Archive for ‘Practice Notes’

June 29, 2017

“Expect The Unexpected” – aka “Pick A Clef, Any Clef” – aka “Who Was This Zelenka Person Anyway?”

I was sent advanced notice of a piece I’ve not played before – Zelenka’s Simphonie a 8 Concertanti (link goes to IMSLP).

Was somewhat perturbed to see this in the first movement:

Alto clef? on a bass? The problem is the same in the bassoon & cello parts. We think the top note is meant to be a B, so Alto clef is right, but it’s still wrong. If you see what I mean. I guess we’ll find out when we actually rehearse this thing in September.

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November 26, 2015

Amahl and the Night Visitors by Menotti

No? Me neither.

Apparently, this short opera was written for a TV company, and is appropriate for the season of, erm, next month. So we (Northern Opera Group) are rehearsing it now for production in Leeds Corn Exchange next Friday / Saturday (4th / 5th December). Something like that. There’s a Facebook page and everything.

I’m told that this is supposed to be a chamber work, and that the orchestration was for a few string players – including just one contrabass. Which leads me to wonder why there are a few bits marked “divisi” (playable by one person easily enough), and, indeed, “2 soli” (not so easy to do on your own!).

From a double bass player’s perspective, it’s not that difficult, as long as you remember rule 1 of playing opera (“Watch”), and don’t have problems with counting alternate bars of 5 and 6 quavers (don’t panic – that passage is quite short).

There is just one bit that’s worth of some attention. Figure 65, bars 368 & following – a relatively rapid pizzicato passage that’s got just enough accents and accidentals and irregularities of rhythm to be not quite readable. This picture shows the bulk of the passage – there are a couple more lines, but they’re significantly easier.

Amahl - excerpt

That’s the extent of the musical problems. There are other issues with this work, though. I would like to point out a vocal cue at figure 128 (mercifully near the end of the opera), where the young boy Amahl says in a recit passage:

Well, I don’t know if I’m going to let you touch me… Oh… all right… but just once

And once you’ve seen that, it’s difficult to read some of the other cues without sniggering…

September 9, 2014

Schubert – Octet

Ah, Schubert. The Octet is a piece full of memories. Skipping lightly over the bad – such as the time my freshly-rehaired bow disintegrated by the end of the first page – this is one of those pieces that bring back lots of good memories of playing with friends and family.

Although the piece itself is a big play, the double bass part is relatively straightforward, giving enough time to enjoy what everyone else is up to. However, with all such pieces, there are little moments here and there that would benefit from some practice.

I’m using IMSLP for this piece, as I don’t have a bass part to hand. There’s a score as well as a selection of sets of parts – this is the one I’m looking at for reference.

1. Adagio / Allegro

OK, the fun bit is in the Allegro – a nice two in a bar – specifically, the staccato quaver passage:

Schubert Octet 1st movement staccato quavers

2. Andante un poco mosso

Don’t let this drag which it will, particularly if someone insists on it being counted in 6 rather than 2. Lots of flats in the key signature, but slow enough that that’s not a problem. Beware, though – there are moments where everyone else drops out, leaving the bass on its own! For example, second bar of B.

3. Allegro Vivace

A rapid one in a bar movement. Keep an ear / eye out for the different length quaver runs – sometimes you get three quavers running up to the bar line, sometimes four…

4. Andante – Theme & Variations

This is definitely 4 quaver beats, rather than 2/4, which is a relief, given that there are semiquaver triplets (and even some demi-semiquavers) in the offing. Keep it light.

Octet - 4th Movement, Variation 2

Note that the staccato marks disappear after the third bar (or 4th bar in some editions). I think this is an editorial thing, and that the whole passage is supposed to be staccato. (The edition I’m using here also stops putting in the triplet markings, but leaves the notes barred like that…)

I’ve failed to put in any dynamics. The variation is quiet, with just the occasional fp (which I haven’t put in the above excerpt…)

5. Minuet & Trio

Nothing to worry about here.

