Carl Meets Antoine

Carl Maria von Weber [1786-1826]

Antoine St. Onge [1994 – ]

This spring, Antoine St. Onge will perform the Weber Bassoon Concerto with his Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Antoine sat down with his section mate Michael Hope (and his dog Patate) to chat about the Weber over a couple of cups of coffee…

Michael: Good morning Antoine!  On May 10 and 11 you’ll be playing the Weber Bassoon Concerto with our Calgary Philharmonic.  Why did you choose this, rather than Mozart – or Jolivet?

Antoine:  I wanted to play a piece that showcases the lyrical capabilities of the bassoon as well as its agility.  The Weber is both audacious and virtuosic so seemed to be a good fit for me. It’s a work that I haven’t performed often in the past. The fact that this important composer dedicated time and interest to the bassoon is already quite special! Weber wrote the Concerto in 1811 for Georg Friedrich Brandt, a musician at the court in Munich. Of course, he integrates his operatic style into the piece, offering the bassoonist all ranges of expression; from assertive to virtuosic, comical to lyrical, but always with great charm!  We are lucky to have such a piece in our repertoire!

Michael:  Every time I hear the piece it makes me smile.  Even the bold first theme seems somewhat comical.

Antoine: Yes, Weber probably thought of the bassoon as a comical instrument. In the first movement he uses caricatural melodies, tender themes and brilliant fast passages that explore the whole range of the instrument. The second movement is a loving aria.

Weber is known for using beautiful colouring in his orchestration, and I’m especially fond of the moment where the soloist is accompanied by two horns alone.   The 3rd movement is a fun rondo, yes, a bit silly with its catchy themes, but still managing to contrast the bouffon melodies with some elegant operatic style.  This superposition of light musical material with delicate and expressive themes enhances the overall sense of caricature, allowing the bassoonist the role of eccentric!

Michael: What is the biggest challenge for you?

Antoine: There are a few, one being the balance in between rigorous orchestra writing in the first movement versus the bassoon. Making sure that the solo instrument does not get buried under the big string sections and brass instruments while still being able to play lightly and elegantly. Another challenge is for me the length of some of the phrases in the second movement, making it tricky to sing beautiful long melodies while projecting well and creating meaningful musical phrases.

 

Michael:  What was going on with the bassoon in 1811 when this piece was written – how were composers using our instrument?

 

Antoine: The role of the bassoon during that period was to be in the orchestra, playing chamber music and being part of the musical life of the court. Music was played at all sort of events and was a centre of interest among the population, people were gathering to hear new compositions by resident composers of the courts and traveling ones. Artists were visiting cities all over Europe to expand their perspectives, to show the world their own works and to collaborate with other inspiring individuals. The court in Munich was a center of musical excellence and had outstanding wind players, among them was the famous clarinetist Heinrich Bärmann and bassoonist Georg Friedrich Brandt. Brandt was a student of Georg Wenzel Ritter, who was apparently Mozart’s favorite bassoon player! Speaking of Mozart, the way he wrote for the bassoon in his later piano concerti, symphonies and especially in his operas broke with the tradition of dedicating the accompaniment role for the bassoon. He gave an expressive and brilliant leading voice to our instrument, which was made possible by the refined and elegant playing of Ritter (must have been why the great Mozart liked him!) Brandt was then able to fascinate Weber with his own playing, made the commission via the King of Bavaria to compose the bassoon Concerto. The piece was acclaimed right away and quickly became the second most known concertante piece in the bassoon repertoire after Mozart’s Concerto K. 191.

Michael:  In the first movement , your solo entrance us preceded by 8 hilarious thrums on a solo timpani – what does that signify to you?

Antoine: To me this is a funny example of how Weber liked to surprise his audiences with unexpected contrasts. After the whole orchestra starts the piece by playing the fierce military main theme and then the melancholic second theme, the decision to give the timpani those 8 beats seems theatrical and also quite unusual. What a comical figure to precede the bassoon’s first entrance!

Michael:  What advice (detailed nerdy advice please!) would you give a young person learning this piece for the first time? What is the best way to tackle the more challenging technical passages?

Antoine: As a general principal, I believe that practicing at slow tempi increases the player’s control of the instrument as well as the attention to details. That is true for all levels of playing and for most challenging situations a musician will find themselves having to deal with. If you have clear purpose and a plan for your practice, it becomes easier to have a constructive session with the instrument. I do daily work on specific technical aspects outside, of the specific repertoire I’m playing, using warm ups and devoting practice time to tackle varying difficulties that I need to isolate and improve, everyday. The Weber Concerto features the full register of the bassoon (from low Bb1 to high D4), presented at both slow and fast paces, with a variety of articulations. The player must be flexible and confident, with articulations varying from legato, detached, staccatissimo, accentuated and slurred over more than 3 octaves. To be consistent at doing that I practice full range scales in all keys and modes – using the metronome – from slow to fast and always strictly in control. Another advice regarding preparation is to listen to lots of music! There are so many recordings available. Whether it’s listening to music that I am working on or mostly listening to music for the pleasure of enjoying/discovering it, it is a large part of my preparation to perform.

Michael: Weber must have loved the bassoon  – he put two bassoons in the orchestra in addition to the soloist.  Why?

Antoine: He definitely loved the bassoon! He decided to write the Concerto for a large orchestra (for that time), indicating that he potentially wanted strong support and instrumentation to dialogue with the solo bassoon. But why didn’t he use clarinets? That remains a curiosity to me, especially knowing the clarinet has a special place in Weber’s heart…

Michael:  How would you like people to feel when they have finished listening to you play this masterpiece?

Antoine: I hope that people can enjoy the beauty of Weber’s writing, be touched by the gorgeous lyrical melodies and exalted by the virtuosic passages. His music transports the listener  on an operatic journey, I hope that the audience can forget about the fact that a  bassoon is playing and feel connected to the wonderful music, sounds and colors emerging from the orchestra.

Michael:  Well, I can’t wait to hear you play it!  Thanks for this great chat about this wacky, fun and gorgeous piece of music.

Antoine St. Onge and Michael Hope are the bassoon section of The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and are both proud board members of The Canadian Council of Bassoonists.

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