Sunday, December 14, 2014

Stravinsky



It was 1963 when I was fortunate enough to have had the first opportunity to play for Stravinsky. Although I was young and very inexperienced at the time I was able to understand two things very clearly. This man who had created some of the most powerful music ever written was in reality quite old and frail. Secondly, I was quite conscious of the fact that I was hopelessly star struck by the reality that I was playing in the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam and Igor Stravinsky was the conductor.
In the years that followed my good fortune continued; I had moved to Los Angeles to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, which was Maestro Stravinsky’s home and where he was an occasional guest conductor. Los Angeles was also the venue of the Columbia Symphony, which was a freelance orchestra made up of both LAPO musicians and the superb musicians who made their living playing in the Hollywood studios. This orchestra, exclusively a recording orchestra, recorded many of Stravinsky’s better-known works as well as a large amount of his lesser-performed ones. 
These recording sessions were usually rehearsed and recorded in one or two days. On such a recording session I arrived about an hour early to look over what ever the music might be, as I took my seat the music was being passed out. Suddenly, I realized that Maestro Stravinsky and renowned Columbia Records producer John McClure had also taken seats right behind the tuba chair. Mr. McClure was interviewing the Maestro. Immediately, I stopped playing, tried to look busy and listened as much as I could (there were other musicians warming up) to the interview.     
Stravinsky was talking about a naïve and ambitious young boy who lived and studied in St Petersburg early in the 20th century who wrote a symphony that in his opinion was not a good piece. The boy was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky. As he was telling this story the music being passed out arrived on my music stand, it was called Symphony #1 in Eb. It looked like a Tchaikovsky tuba part, the font was the same as a Tchaikovsky symphony and the page appeared old and discolored. It was the Symphony #1 by Stravinsky written between 1905 and 1907, the naïve boy in Stravinsky’s story was himself!
One morning at a Columbia Records recording session after having played Petrushka with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the night before Maestro Stravinsky came up to me and said “Roger, that was a very fine bear last night.” It was a very quiet moment but it was certainly one of the high points in my memories of orchestra playing; I was also moved that he called me by my first name, However, I never called him Igor!!
That was not the only time he called me Roger. We were recording the music from his ballet Jeu de cartes. It was a lighter piece with many charming passages for trombones and tuba. I was still reverting back to the star-struck young player and being so impressed by what I was hearing and watching Maestro Stravinsky, I simply forgot to play the passage. Maestro, a shorter man in shaky condition suddenly straightened up to what I felt was well over six feet, raised his fist in the air and crashed it on his music stand, eyes that looked like they were going pop out of his head and as he looked at me he screamed a very loud and very staccato “ROGER”! Then in a very shaky small voice he said, “Tuba you did not play the waltz.” My star struckness was cured.
By the middle of the 60s it was sadly clear the old Maestro’s condition was declining rapidly, Robert Craft, was doing most all of the rehearsals and sometimes even the concerts and recordings; that growing contrast between the incredibly powerful music and the Maestro’s increasingly frail condition was difficult to watch. We had arrived at that difficult state where every word, every facial expression and hand jester were full of meaning, further his suffering made it abundantly clear his conducting wasn’t as it had been in the past.
In this last session there was only one work to record, it was the Opera, Oedipus Rex. That was the most painful and the most difficult recording I had ever encountered. Most of the time during that two day session were spent working with the tenor who either hadn’t prepared properly for the opera or Stravinsky in his poor state was out of faze. In any case he tortured the poor tenor without mercy. I’ve never seen any person in all music be treated like that even for one minute not to mention two days. I believe that was the last time he conducted.
At the risk of sounding like old man, it seems to me the conductors, of course, including Stravinsky, of the past held a greater dignity and a greater elegance than the newer ones we see today. Of course, the one thing we can depend on in this world is change, change is coming faster than ever in these times; let us hope it is good change.

December 14, 2014, Tokyo, Japan 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Songs and Words

Recently, I heard a superb recorded live performance of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer played by Steven Mead. Usually, when I hear those Mahler songs played on a brass instrument, even when played beautifully, I feel it falls quite short without the text, until I heard Steven Mead’s performance. I’m not sure to what extent Steven followed the text of the Mahler songs but I do know, whatever his thinking process, it worked splendidly.