6. Andante Molto / Allegro

Allegro – this flies. Think 145-150 minims per minute. However, it does have a tendency to slow down – perhaps the leader is being over-ambitious, perhaps everyone is flagging a little at the end of a big piece.

Notes-wise – fortunately, much of this is doubling the cello… There are a couple of quaver flourishes, but nothing to worry about. Much. There are a couple of points where 4 bar rests are really two bars of GS (with a page turn for someone), then two bars rest where the viola kicks off the chugging before everyone else joins back in.

The Andante section near the end – there are differing opinions about whether this should be the same as the original Andante Molto, or something else. Me, I prefer the latter option, as it really would drag…

And finally, the Allegro Molto. Even faster than the allegro before, and with quavers. Lots of lovely quavers. Though the first lot aren’t as bad as the second lot in terms of rapidly changing positions…

Octet - 6th Movement - Excerpt

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September 1, 2014

Mozart – Serenade in B flat, “Gran Partita”, K361/K370a

The title “Gran Partita” is almost certainly not Mozart’s. And IMSLP has this down as K361 *and* K370a…

The Emerson edition, which we used, has this as a double bass part; some editions will say it’s a contrabassoon part. I suspect, however, that a contra-bassoon in any but the most experienced hands just wouldn’t be capable of getting round the notes – and I’ve never seen a contrabassoonist who was capable of playing pizzicato.

The first few movements aren’t so bad. However, the real trickster is (spoiler alert!) the 5th Movement (out of 7…)

1 – Largo / Allegro Molto

Some quaver runs – but they’re mostly scales or octaves, so nothing too panic-inducing. Watch out for the occasional change of key mid-run, where an E flat at the beginning of the run becomes an E natural by the end of it.

2 – Minuetto

Two trios, so keep your wits about you for the repeats.

3 – Adagio

Big, slow, long quaver arpeggio/chord-spreading/string-crossing stuff. I found this movement to be the hardest, physically.

4 – Minuetto

Another geographically-challenging Minuet with two Trios, including an impossible page turn in the edition we were using – Minuet on one page, and the two trios on the other. Needed a page-turner, as I didn’t have a photocopier handy!

5 – Romance

Tempo marking is Adagio, and you can see semiquavers…

K361 370a 5 Romance Excerpt 1

The movement starts off nice and gently, and you’ve got a few bars rest to look at them, and they don’t look like they’ll be too bad. The second block is rather bigger, but still doesn’t look too bad – after all, it’s Adagio, right?…

K361 370a 5 Romance Excerpt 2

Wrong. You, like me, have failed to notice that the tempo changes to Allegretto before you get that far, and that those semiquavers are actually a bit nippy. The runs are doubled with the bassoons. This might not be good news – mistakes are more noticeable!

Comments afterwards along the lines of “never seen a double bassist move so fast”. Thanks, guys, I think…

6 – Theme & Variations

The sixth movement is playable, but just be aware that you’ll suddenly find yourself playing on your own. Very exposed, but don’t worry! Think of them as the musical equivalent of a sniff put in between phrases. No, I’m not going to tell you which ones they are in advance.

7 – Rondo – Molto Allegro

Fast. So fast that if it were any quicker the clarinets would have real problems with their semiquaver knitting/noodling passages… fortunately, the bass semiquavers are restricted to a couple of scale-esque runs near the end of the movement. Again, they are in unison with almost everyone else, so people will notice if you get them wrong!

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September 8, 2012

Acorn Antiques

This is a bit different to the normal stuff I do.  I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ms Victoria Wood’s work?  If not, she’s a stand-up comedian who’s also done a few good songs (“Barry & Freda / Let’s Do It” being the one that springs to my mind).  Aaanyway, one of the regular sketches in her TV show was “Acorn Antiques”, a mickey-take of cheap soap operas, and that ballooned into a full-on three hour musical in 2005. Thankfully, we didn’t do the original full version of the musical, but an extended version of the second half – this is going on what I’m reading on the Wikipedia article (dangerous, I know, to use Wiki as a source…), and what I have found on YouTube. It seems that the original version wasn’t well received, so Wood rewrote it around the second half, which was the sort of thing that the audiences associate with “Acorn Antiques”.

