Friday, January 21, 2022

 

SATURDAY, MAY 14, 2011

The Heifetz Syndrome


It’s difficult to admit the mistakes one has made or even worse, mistakes that were made repeatedly. I’ve made a few but in the case of this article I’ll limit my words to what I call the “Heifetz Syndrome”; thank God we learn with time, the greatest teacher of all!

Joshua Heifetz is the name of perhaps the most famous violinist of all time, who, in his lifetime, recorded virtually every major work written for violin. Further, Joshua Heifetz had, and frankly still has, the reputation of being a cold player, a master technition, a perfectionist, but a cold musician. Quite simply, that’s wrong, very wrong!

I once heard a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Joshua Heifetz playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1955 when I was 17 years old and indeed it was perfect. Because it was perfect and because the chronic indoctrination and chatter of that time, I accepted that it must have been a cold performance even though I was very moved by it; I was young and too easily accepting of what I was told.

About ten years later I listened to a Heifetz recording of the Tzigane by Ravel, a virtuoso piece with strong Hungarian, French and Gypsy flavours. Of course, the playing was perfect but it was also passionate, fiery and with enormous rhythmic energy. Recently, in preparation for this article, I listened to many other recordings of the Ravel Tzigane, which although great, frankly, did not compare to Heifetz recording. That Heifetz was cold could not have further from the truth, Heifetz was a was a warm, expressive and passionate musician. Sadly, the technical perfection that was part of Heifetz, the complete musician, served to distract from his extraordinary musicality.

Recently, just by chance, I uncovered an old live recording, probably a radio recording, hidden away in an unlikely cyber-corner of my computer, of Mahler’s 6th Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado that I believe was made in 1972. It was an absolutely superb performance, but one of the most outstanding aspects of it was the extraordinary horn playing of the solo horn player Henry Sigismonte; it was sensitive, and heroic, powerful and delicate. It was also perfect!

Now it’s time for an uncomfortable true confession; at the time I thought it was cold playing.

As well as being the solo horn player of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Henry Sigismonte, who sadly passed away in 1989 at the early age of 53, was one of the main horn players in the Hollywood studios; probably everyone has heard Henry in films, television, recordings and most likely in advertisements. Perfection was a required quality of those who were successful in the Hollywood studios and Henry was certainly both a successful and a perfect player. Why, how, I could have allowed myself to not hear his abundant beauty and artistry? I was experienced enough in 1973 to not be confused by the “Heifetz Syndrome”.

Composer Gunther Schuller, tells the story: Once while driving over the Austrian Alps, he listened to the Vienna Philharmonic playing a profound and beautiful performance of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony. As the story goes it had all the magic and beauty of that pastoral countryside. Several years later, while driving back to New York City on the New Jersey Turnpike, he was listening to a performance of the same symphony but this time it was a poor performance that had absolutely none if the sonic imagery of the one he remembered in Austria. It was the same recording!

Beauty is, certainly, in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder but in music it is the responsibility the listener to keep our vision as clear as possible; it's tragic if a bad day or a bad road trip can changes our perceptions to the degree of missing greatness.

Henry, Bravissimo.

republished January 21, 2022, in Oaxaca, Mexico

This blog is being republished as a prerequisite for a new blog. COMPARISONS
to be published in the next days .

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Codas


Corona virus, with it’s accompanying postponements, cancellations, quarantines  and isolation requirements, has not only left us with the frustrations caused by the necessary disruptions of our regular lives, but hidden in all the inconveniences it has left us with an unplanned plentiful gift of free time and the possibility of using that free time in positive and creative ways. 


Through the last year we have seen huge increases in personal videos;  masterclasses, lectures, interviews, mixed media, demonstrations, exhibits, personal announcements and extraordinary opportunities for listening. Many of these videos are beautifully produced and some have offered us great vehicles for both learning and entertainment, Personally, as a symphony musician for 35 years of my life and one who has avoided symphonic music since leaving my orchestra life in 1990, I am surprised to find myself not only enjoying listening again, but listening  from a new and fresher prospective, the time off from playing has changed me from listening as  performer to listening as a listener, it’s very different from chronically taking note of the ensemble, the intonation, balance , tone quality and other aspects in a brass section. Music needs a performer, creator and a listener to exist.


