more resonance than that achieved by holding down the speaker keys, without the unpleasant change in timber, too. Nor is there a need to learn any new fingerings to operate the bassoon.

Looking at the photos above, you can imagine it costs a great deal to have this keywork installed. I was quoted a price of $4500.  At this point, with 1 daughter in college and one about to be, I'm not ready to make the change, but I certainly would consider it in the future -- especially if I buy another bassoon.

After touring the shop, we met Hunstville bassoonist, Hunter Thomas, his student, Sarah Strasinger and her mother for dinner.  Here are Hunter, me, Sarah, Jonathan and Sara Garing in front of Schermerhorn:

Then it was off to the concert.  We had a great crowd.  Our conductor, Giancarlo Guerrero is, coincidentally, the Music Director of the Nashville Symphony, so he was playing to a home-town audience.  Our program was
  • Beethoven Symphony #6
  • Grieg Piano Concert
  • Pines of Rome

Our soloist was Gabriela Montero.  She did a fine job with the Grieg, but what she did after the performance was very special.  When she came out for her last bow, she sat down at the piano with a microphone.  She spoke of her life-long habit of improvising and asked someone in the audience to name a tune or sing one to which she could improvise.  Nashville is a very musical city, so there was no hesitation.

Someone quickly requested "Lara's Theme" from Dr. Zhivago.  Montero played the theme a few times, toyed around with it for a few seconds and then launched into an improvisation fit to a tango beat.  She played for several minutes and the audience loved it.

The previous week at Severance Hall, she improvised on a theme in the style of Rachmaninov.

The next morning it was off to Miami. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Bach Project

A Bach Project

In this post, I'd like to describe another project I'll undertake during the next few months.  This one will be a much more involved activity, including practicing, reading and listening.

For many years, I've enjoyed playing and teaching movements from the Bach Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. 
Owing to its high musical value, this great music is now played on many different instruments, including the bassoon. Studying the pieces is a great way to stretch yourself musically and learn from the repertoire of another instrument.

Many of the movements fit well on the bassoon, while others require some re-arranging and inventiveness to bring off.  While the bassoonist will never sound like a cellist performing them, Bach's music is not so completely tied to string technique that it won't hold up in the hands of a talented and persistent bassoonist.

In fact, Arthur Weisberg has arranged all of the Suites for bassoon and published his own edition of the works.

While having this edition is a great service to bassoonists, I feel (as I do about the Mozart Concerto) that it's vital to know what the original says before consulting a later edition or transcription. Unfortunately, that's not quite possible.  Thanks to David Wells for enlightening me on this topic.  See his comment to this blog post below and my response.

One great way to reach an understanding of these pieces is to listen to recordings.  There is a dizzying number of recordings of the Suites! 

Among other choices, there are modern performances vs. historically informed practice performances to consider.

I think this, combined with some reservations about choices Weisberg made in his transcriptions left me wondering about how I was playing and teaching them.

So I've come up with a "little' project that should help!

Spurred on by reading the book, The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin I decided to revisit the Suites by doing some listening and playing of this music.  

In his book, Siblin titles each chapter after a movement from one of the Suites, starting with the Prelude of the First Suite and ending with the Gigue of the Sixth Suite.

This is a great book, by the way.  Siblin is a pop music critic and writes from the perspective of a layperson, so the writing is pretty free of musical jargon and very well explained when it is. Everyone can get something out of this book, especially if it leads one to go listen to this great music.

He follows a three-part format.
  1. His own discovery of the Suites
  2. Pablo Casals' discovery of them
  3. What we know about Bach and his time, his influences regarding the Suites
Since it will take me a great deal of time to get through all of the Suites, I thought I'd look at a movement each week.  I know there will be some interruptions along the way, but I want to take my time and absorb as much as I can from my reading, listening and practicing.

Here are my goals in this project:

1. Become better grounded in the style of this music through listening to different recordings and performances and talking with cellists I know.

2.  Become better at teaching this music as a result.

3.  Make my own (hopefully enlightened) choices about articulation, dynamics, tempo -- none of which Bach specified in his manuscript.

4. Make my own decisions about how to deal with cello writing that isn't possible to execute on the bassoon.  I'll consider questions such as:
  • Because this movement has so many double stops in it, should it even really be played on the bassoon?
  • How can I make the double stops in this movement sound natural on the bassoon?
  • Can this whole Suite be performed legitimately on the bassoon or should just parts of it be performed on bassoon?
  • How can I make bowings and phrasing inherent in string bowings sound on the bassoon?
  • Where to breathe (!)
From the above, you'll deduce that I don't think all of the movements of the Suites should be played publicly on the bassoon.  Nonetheless, perhaps those that don't work for performance can still be valid as study pieces.