Note to the unwary classical-type double bassist: this isn’t an ordinary double bass part.  As well as standard double bass, there are numbers that are scored for electric bass (fretless, for preference, as there are opportunities for slides).  You can get by with doing it all on stand-up (as I did), but it’ll shred your plucking fingers (and I have to be careful how I say that). My advice: surgical spirit before-hand, and a supply of Germolene New Skin for during the run. You’ll take it off during each half, but it’ll help, believe me.

Things you’ll need to know:

  1. Vamp.  Also known as “Vamp ’til ready”.  Usually a short (one or two bar) phrase to be repeated while there’s some business on stage.  Use this as an opportunity to practise watching the MD like a hawk.  Chances are that the MD will be busily vamping as well, as the MD is also responsible for keyboard 1.
  2. How to dump your bow and pick it up again very quickly.  I use a bow holster – very handy.  Some of the pizzicato passages are virtually impossible if you’re holding the bow at the same time.
  3. We didn’t do the opening Manchesterford scene-setting number.
  4. This show is not for kids, as it involves “adult themes”. And swearing about biscuits and cakes. There is a very real possibility I’ll never be able to think again of custard creams without smirking. See the “Macaroons” number – NSFW.

Technically, the music isn’t difficult.  Watch out for the not-so-subtle keychanges that cause you to suddenly look at the music and think “*how* many sharps?”.  There are a couple of trickier moments, however:

08 – Have You Met Miss Babs

Babs, dancing with a standard lamp. Raunchy music, needs a lot of power to get through. Some trickyish switches between quavers and triplets, as well as an unfriendly 12/8 bar. Here – have a look.

11 – The Old Small Print

This seems to have been… borrowed… from “The Old Landmark” – you know, the number in The Blues Brothers with James Brown. At least, that’s what I was thinking of at the time I was playing it… This is one of the Electric Bass parts rather than normal upright string bass, and therefore requires more oomph. Pizzicato all the way, some longer notes that need to riiiing out. And a ton of octave work, which I could only play by using the thumb on the bottom string and a finger (or two) on the upper…

It starts in F (nice and easy), but slips up a semitone into F# for the second verse, and ends in G. Here’s some of the middle bit. Remember – all pizz. I hope your fingers are tougher than mine were at the start of the week!

Those are the only bits I can remember being particularly difficult. There’s a number that goes sailing up to an E – the one in the treble clef, above A440, but it’s long sustained notes, so isn’t a problem. Have fun!

August 26, 2012

Bizet – Symphony in C

This seems to be a work written when Bizet was a student, which he then put aside and forgot about. It was first performed in 1935, at which point Bizet was (a) 97 years old, and (b) very dead…

It’s good and jolly, but there are some very long repeats – even us basses had to turn pages to get back to the top! Apart from that, there’s not much to worry us. The movements look tame, but the time signatures and tempi are brisker than you might expect from looking at it.

The really interesting bit is in the second (slow) movement. We’re in 9/8, it feels like a big slow 3, and it’s all going nice and easily until figure [5] when we’re suddenly exposed (fortunately doubling the cello section, but even so)… This excerpt starts from figure [5], and runs to the bar of figure [6], and is just a little uncomfortable:

The last two movements go at a cracking pace, but there’s nothing much else to worry us.

August 26, 2012

Martinu Nonet

The Spohr Grand Nonet is a popular piece of music. It involves one of each stringed instrument (violin, viola, cello, double bass), and one of each woodwind (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) and horn. The piece is one of those “standards” that can quite happily fill a large chunk of a concert; however, there’s often perceived to be the problem of what to play with it. Someone once collated a list of 99 pieces to go with the Spohr. This then generated a correspondence along the lines of “you missed out “, which generated another list of 99 works…

This Nonet by Martinu is one of those works for the “Grand Nonet” combination. It’s a more recent work (1959), and can be quite tricky in places but approachable in others. It needs to be studied and worked carefully, particularly if being tackled by a group containing more than a couple of people who are new to the work. It took me about eight years (of, admittedly, irregular attempts) to get the hang of it!