As an enthusiastic listener I have developed a new appreciation for form and in the study of form, I have become fascinated with codas. Why would an 83 year old retired symphony musician become fascinated with codas? We see codas in our musical lives as a common and frequent occasion. It seems all codas are unique, from a short virtuoso flurry in a work by Schubert or an extended developed and powerful coda in a Mahler symphony, which can appear so powerful and coherent that it could almost stand on it own as a complete work.


The coda of the first symphony built on the interval of a descending 4th which is prevalent through out the whole symphony but developed in to a powerful and triumphant fanfare appropriate for crossing the legendary rainbow bridge into another world. 


The 2nd symphony, The Resurrection Symphony, also develops previous themes and brilliantly compresses the finish to a fortissimo unison note of the whole orchestra with the strength of a clap of thunder from a close distance, leaving the listener stunned.


The coda of Mahler’s 9th symphony (The Adagio coda) is quite different than symphonies 1 and 2. The four note chromatic themes used to create a 10 minute poco a poco diminuendo morendo which results in one of the most beautiful and dramatic moments in all music. During the final four notes the listener is nearly unable to  distinguish where the music actually ends. The result is the long period of silence before any sounds come from the audience. This musical silence is one of the most powerful and amazing moments in symphonic music.

 

Carlo Maria Giulni “My friends, do not confuse dynamic and intensity” 


Roger Bobo, January 12, 2022, Oaxaca, Mexico

 

Monday, December 27, 2021

 Lateness


There are scary videos available where one can hear Maestro Aturo Tosconini screaming at the orchestra, frequently that rage was directed at the contrabasses  and the the low brass about their chronic lateness. Many of the musicians to whom that rage was directed rationalized that the reason for the lateness was that those instruments that were the most distant from the podium where the maestro was listening and because of the greater distance, took the sound longer to reach the podium.


In fact, it’s true, many of the sections farthest from the conductor’s podium, do sound late, but is distance the reason? With my awkward mathematical skills I calculated that if the first stand of violins were one meter from the conductor  the sound would reach the conductor in .003 ( 3 thousandths of a second) to reach the podium; that’s a nearly imperceptible length of time. And if we calculate the back of the contrabass section as 10 meters from the podium the sound would take .03 {3 hundredths of a second. The differences that the sound from the contrabasses and the first stand violins is .027 of a second ( 27 thousandths of a second), that we are able to hear that 27 thousanths of a second difference is dubious.

Of course, the reason the lower instruments sound late is because it takes a proportional amount of energy generate a sound as the frequencies get lower. Energy in the case of low frequency instruments comes from the  body which must be able to deliver the energy  that will enable the instrument (contrabass and tuba, for example), to respond in time with the higher pitched instruments


For lower brass instruments this involves the following 4 aspects of an articulation:

1, Are speed 

agenerally air speed doubles every octave into the low register.

 

2, the compression of the air at the point of an articulation,


3, Tongue placement,


 generally the contrabass register , responses more immediate with the tongue quite far forward, in the very low register, starting a note with the tongue between the lips helps in achieving

4, Resistance of the instrument:


Resistance changes from instrument to instrument. and the length of the tube; there is  great difference in length whether we are playing on the open tube or with all the valves pressed , which almost doubles the length of the instrument.


The best way to assure not being is to listen and to be sure your sound in sync with the rest of the ensemble, particularly the higher instruments.


The key to not sounding late is, of course, listening and perhaps more importantly, listening while thinking of simultaneously participating, simultaneously participating with all the musicians near or at a distance and simultaneously participating with a conductor, just following frequently can result in lateness.


