This weekend at The Cleveland Orchestra:
John Clouser plays the Mozart Bassoon Concerto
by Mike Telin
“As a performer, the greatest thing is to know that somebody was moved by something I played,” says Cleveland Orchestra principal bassoon John Clouser. “Not because they were in awe of me, but appreciative of that single musical moment. For me, that’s the biggest reward.” This Thursday and Saturday at Severance Hall, John Clouser will move from his usual spot in the center of the orchestra to the front as he performs Mozart’s Concerto in B flat major, K. 191, with The Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of James Feddeck. The concerts also include works by Mendelssohn: Orchestral Music from A Midsummer Night's Dream; Berlioz: Love Scene from Romeo and Juliet, and Ravel: Daphnis and Chloé Suite No. 2 (with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus)
John Clouser was appointed principal bassoon of The Cleveland Orchestra at the beginning of the 1997-98 season. His solo appearances with the Orchestra include the Mozart Bassoon Concerto; Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante; Richard Strauss’s Duet-Concertino and Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante. Prior to his appointment in Cleveland he was a member of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. We reached him by telephone and talked about all things bassoon. We began by asking him why, 238 years after it was written, Mozart’s concerto remains the most frequently performed of all concertos in the bassoon repertoire?
John Clouser: First of all it’s one of the few concertos that we have from a great composer. Not to mention the fact that it is a fine work in and of itself. It is a terrific piece. The bassoon has works by Weber, but Brahms never wrote for the bassoon, Beethoven never wrote for the bassoon. We don’t have a Tchaikovsky concerto. There are some other wonderful works for bassoon that remain obscure, but the Mozart concerto is the one wonderful masterwork by a great composer that we have. So it gets played by everybody.
Here we are 238 years after it was written in 1774, and to this day the piece stretches the bassoon and shows it in its complete possibilities. But it is amazing how a piece that was written in 1774 can still, idiomatically be so appropriate. I think that is a testimony to the genius of Mozart and his ability to identify the soul of an instrument and portray it so well.
Mike Telin: It’s also just a beautiful piece.
JC: I think there is an awful lot of portrayal of the instrument as humorous, or bordering on the lowbrow, and that can be fun. But I think all too often that’s all audiences know about the bassoon. When I get the chance to stand up in front of The Cleveland Orchestra, I want the grandeur and beauty of the instrument to be portrayed rather then something that stylizes it or shows it in a limited form.
MT: Are you writing your own cadenzas?
JC: I’m not, I’m going to play Bernie Garfield’s. I love them and it’s a sort of tipping my hat to him since he was my teacher. [Bernard Garfield was principal bassoon of the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1957 to 2000].
MT: I like those cadenzas very much and I think they fit the piece very well.
JC: I think they do too. They are appropriately virtuosic and they show the bravura of the instrument without leaving the classical style and I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing that. Certainly there are a lot of players who do write their own and they’ll be something the twentieth- or twenty-first century imposed over this classical work. That can be interesting to listen to and I don’t think it’s wrong, I just don’t prefer it. I prefer hearing something that stays within the classical style. And something that might have been blessed or written by Mozart himself. I don’t think anyone has written cadenzas that do that as well as Bernie’s.
MT: Garfield is a very good composer. Didn’t you record a CD of his works for bassoon?
JC: He is a fine composer and I did record his early pieces but he has written even more.
MT: It’s interesting what you say about people’s perceptions of the bassoon, because contrary to popular belief it is capable of being more then just the clown of the orchestra – and the chicken did not cross the road to get away from the bassoon recital.
JC: [Laughing] I haven’t heard that one. But I find that once exposed to it, people do love the bassoon, and they don’t often realize that they do hear it all the time. Many people go to the concerts regularly and they hear the bassoon, but they’re not really sure where it’s coming from. They’re not really sure which instrument is making that sound. But when they see it up close they’re like, OH!, that instrument. Wow! what a range. It can go really low or really high and it’s not just the clown of the orchestra. There is something lyrical and beautiful about it.
When I get the chance to play a recital or play for an audience that doesn’t really know the bassoon, I’m constantly having people come up and say, “Wow, this is such a beautiful instrument. Why don’t we hear it more?”
MT: It also took a while for the instrument to evolve.
JC: I think the bassoon is a bit of a late bloomer in the context of wind instruments. For example the flute became a relatively bug free instrument much sooner then the bassoon did. It’s really only been in the last century that the bassoon became what we would consider a modern instrument. In fact the instrument that Mozart wrote for was relatively crude. The instrument is still evolving but not nearly as much. But it did take longer for it to come into its full modern rite and I think that is part of why we don’t have great music from some of the composers who wrote for other, more evolved instruments.
MT: On a completely different topic, do you switch reeds from what you would normally use when you are playing solos in the extremes of the register?
JC: I do what’s necessary, so there are times when I switch reeds and there are particular situations in which I expect to switch reeds. For example, the openings of Rite of Spring (very high) or Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6, (very low); I always have a reed especially for those passages. Then once those sections are over, I’ll switch to another reed for the rest of the piece.
I keep two boxes by my reed desk, one marked low notes and the other marked high notes. I recommend this to all of my students as well. When I’m making reeds I find that they will present themselves with a character; they’ll say, don’t expect me to play low notes, but I’ll play the high notes or vice-versa. And when that’s the case, instead of beating the reed up and forcing it to do something it’s not going to do anyway, I throw it in the low note or high note boxes. Then when it comes time to play these certain pieces I don’t have to start from scratch to find a reed. I can reach into a pool of volunteers who were already going to that direction.
The last time I played Rite of Spring and Tchaikovsky 6, I played them on the same reeds I had used at the previous performances. I took the reeds out of the box and they still worked fine. Since I only used them for a single passage, each of them only had about an hour's worth of playing time, so I could put them away and use them again.
When we took Bolero (high) on tour recently, I did that as well, but that reed probably won’t make it again. But when you are in an orchestra like The Cleveland Orchestra, it has to be great all the time, so instead of making my work harder for myself I try to find ways to make it more efficient and easier and find solutions to problems in the best possible way.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 2, 2012
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