Many purists have spoken out against instrumentalist playing songs arguing that the songs simply couldn’t be as successful as they would be when sung with the text. While many players go to great lengths trying to follow the text, this can lead to problems because many texts have been translated to various languages. For example, if the original text is Russian, the version we study could be in German, French, Italian or English.

Text is a powerful element in songs, but it is not essential, as we could hear in Mr. Mead's Mahler. It can also be confusing to an instrumentalist, depending in the language of the text, which can change the rhythm. For example, a quarter note in one language might very well be 2 eighth notes in another, a triplet in another or any number of other possibilities. In the abstract language of music without words, this requires a decision.

Linguists say there are between 110 and 120 consonants in world languages. Consonants translate to instrumental language as articulation; certainly, we have a wide verity of articulations with an instrument, but trying to simulate the consonants of some linguistic text would result in confusion and distraction of a performance.

Another consideration is the vowels, which in music would be timbre and tone coloration. Considering all the vowels there are with the diphthongs, triphthongs etc., that’s a lot of tone colors, certainly thousands.

Clearly, Steven Mead did a thorough study of the meaning behind Mahler’s poignant poetry. The appropriate mood was evident, and it was clearly performed in the eloquent language of a superb euphoniumist.

Successfully playing a song, which has words, is far more than just a vocalise sung on a single vowel. It must convey the mood of the text, albeit, in the abstract language of a single line instrument.

Thank you Steven Mead for this great example of how it’s done.

September 16, 2014, Tlahuitoltapec, Mexico

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Choosing a B Plan

Once upon a time, long ago, conductors, during their travels, could invite an exceptional player to come to his home city and join his orchestra. Today, unions and orchestra committees make that impossible. I can remember, also a very long time ago, a certain teacher absolutely guaranteeing two young boys that they would achieve a permanent spot in the tuba work place! Those days of, circa 65 years ago, are now gone forever; today, no one has a guaranteed future in the music business.

As tubists continue their incredibly remarkable ‘tuba evolution’, they must deal with the fact that there are no guarantees in realizing their dream of success in the business part of the musical world. Further, teachers continue looking for those right words that convey both honesty and encouragement. This is not an easy aspect of a teacher’s responsibilities!

Of course, this is not just a tubist’s situation, it’s happening in music centers all over the world. Japan, for example, has experienced a huge enrollment drop in its conservatories. Students, especially men, are unable to envision a profitable career in traditional musical performance, therefor women, now dominate the enrolment numbers in Japanese brass classes by around 80%. Perhaps this represents a general contempary work place dynamic in the Japan. This is not a bad thing, Japanese women are slowly becoming a genre of truly world-class great brass players; stand by, there will be a lot to hear and see in the future regarding Japanese women brass players.

For several decades the ‘big-prize’ has always been winning a position in a symphony orchestra; if one does win such a job, it’s a truly big accomplishment but in today’s musical world there are more alternatives to that coveted symphony orchestra position, equally fulfilling and arguably, sometimes more fulfilling.

Teaching positions in conservatories, music schools, collages and universities for many have become as coveted as symphonic positions with the result of an emergence of extraordinary teachers who ironically, are producing even greater numbers of highly qualified players.  Recently, there has been a huge emergence of the tuba appearing in diverse settings and with notable economic profit. This includes brass quintets, both small and especially larger brass ensembles. (This will be discussed at length in a near future blog called CHAMBER ENTERTAINMENT). Perhaps a course in marketing should be a part of the conservatory curriculum.

Sadly, the world is a troubled and turbulent place in these times leaving many people feeling helpless in what an individual can do to make it a better place. Music and the teaching of music could very well be one of the most positive things we can do. The world needs music and music needs teachers.

Our situation is not as grim as it used to be; there are new tuba (and all brass) activities visible and at greater frequencies including rock, jazz, country and all verities of pop music. It’s very smart thinking for all who hope to realize a career in music to have an alternative plan (a B plan) ready for life’s realities, i.e. having a job, forming a family. As you create your B plan, keep playing, have a direction and practice your butt off.

Good Luck.

August 31, 2014, Tlahuitoltepec, Mexico

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Visionary Award for the Most Visionary



The recent ITEC (International Tuba and Euphonium Congress) was an amazing event, it’s impressive to recall the great playing, presentations, ensembles, friendships and just the fact that there were 850 participants from all over the world; that it was an unforgettable event is an understatement. There is, however, one event that may very well be remembered as the most significant in that one-week of continuous tuba/euphonium presentations.


