Friday, April 23, 2010

So Many Fingerings, So Little Time

Rehearsals have begun in Rochester, NY for the large ensemble pieces that feature the "low A" (works by composers Paul Coleman and David Plylar).  It has been fascinating implementing this note in original works.  However, while the extra note might seem as straight-forward as pushing down a single key, there is more to the story.

Oboists and bassoonists are faced with split-second decisions every day when reading music as to which "fingering" to use for certain pitches, most notably for oboists being the use of left-hand F and left Eb keys. As with many instruments, some pitches can have multiple approaches depending on what proceeds or follows them. Not knowing ahead of time which fingering to use is a very common cause of "flubs" or mistakes when sight-reading and even performing a piece. A wrong move can result in additional notes being played as a result of fingers sliding over keys. The "low-A" fingering requires the oboist to press down the left thumb as well as their choice of the standard fingerings for "low C#", "low C", "low B" or "low Bb". All fingerings produce the same "low A" pitch. As I am rehearsing this music, I am discovering that it is essential for me to write in whichever fingering pitch that is most appropriate for the passage, as trying to "slide" over to the correct one mid-note can be very unforgiving. While I likely do not mark in as many left-handed fingerings for notes now as when I first discovered these keys, I certainly still use them as a reference in music today

Visually, seeing a "low A" in music has a different feel as an oboist. For many years now, I have only rarely seen an "A#" notated.  I would imagine for most instrumentalists that seeing a note, even as little as one half-step out of their normal range, mentally takes just a fraction longer to compute. If in that slight bit of time we also are indecisive about which fingering is correct, a "slide" is almost certain to occur. Fortunately, with the aid of some foresight and a pencil, this problem is easily remedied.

The writing for this instrument feels completely natural in the music and I am thrilled to be working with such exceptionally talented musicians.  Rochester, home of monster snow storms and a perpetually grey sky, is actually in full bloom right now and couldn't be lovelier. Things are shaping up for some great performances.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

So many A's, so little time

Showing the Loboe to another oboist recently got me to thinking more about the oboe's relationship to "A". Besides many important solos that highlight "A" pitches, the most obvious association with this pitch comes from the tuning note traditionally given before every orchestra concert. Scholar and oboist Bruce Haynes has dedicated an incredibly interesting book on the subject called "A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of "A"'.

The fact that the Loboe gives us an additional "A" is significant. The more time I spend with this oboe, the more I am convinced that this is the natural next step for the instrument.

Oboists who has spent any time at all studying orchestral excerpts or taking orchestral auditions know all too well how critical our octave "A"s are in winning a job. While one should obviously strive to play every note beautifully, of the standard excerpts, several come to mind that demand some very special attention to these pitches.

Brahms composed one of the most beautiful violin concertos but for oboists, this piece instantly conjurers up feelings of dread when achieving that perfect entrance on the octave "A". The music below doesn't reflect the two bars of horn chord intro, as the oboe doesn't technically begin the second movement. This melody is then picked up by the solo violin.  As an excerpt, it is considered one of the most common and usually makes it way on every orchestra audition list.

Speaking of entrance "A"s that make or break a solo, I think that Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, third movement solo is worth noting. The oboist rests for the movement's opening 132 bars as the strings work their way through intense pizzicato passages. The bottom literally drops out at the hight of the string climax when the solo oboe enters with a glorious (and loud) octave "A" that needs to just fill the hall, or the audition room. It is a very assertive entrance and demands a very distinct tone color that is a world away from the delicate entrance of the Brahms. 

Tchaikovsky: Sym. No. 4, Mvt. III

Another staple of any audition list is the opening of Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin". Here we again find a very different demand of the "A". The name of the game is precision; there are "A"s on every large beat in the first three bars alone. This excerpt is certainly on the quick side, but it is the thoughtful approach to the "A"s that allows for the real musicality to shine through in this solo. 

Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin, Mvt. I

There are countless beautiful and important oboe solos and many of them do not start or significantly highlight the pitch "A". However, as any current or former music conservatory student can tell you, there are a handful of standard audition excerpts that can quite literally define one's career in the orchestral world. Among them, the three excerpts I have looked at above demand very different techniques and approaches from the oboist and are a core part of an oboist's training. Who knows if having an additional "A" would have had an impact on the way composers wrote for the oboe. However, one thing is certain; the relationship between the oboe and "A" is one unlike any other. With the addition of a third "A", it is exciting to think of the possibilities!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Saint-Saëns - "Danse Macabre" - Trio

This is another work I have been meaning to post. The excerpt above is from Saint-Saëns' "Danse Macbre" for oboe, horn and piano (by David Plylar) and was the finale number during our previous tour. It's a work-out for all involved and also has the oboist frequently switching back and forth between English horn and oboe. I'll admit, if a few of the switches were any shorter, they'd be impossible, but it can be done, and frankly, it adds a little element of suspense for the audience to see if the performer can really make it!
That aside, it's a very faithful interpretation of an instantly recognizable work. Everyone gets to show off and the horn finally gets to be "brassy".

While rehearsing this work, I learned that this piece was originally a work for voice and piano; there are versions for solo piano, violin and piano, two pianos, and orchestra. After listening to a recording of the original version, I can perhaps see why he opted for further tweaking through transcriptions. It is by no means a comical piece, the subject matter being one of Death appearing at Midnight every Halloween and calling upon the dead to rise from their graves for the night.
Try to imagine the following melody line (starting on beat 2) with these words:

"Zig et zig et zag" 

The whole thing has this strange, almost "lounge" feel to it and at least for me, really failed to give an ominous or spooky vibe. There is something about the French language that doesn't sound right for the mood of this work in this particular instance. I think the other versions are far more effective.

I couldn't find any YouTube clips of the vocal version, but here is an amusing rendition none the less...