Roger Bobo , December 27, 2021 HAPPY NEW YEAR!



 

Thursday, December 02, 2021

 SOMETHING HAS TO BE SAID

One month ago I experienced a small health set back; it was a very mild stroke, of course, it has to be taken seriously but I want to emphasize the prognoses is very positive and improvement has been visible little by little every day.

The saddest part of this set back is that it came half way through a tour of across the USA presenting masterclasses starting in southern California  and working my way east to Boston and continuing on to conservatories in Germany, of course, having to cancel the tour only half way completed; It was particularly sad and frustrating because I was looking forward to this tour for the better part of a year. To exacerbate my frustration it was the third cancelation I've had to make in three tries to arranging more or less the same itinerary. The first cancellation was the 2019 world wide alert of COVID, which put all my traveling colleagues in the same situation the second cancellation of a parallel tour in early 2020... three in a row. Of course, I will try and recover this tour as soon as possible, hopefully in the spring of 2022. 

In the wake to these disappointing circumstances something beautiful has happened: I have received an abundance of beautiful heart warming messages from around the world. I miss both the vocabulary and the poetic ability to express how much these messages have meant to me. They have  pointed out these warm thoughts from friends and colleagues, particularly our very unique tuba community, we have something so very special and I want you to know that the warm thoughts are returned to you. Thank you thank you, what an honor to be a member of this wonderful community of  men and women.

Very sincerely , Roger


December 28, 2021, Travers City, Michigan


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

 


 Monsters


September 2021

Late last night, while exploring the the long lost dark corners of my  computer, I found this essay I had written in circa 1995. Perhaps it might be interesting or at least entertaining today.


Are we the way we are because of the instrument we chose or did we choose our instrument because of the way we are? 


So frequently the tuba plays the role of the heavy, the villain, that we have to wonder if it’s had any effect on us after a long period of time. Or it could be that just because of our inner character, we were attracted to an instrument that could partially release the latent monster that exists in all of us?


The tuba monsters are many and how we choose to play these monster passages can have a big effect on the beast we represent. My first encounter with a tuba monster was the Peasant with a Bear in the Petrushka Ballet by Stravinsky. I’ve heard that solo played so many ways: as a lovable huggable teddy bear, a pompous quasi-elegant bear and even on a few occasions a sickly wheezy asthmatic bear. Through the 35 years of my orchestral playing I have played that solo hundreds of times and through those seasons the evolution of that bear changed into quite a different beast  then it was when I started. 


Petrushka was the first piece I played on my first concert on my first job with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in September 1956, I was 18, and as luck would have it just five minutes before the concert started part of the mechanism of my 2nd valve broke and the tuba was unplayable. An announcement was made that ‘the tubist’s valve fell off’ and it was being repaired. In fact, the stage crew fixed the valve with one drop of solder that held it together until the concert was over, at which time it promptly fell apart again. That bear that night was a very scared, tuba conscious bear! In the last years with the Los Angeles Philharmonic the same bear had evolved into a very menacing, savage, salivating, wild-eyed and Godzillaesque bear! That was big fun! I played that solo several times with Stravinsky himself conducting and one morning, after playing it in a concert the night before, he came up to me during a recording session and told me that last night was the best bear he had heard; on the concert that night it was a very proud and happy bear. 


In 1967 in Ankara, Turkey, while on a world tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. From my hotel room, I heard a commotion from the street. Looking out the window, I saw a man beating a drum making as much noise as possible. On the end of a leash he had a small black bear who he was trying to make dance. Not the image I had in my mind for the Petrushka scene!


One of my symphonic regrets is that I never got the opportunity to play any of the Wagner Ring Opera material that contained the famous Fafner motif. Fafner, the dragon that guarded the Rheingold, and that Siegfried eventually slew, has become rather controversial. Although I’ve never played it, it still has passed through an evolution in my minds ear.