First movement – think of this as being in 2 rather than 4, even though the time says 4/4. It helps to keep things moving. Generally, this isn’t tricky, but there is a slightly hairy bit at around bar 170 (figure [17]):

The second movement, although it’s marked as being slow, shouldn’t be *too* slow, otherwise it will drag, you’ll lose all sense of pulse, and the thing grinds to a halt. Apart from that, nothing much to worry the bass department.

The final movement, however, is a different kettle of fish. The time signature changes every few bars:

Keep the quaver beat going in your head – this is always the same – but don’t try to count them individually!

Good luck.

August 19, 2012

Those dreaded notes…

…the ones no bass-player wants to see…

Twenty-seveneight times. I lose count every time…

 

I should really link to this

For those of you lucky enough to not know what this is, it’s the first two bars of the (in)famous Pachelbel Kanon in D, which should be followed by a Gigue, but most people don’t bother… The bassline is that two bar phrase, repeated over and over again, just with occasionally shifting dynamics. After you’ve played that thing 28 times, go back to the first note (D) and stop.

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March 3, 2012

Gilbert & Sullivan – Iolanthe

This week, I’m playing in Leeds Gilbert & Sullivan Society‘s production of G&S’s Iolanthe, at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds.

As with most G&S operettas, there’s not a lot to worry the bassists, apart from a few little bits. These excerpts are all from Act 1 (but one of them is repeated in Act 2, Sullivan being an eco-friendly composer, recycling material throughout…)

06a – Entrance of the Chancellor

The cello/bass department kicks off the fugue here – it’s brisk-ish, but the notes just don’t quite lie under the fingers.

This figure is repeated in Act 2 at the start of Number 7 (Recit & Song)

10 – Song

This next little riff occurs twice in each verse…:

11 – Recit

How are your scales?


Did you play a G at the end? Look again.

13 – Finale

The finale to Act 1 contains this passage to delight – it’s a long first half, and this is near the end of a long Finale. ’nuff said.

(While preparing this, I noticed that the last note of the first bar of the second line may be a C – it’s difficult to tell from the part – and I can’t remember what the Truth actually is…)

February 5, 2012

Vaughan Williams – The Poisoned Kiss

This is an opera that isn’t performed very often – I understand that the number of productions it has had since its composition is still in single figures, and the first non-UK production happened this month in New York. I’m not going to discuss the story here, because it’s utterly ludicrous, involving a girl brought up on poisons, and a boy brought up on antidotes… No, it’s making me cross just thinking about it. If you want to know more, then you could always check this version of the synopsis. As a reviewer of a recent production put it, “You have to wonder what Vaughan Williams was on when he composed [it]”.

Anyway, on to the music – mostly playable, but just a few little “moments”.

Overture

Here’s the first trickier bit, the main nastiness being due to a gratuitous tenor clef. I suspect that it used more ink to go into the tenor clef than it saved…

Me? Grumpy? Surely not!

And so into

Act 1

Number 5 – Ensemble

Moderato alla marcia? Hmm. Seems a bit brisk, but think of the Durham Light Infantry – their normal march step is quicker than most units’ quickstep, sorry, double time. The basic four-in-a-bar pulse stays the same between the 4/4 and 12/8.

Number 6 – Duet

Another brisk number… and, near the end, accidentals everywhere.

Number 8 – Ensemble

Starts out as a nice gentle Andantino, but then kicks into an Allegro, with a lot of semiquavers:

Number 13 – Finale

A couple of more interesting moments here. First off, a 3/4 section from Figure 57:

and the final chunk of the “Dance” starting just after figure 62:

Act 2

I’ve not highlighted anything of note in Act 2.

Act 3

Only one particularly tricky moment here.

Number 27 – Trio

There’s a sort of tango feel to this movement (see the tempo mark – “Tempo di Tango (molto moderato)”). However, just as you settle into it, there’s an unpleasant rhythmic kick in bars 6-8.