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Bassoon Concerto

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Marc Neikrug
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; KEIGWIN + COMPANY / From Schuman to Bernstein May 7 - 8, 2014
© Thomas May

Marc Neikrug grew up in New York and in Los Angeles in an intensively musical environment: both his parents were cellists, and he has also enjoyed a prominent career alongside his work as a composer as an acclaimed pianist (performing for years as a partner with Pinchas Zukerman) and as the Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Sante Fe and the Santa Clara Pueblo are where Neikrug has long made his home, developing an understanding of the healing powers of music from his observations of Pueblo culture: Healing Ceremony is indeed the title of a recent CD of his music. But it is for his music theater work grappling with the Holocaust, Through Roses, that Neikrug is best known internationally. Since its premiere in 1980, this dramatic monolog for narrator and chamber ensemble has been performed more than 200 times in multiple languages; the German director Jürgen Flimm made it into a film starring Maximilian Schell. Neikrug's anti-nuclear opera Los Alamos (1988) is the only American work to have been commissioned to date by the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

"[T]he single most important thing for composers to strive for is their own voice," says Neikrug in an extensive recent interview with Frank J. Oteri of newmusicbox.com. "There is nothing more crucial than your own voice...I've always been communicative and dramatic. There's a clear communication of music being used as an outlet for emotional experience. That transmits to any audience."

This essential character certainly applies to Neikrug's Bassoon Concerto, composed in 2012-13 on a co-commission by the National Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which gave the world premiere last November), the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Ottawa. This arrangement means that Neikrug wrote the concerto knowing four bassoonists, each with a different style, would be introducing it. Of Sue Heineman, the NSO's principal bassoonist, he remarks: "She's an outgoing and vibrant performer who is quite comfortable standing up in the front of the orchestra. I didn't write specifically for any one of them but I know the level at which all of them can play and created a piece for four very great bassoonists."

While his catalogue includes many concertos, Neikrug points out that the specific nature of this instrument poses unique challenges in a concerto context. "The bassoon has a very particular range such that the higher it goes, the softer and more difficult to project it is, unlike, say, a cello." If a concerto is taken to represent a scenario in which "the solo instrument is the protagonist, if not the leader, of all musical events, you have to figure out how to clear out space for the bassoon but avoid letting it feel unnatural in any way." His solution involved several acoustical "tricks," such as having the two bassoons in the ensemble playing in unison in the background as a kind of "doppelgänger" to double the soloist's sound at strategic moments, pairing it with a bass clarinet, and frequently deploying tremolos (rapid alternations between different notes).

"The bassoon is actually quite agile," the composer adds, "and it has a very distinctive sound from the bottom to the top. Once you start to listen for it, it's very easily identifiable in that whole mirage of 80 orchestra instruments. I've stayed away from the ‘comical' tone often identified with the bassoon but instead have tried to make it much more dramatic as well as drawing on its beautiful lyricism."

Neikrug adheres to the conventional format of a three-movement design, writing for a standard-size orchestra (though the percussion section is substantial, making use of much tuned percussion and an extensive coloristic palette). The first movement of this 22-minute-long concerto is highly dramatic in character and even in its widely leaping thematic material. The second movement concentrates on the bassoon's lyrical qualities and is divided into two parts that feature a gesture Neikrug finds fascinating: "sudden complete transformations of one kind of music you've grown used to hearing into something very different." In this case, the transformation, which he compares to the shading from minor to major, takes us from "a forlorn and sad sound, literally within one measure, to its serene and beautiful opposite. It's a very noticeable moment." The final movement, "fast and brilliant," relies greatly on the bassoon's tremolo sonorities and culminates in a large-scale cadenza, which is capped by an exciting orchestral acceleration to conclude the concerto.