Part 1, Interview with Jonathan Leshnoff about his Double Concerto for Clarinet, Bassoon, and Orchestra. Composing for bassoon and Jonathan’s “composition studio.” With Terry B. Ewell. Featuring a performance of the end of the first movement by Michael Rusinek (clarinet), Nancy Goeres (bassoon), and Jonathan Leshnoff (piano). BDP #231.

Terry B. Ewell: Welcome, this is Terry Ewell. It is my pleasure to speak with my Towson University Colleague, Prof. Jonathan Leshnoff, about his new composition, which is a concerto for clarinet and bassoon. The premiere of the concerto will be on June 6, 7, 8 and 9 in 2019.

TBE: What were the first musical materials that came to mind when you started to write the composition?

Jonathan Leshnoff: Usually when I write a concerto, I have to become the instrument. When I write a symphony, so to speak, the music goes directly to the symphony orchestra. But when there is a solo instrument, I have to filter through the musical ideas through that solo instrument.

TBE: So, you study those instruments.

JL: Very well, very much so. In fact, Terry, you were very helpful because you gave me the etude book.

TBE: The Weissenborn etudes, you loved those.

JL: I loved them, and I memorized them all.

TBE: Oh, my!

JL: I have to know the nature of the instrument. What it can do; where it sounds in each register. What makes it look virtuosic; what it shouldn’t do. What is “clunky” for it; what makes it sound wonderful.

The clarinet I already know from the Clarinet Concerto. This was a learning process for the bassoon. Essentially what I found out is that it is an incredibly versatile instrument. It can do a lot more than I thought in the beginning.

So, regarding the musical materials, the first thing I think about is how does this melody, this harmony, this counterpoint work with the instruments at hand. The ideas will come typically orchestrated to my mind. But sometimes I will have impractical things orchestrated. I could have the bassoon in a stratospheric register. As these ideas come, and I have no idea from where they come, I will try to gerrymander them around in terms of what the instrument can do.

TBE: So, we are seated in a classroom that you use as your summer compositional studio. What is it about the space that is helpful for you? Why do you need a larger space like this?

JL: Well, actually it is not the size of it. If we notice there are no windows in this room, there are no phones in this rooms, no computers. I don’t own an iPhone. I have one of those pay-per-minute phones that I prefer to use far down the hall, if I have to get in touch with anyone. Essentially it is just a few pianos, over here behind me, the white boards, and lots of space to pace around. For some reason being in this isolated area, where I am cut off from everything, I do my best work. I actually sneak in here between the semesters. I find out when the room is not being used and I will sneak in here. The door to the room has one of those university windows that is covered up with paper. No one knows that I am in here.

It is very funny that I have written some major works in here. I have written three of my four symphonies. I have written at least five or six concertos in here including the Clarinet and Bassoon Double Concerto. I have had some very deep thoughts about composition, life, and my relationship to the universe and everything in this room… from the mundane to the ridiculous.

TBE: Writing for bassoon and orchestra is a challenge. First off, you have the timbral range that changes to much and you have the fact that the bassoon blends so well with other instruments that it is often relegated to a subsidiary role. What did you see as the challenges and how did you solve these issues?

JL: It is exactly what you said. The solution actually came through you, Terry. You graciously gave some time in December of 2017 and you demonstrated the instrument. I have heard you play many times. I have heard the bassoon many times. But it is different to hear the bassoon in an orchestra verses than sitting down with someone: “Could you play for me that note now loud and then soft.” “Now do it with a crescendo.” So, you did that. You took out your horn and you demonstrated for all of my multiple questions when I asked you to show me things. I found out two things the you guided me to. The bassoon in the staff in the bass clef, from G to maybe an octave or tenth above is tremendously rich, tremendously loud. In my opinion, it is louder than a solo cello. I didn’t realize that because I have always worked with bassoons in context with other instruments. It has a powerful, resonant tone. Then you introduced me to the sweet spot, which is just moving into the ledger lines of the bass clef. What a remarkable, wonderful, malleable tone that comes out of the instrument. It is completely swallowed up in the orchestra except for the excerpts that you pointed out: Stravinsky, at the end of the Firebird and the other places that you pointed out. What a beautiful and wonderful tone.

What I would do is mental experiments. Once I go through these sessions, I keep a mental log. I start to make experiments in my head as I walk around: “This sound of the bassoon balances with what?” “What would complement it?” “What wouldn’t work?” “What type of textures would make it fly?” “What kind of textures would sink it down?” “How could it be distinct?”

So, I went through that a lot with the bassoon. Again, the clarinet I am familiar with. One of the conclusions that I have found, just through trial and error in my head, was to put the bassoon in the sweet spot and have very high and ethereal strings float above it. We will see what happens! But I will tell you that in the beginning of the Concerto, it starts with a slow first movement. The bassoon actually starts, and the clarinet eventually enters. It is exactly this mental experiment. The strings are high, and the bassoon is gently, gently poking through that texture right in this sweet area.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Terry B. Ewell. All right reserved.