At the official ITEC dinner, Composer/tubist Jim Self announced the formation of the Jim and Jamie Self Creative award. This is a monumental new item in the Tuba/Euphonium community; the following is the introduction of this award in Jim Self’s words: For several years I would call up one of my college professor friends and ask if they had a particularly talented and creative student. If so I would award a $500 scholarship to that student. But it was random and tedious--(plus every college that got a scholarship still hits me up for money--probably forever--what a drag!). I wanted to formalize it, internationalize it and make it have longevity beyond my years. So we set up a $25,000 endowment fund through ITEA to administer it--in perpetuity. The endowed principal is never to be used for the award and others can contribute to it--so hopefully it will grow.”


This award is a huge step in perpetuation of the frequently stated fact that there has never been anything in music history like the growth of the tuba through the last 100 years. More importantly, it’s an insurance policy that we will never become complacent in the wake of our amazing evolution.


Jim also points out “It’s difficult to define creativity”. This is where this award becomes most interesting. The purpose is to encourage creative projects in the tuba/euphonium world and to think "outside of the box". Thinking outside of the box has been our specialty and the energy source through our amazing growth period.


Choosing a winner for this award will be a rewarding and challenging job; ‘outside of the box’ opens unlimited possibilities. The first award of $1500 was given to Norwegian tubist, Kristoffer Lo for his Ryvingen Lighthouse Recording Project--where he is taking modern computer and electronic effects on the tuba to new places. This does not mean that it will be an award for electronic music; it only means something in a new direction, which opens a huge vista of possibilities.


Thank you Jim for creating this award. Just the fact that such a thought expander exists will expand the vision of the contestants, the ITEA (International Tuba Euphonium Association) judges who will choose a winner and the entire international community. We all will benefit from this new visionary award.



Roger Bobo, July 24, 2015, Carlsbad, California

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The 15th Harmonic: it's Useful


The tuba evolution is still actively progressing in many ways including technique and, of course, part of that amazingly expanding technique is the extension of the high register. I can point out with great clarity that what was considered high register 25 years ago has changed today. Further, the same situation exists between 25 and 50 (in my case 60) years ago. When we view the great tubists of today it is not unusual to see players successfully performing up to and beyond the C an octave higher than middle C on the piano.

In the process of developing a usable and functional high register our criteria, our success is best evaluated not only just by just getting the note but also by getting the note with clarity and good intonation. Part of that development is discovering the best fingering for that clarity and intonation, in fact, it can prove to be strategic.

For example, (all examples are calculate for an instrument in C, but, of course, it should be calculated for instruments in F, Eb, C or Bb.) Most of us have learned that playing a high D or Db usually sounds better if we play the 9th harmonic rather that the 10th harmonic, which has the same flatness tendency as octave lower 5th harmonic, that would mean  the high Db with the 2nd valve, and the high D open.


The same situation exists in the much higher register when we substitute the 2nd valve 16th harmonic fingering for a double high B, with the 15th harmonic open fingering. This fingering seems strange to many players who haven’t tried it, some students have actually looked at me in disbelief and said “Not on my tuba”.

Here is a small list of 15th harmonic fingerings all calculated for C tuba.

There is another advantage to these fingerings; there is a bigger margin of safety using the 9th harmonic in place of the 10th or the 15th in place of the 16th. Quite simply, that slightly larger margin between the harmonics above and below can create greater security as well as greater clarity and better intonation.

When I was a young man and just starting my career a wonderful piece by composer William Kraft called ENCOUNTERS #2 was written for me. It was said I was the only person who could play it; that lasted a very short time. Today that piece, while still difficult, is played frequently on college and university recitals and I have seen it occasionally performed by younger, high school age players. (Please read September 2009 [written in 2004] blog Roger Bannister and the Four Minute Mile).

The tuba is still experiencing an active evolution, which is unique in music history, never before has an instrument emerged and grown in status so rapidly. Viewing that rapid growth retrospectively lets us to more easily predict the changes that may come. The need for our expanding high register has already arrived; the 15th harmonic may prove useful.


July 18, 2014, Carlsbad, California