By the way, I'll be listening to several different recordings.  It was hard to choose from the many out there!

Yo-Yo Ma

Pablo Casals

Anner Bylsma (my choice for an historically informed performance)

Do any of you have any suggestions that might add to the value of this project?

I'll try to check in from time to time and share any big insights I have!

Monday, March 12, 2012

A new routine

A New Routine

I'm trying out a new routine for my practice.

If you ask someone like me -- a musician in mid-career -- what they practice you'll get a lot of different answers.

Some people have schedules that are so busy that they don't really practice much anymore.  That is, they don't seek out etudes, solo pieces, etc., but just have time to stay on top of the material they're performing that week and maybe look ahead to see what's coming up.  They have boiled down their warming up and practicing so that they can have what they need for the week ready and nothing more.

I have been in this position and I know how hard it is to try anything new. Those that know me, know that I'm a restless type, always looking for ways to stretch and stay on top of my game.

Some people are able to carve out time for work on an area of technique or prepare a recital, etc.

Hugh Michie, Second Bassoonist of the Cincinnati Symphony, loves working on etudes.  He has a very thorough regimen of etudes that keeps him in shape.

Phillip Austin, our recently retired Second Bassoonist, used to put on solo recitals every other year.  It was his way of having fun, stretching a bit and playing some solo literature.  After all, the second bassoonist rarely gets to play solos in the orchestra.

I have trouble staying in shape by just practicing my orchestra music.  My technique becomes stale and even my ability to sight read becomes sluggish.

About this time last year I detailed a weekly practice plan for a few weeks.

I just started a new one recently, so I'd like to outline it for you.  Maybe it will inspire some of you who want to break out of a rut and try something new.

I have practiced major and minor scales for decades now, so I was looking for something else to try to build my technique.

A few weeks ago, I began Guy Lacour's "28 Etudes in Olivier Messiaen's mode of limited transposition".  To help my technique in the etude, I'm putting the mode used in the first etude

through all the permutations of my adaptation of Norman Herzberg's scale routine. The first two pages are listed below.  For the rest, visit my website scroll down the page and you'll find them under "Stees scales".

Here's the scale for Etude #3 again:

You'll notice that this is an eight note scale, not like our usual seven note ones, so the scale pages above won't fit as usual, but they are manageable.  I'll have to add the accidentals and, for each octave, add a C# so there are eight different pitches in each octave.

The etude covers the full range of the bassoon using this scale.   It's an octatonic scale -- half step/whole step, half step/whole step, etc. --a symmetrical scale used by Etler in his Bassoon Sonata and frequently by other composers such as Bartok.

The Etude is fast -- ♩.=76 in 3/8 time with mainly 16th notes throughout, so it will be a challenge for me to get this up to tempo by the end of the week and then move on to the next one.

In the next post I have a plan for a more involved musical practice project that also involves reading and listening. 


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Miami Ballet

We are back in Miami for the second week of our winter season here.  This week features two different programs -- a symphonic program and a ballet concert.

The ballet concert is our second collaboration with the Miami Ballet. The program is tomorrow night in the Ziff Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami.

A musician's perspective in a ballet concert can be very unusual and quite different from what the audience sees and hears.  We are in the pit at the Opera House and most of us cannot see the dancers.  The pit has two levels, with strings and brass on one level near the podium and a lower level with woodwinds and percussion in the back.  Some of us can't even see the conductor, so there are television monitors near us to watch for conducting cues.  Occasionally we can hear feet striking the stage floor above us, but that's about it.

The music for tomorrow evening's concert consists of Dvorak's Carneval Overture, Ravel Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, La Valse and Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances.

The Symphonic Dances have been choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky

Whenever a piece of music is choreographed the music is affected in some way.  For study purposes choreographers usually use a recording of the piece when working out the action.  This is then used in rehearsal and the dancers become accustomed to the tempos, nuances, etc. of that particular recording.

When paired with live music, i.e., an orchestra, this can cause difficulty.  The conductor needs to be familiar with the recording used by the dancers to prepare.  Thus, the conductor and orchestra are not free to pursue their own ideas, but must stay with the dancers so as not to become out of sync with the steps on stage.  This can lead to some uncomfortableness in rehearsal, but when everyone realizes that the priorities are different in this case, it usually works out fine in performance.

Sometimes a choreographer adopts a very radical approach to the pace of the music and the musicians end up playing something at a ridiculous tempo.  I remember a ballet concert I played many years ago with the Joffrey Ballet in which Rossini's Semiramide Overture was choreographed. The name of the piece was listed as "Confetti". The tempo in the fast section was so fast as to be nearly unplayable. 

Fortunately, this is not the case for tomorrow night.  While a few sections of the Rachmaninov are going differently from what we're used to, everything flows along just fine.  It should be a really great show!