Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Building an Interpretation -- The Score

The Score

Using the example of the bassoon solos in Shostakovich Symphony #9, I'll explore different ways of building a solid interpretation.

Ways I'll outline for the Shostakovich include:
  • Use of the orchestral score as starting point
  • A motivic analysis of the bassoon part
  • Harmonic analysis
  • Examination of the musical context of the bassoon part and a look at models from other works by Shostakovich 
  • Historical influences and anecdotal information   

What the score shows

The fourth movement begins with an ominous brass fanfare.

 Take a look at the score:

At the end, the tam tam strikes and the violas and basses enter unobtrusively.  As the brass cut out the strings sustain into the bassoon solo. The orchestration is notable for the absence of violins and cellos.  Scoring without violins gives the voice of the bassoon more acoustic space. The lack of cellos gives the string bed a more transparent, even disembodied feel (especially with a lack of the root of the chord in the basses).

At the bassoon entrance, the meter disappears as do the bar lines. The key signature becomes irrelevant. We are clearly not operating in bminor at this point. The tempo indication changes from ♩ = 84 to ♪ = 84, so twice as slow as the fanfare that starts the movement. 


Nonetheless, the bassoonist now has a great deal of freedom for interpretation. So what to do with all that freedom?!

The lack of bar line or meter should remind us of opera recitative or the sound of someone speaking some lines. Thus, there should be in the interpretation the sense of a dramatic recitation; a flow to the lines that mimics speech patterns with inflections and emphases. 

Towards the end of the movement, the meter returns and in the fifth movement, a strict 2/4 meter is established, along with a faster tempo.

In my next post, I'll examine the motives used in the solos and how, in the 4th movement, highlighting them can add to this sense of dramatic recitation, whereas the motives in the 5th movement bring a strict, march-like character to the piece.

Starting with the score is always a good idea, but in the case of this piece, especially so! The bassoon part lacks some information printed in the score and the great freedom accorded the bassoonist may lead to confusion or lack of conviction in the interpretation.

Please also note that metronome markings in the score are not printed in the bassoon part. Also, some excerpt books have discrepancies with the score and the bassoon part.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Building an Interpretation -- I'm back!

I'm Back!

Due to an extremely busy schedule, I've had to suspend activity on this blog for a few months.

Here's what my past couple months looked like:

1. Increased load in Cleveland Orchestra due to second bassoon vacancy. Played 2nd bassoon and some first bassoon on a Brahms DVD in January.

2. Five weeks on the road TCO.

3. Full recitals at CIM and LSU this month.

4. Half marathon and a couple of 5k races.

5. Master classes at University of Nebraska and LSU.

6. Orchestra Committee work

So something had to give. . .

Anyway, things have calmed down a bit and I'm ready to blog with some new topics that I hope will be interesting and thought-provoking.

Building an Interpretation

I'd like to start a thread here on how to build an interpretation. Let's start with some ground rules:

1. Some music doesn't require a full-blown interpretation. It is enough to play what's on the page and leave it at that.  Examples:
  • Some modern music -- especially pieces in which the composer has prescribed tempo, dynamics, etc. in minute detail. 
  • Orchestral excerpts such as Overture to Marriage of Figaro, Ravel Piano Concerto (3rd mvt) and Beethoven 4th Symphony (last mvt).
2. However, most music requires at least some personal input from the performer. This is where some bassoonists fail.  The bassoon presents so many difficult technical challenges that it's easy to become focused solely upon technical perfection and mastery of control of the instrument. Interpretation is by its very nature subjective and open to nuance and ambiguity. So it takes initiative and inspiration to build an interpretation.

3. Yes, mastery of the instrument is extremely important, but it's just the prerequisite for artistry. Artistry requires interpretation.

4. For me there isn't a "correct" interpretation for every piece of music. Nor are interpretations other than mine "incorrect".

5. There are only convincing or unconvincing interpretations.

6. It's better to have an argument than to have nothing to talk about! Too often a musical performance provokes a pleasantly innocuous response from the audience.

It's enlightening to read contemporary reports about performances in the Baroque and Classical periods. Audiences came to concerts expecting novelty and freshness. They expected to be moved to tears or to feel joy or solemnity based upon the effect of a performance on their emotions. At times there were arguments in the theater during the performance.

Many student performers have an especially hard time coming up with a convincing interpretation. While it is they who should -- through their youth and enthusiasm -- be best at novelty and freshness, too often it is an overriding desire to please or the result of much spoon feeding in their education that results in interpretations that are not convincing or are half-baked.

Shostakovich Symphony #9

In the next few posts I will use the great bassoon solos in movements 4 and 5 of Shostakovich's 9th Symphony as a vehicle for how to build an interpretation.

I will explore my own thought process in building an interpretation of this long excerpt. However, I hope through exposure to the methods I employ you will build your own convincing interpretation of this music and not just mimic what I've done!