Posts Tagged ‘FSU’

Zwilich Bassoon Concerto

When I was work­ing on my Master’s degree at Flori­da State, I had the great for­tune to have a lesson with Pulitzer Prize-Winning com­poser Ellen Taaf­fe Zwilich on her Con­cer­to for Bas­soon and Orches­tra (1992). At the time, I wrote up a lit­tle report on my expe­ri­ence and post­ed it on a pre­vi­ous incar­na­tion of my web site. I’d more-or less for­got­ten about it (the post, not the expe­ri­ence!) until a cou­ple of days ago. My friend and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor Nico­lasa Kuster men­tioned that she’d found it while search­ing for infor­ma­tion on the con­cer­to. I’ve decid­ed to repost my expe­ri­ences here, with just a few edits for clar­i­ty.

Late­ly, I’ve been work­ing on Ellen Taaf­fe Zwilich’s bas­soon con­cer­to. I want­ed to work on some­thing new (to me) for this year’s con­cer­to com­pe­ti­tion. I con­sult­ed with pro­fes­sor [Jef­frey] Keeseck­er, and he sug­gest­ed either the Jolivet Con­cer­to or the Zwilich. Both are tough, but he said that the Zwilich is more both audience- and performer-friendly. I ordered a CD, lis­tened to the piece, and decid­ed to play it. Anoth­er rea­son for choos­ing the Zwilich is that she is on fac­ul­ty at FSU. She is the Fran­cis Eppes Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Com­po­si­tion, but is only in res­i­dence for one week each semes­ter. A few weeks ago, I found out that she’d soon be in town, and I man­aged to get an appoint­ment with her.

I was quite ner­vous in the days lead­ing up to my lesson. I’d been prac­tic­ing the piece like crazy. After all, it’s not every day that you play a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s piece for her. When I arrived at the appoint­ed time, I found that Dr. Zwilich had been double-booked. I had some time to spare, so I let the oth­er stu­dent, who is pur­su­ing a Mas­ters in com­po­si­tion, go first. I wait­ed out­side for half an hour, then my turn came.

Dr. Zwilich was very laid-back and friend­ly. She said that while she’d enjoyed writ­ing for the bas­soon, she doesn’t com­plete­ly under­stand the instru­ment, and cer­tain­ly doesn’t under­stand why any­one would want to play it. I have to say that I often agree with her! Appar­ent­ly when Nan­cy Goeres, the prin­ci­pal bas­soon­ist of the Pitts­burgh Sym­pho­ny and ded­i­ca­tee of the work, exam­ined the first move­ment of the work-in-progress, she said that she liked it, but that it need­ed to be hard­er to be a con­cer­to. So, Zwilich turned around and wrote a sec­ond move­ment based on octa­ton­ic scales with lots of sixteenth-note runs at quar­ter note equals 168bpm. When Goeres received that move­ment she asked, “What did I do, wave a red cape at a bull?”

I start­ed by ask­ing a few ques­tions about artic­u­la­tion, phras­ing, and her nota­tion. Then, I played the first move­ment and much of the sec­ond (and final) move­ment. Dr. Zwilich seemed quite hap­py with what I was doing, and was com­pli­men­ta­ry of my play­ing. She had a few gen­er­al com­ments about the first move­ment, and offered some sug­ges­tions for attack­ing the blaz­ing­ly fast sec­ond move­ment. She also want­ed me to change a cou­ple of things in the sec­ond move­ment caden­za. For­tu­nate­ly, many of her sug­ges­tions and changes will actu­al­ly make the piece eas­ier to play.

We end­ed up going twen­ty min­utes over into the next person’s time, so I got almost the full hour I’d been allot­ted, despite her being dou­ble booked. Before I left, she com­pli­ment­ed my play­ing again, and asked me to keep her post­ed about my pro­gress in the con­cer­to com­pe­ti­tion. I’m very glad that I had the chance to talk to and be coached by Ellen Zwilich. It’s not often that a musi­cian, let alone a stu­dent, is offered the chance to work one-on-one with an emi­nent com­poser on one of their pieces.

Although I didn’t end up win­ning the com­pe­ti­tion, I did per­form the Con­cer­to in reduc­tion (with piano and per­cus­sion) a cou­ple of times in the fol­low­ing year or two. It’s prob­a­bly about time for me to revis­it the piece!