This brings us to a discussion of the ubiquitous BBb vs. CC tuba controversy. In symphonic music the German tradition requires all contrabass tuba parts to be played on the BBb, in most of the rest of the world these parts are usually played on the CC. The Germans claim that Wagner wrote for the BBb tuba because that is what he wanted; without question, the Germans are correct about this. But I’ve always wondered why they don’t play the BBb double slide contrabasstrombone, which is also what Wagner wrote for, instead of the F contrabass trombone that is used in Germany today. 


My favorite tuba topic is: What would the composer have used if the instruments of today were available? Again, we’re back to the conservative vs. the liberal; the traditionalist vs. the visionary; again I point out that tuba, being the youngest instrument to be accepted in the symphony orchestra family and tubists, who have made monumental progress in all aspects of their musical life, have a very definite propensity toward the liberal view: because of their short history there is very little tradition to fall back on. Of course, we really don’t know what Wagner or any other composer would have done if today’s instruments were available but we can certainly make educated guesses.


The trumpet has always been ahead of the tuba in instrumental sophistication. It’s not unusual to see a trumpet player take several instruments on stage for a symphony or brass quintet concert, or to see a soloist use several instruments. Notwithstanding travel logistics and economics, why should tubists settle for anything less? Why not use a Tenor (our piccolo trumpet!), a G, an F, an Eb, a D a CC, and a BBb just like the trumpet players, all that diverse equipment helps trumpet players to be more versatile and ultimately to sound better. 


But let’s go back to monsters and specifically Fafner; what kind of a dragon is Fafner? I’ve seen the opera once and heard the music many times and frankly, most of the time, I got the impression that Fafner was a toothless castrato dragon! Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in Hollywood but in my mind’s ear I hear Fafner as a far more visceral and menacing monster than what we usually hear. What would Wagner have done with today’s sonic vocabulary? I think the result would be quite different and a lot scarier. I’m amazed that with a composer like Wagner, whose operas frequently receive high praise for their very modern and contemporary scenic design, that we tubists are required to be such strict traditionalists.


John Williams, perhaps the greatest of all the monster music composers, wrote one of the most powerful tuba passages ever in Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the scene where the extraterrestrial space ship lands on Earth. Hollywood tubist Jim Self brilliantly played this three part contrapuntal passage (all three parts overdubbed by Jim) on F tuba with octave divider. We’ve never heard power, clarity and fluency like that in the low register before, could that have had the same power and energy if it were played in the sounding octave on a BBb tuba?


Another masterpiece of monster music was the John Williams’s sound track of Jaws, the theme we hear when the shark was approaching, also played brilliantly by Tommy Johnson Johnson. That was really scary! Sadly, the Jabba the Hutt music by John Williams was not played in the Star Wars Return of the Jedi film but it’s played frequently in concert and may be the greatest piece of monster music we have.


Personally, I was saddened by the sound track for Jurassic Park; what a natural for the tuba, but sadly, that’s not the way John Williams saw it. I like to imagine what he might have written for a tyrannosaurs rex motif, even more, I like to imagine playing it. 


Elizabeth Raum had a very clear sonic picture of the tuba’s potential monster characterization when she wrote A little Monster Music for STUBA, the now defunct Swiss tuba ensemble from Lausanne, Switzerland. Her monsters in this wonderful suite: Nessie, The Hydra, Fafner and St. George and the Dragon, are four distinctly different beasts.   


I had the occasion once to ask Henry Mancinni why he wrote that cute little tune for Eb clarinet and piccolo for the sound track of Elephant Walk, “What else are you going to write for elephants?” was his answer. I couldn’t think of a response!


Even music for the tuba that is not purposely written as the sonic personification of something monster like often takes on an ominous character. My personal name for such passages, whether they are fragments or extended, is “Doomsday Licks”.  


And yet again we return to the same question: Were we born to play doomsday licks or does playing doomsday licks for an extended period of time effect us? If so, how?!


Discovered September 28, 2021 Oaxaca, Mexico