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Spotlight on Svoboda


Frequent Boston Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos begins a two-week stint tonight in a program including the world premiere of Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, a BSO co-commission written by Marc Neikrug and featuring BSO principal bassoonist Richard Svoboda. Neikrug, who is also an active pianist and conductor, has written works for many of the country’s major orchestras.  Opening the program is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Pastoral, and closing it are the Suites Nos. 1 and 2 from Manuel de Falla’s sparkling and evocative The Three-cornered Hat. BMInt posed some questions to the concerto soloist.

BMInt: Do you consider the bassoon a cheerful or a poignant instrument?

Richard Svoboda: Both. It is commonly known as the clown of the orchestra and Shostakovich called it the soul of the orchestra.

BSO Principal bassoon, Richard Svoboda (Stu Rosner photo)
BSO Principal bassoon, Richard Svoboda (Stu Rosner photo)

Is it as plaintive as the oboe and English Horn?

Anything they can do we can do better.

Are there personality traits associated with bassoonists?

As a broad generality, bassoonists tend to be laid back and not take themselves too seriously.

While there are a fair number of bassoon concerti from the 18th and 19th- centuries, and we all know Mozart’s and Weber’s, what caused the explosion of bassoon concerti in the 20th and 21st? Wikipedia lists 140.

The 19th century was pretty grim for bassoon concerti, but the 18th century was hopping. Vivaldi alone wrote 36 or 37 and Mozart wrote three, although sadly only one of his survives. If we could return to that kind of heyday we’d have a real explosion today.

The clarinet is probably the favorite instrument of contemporary composers after the piano. They apparently like its speed, accuracy and registers. Is there anything the clarinet can do which the oboe can’t, aside from questions of range? Can you play phrases that are as long as the oboe?

I’m not sure I want to weigh in on a clarinet/oboe which is better dispute. The oboe is about two feet long. I can play a two foot long phrase so long as it isn’t too slow.

You must have known that bassoon could impersonate all of the characters in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf rather than just the hunters? (Readers might enjoy the YouTube here, though it’s not scary enough!)

Perhaps not surprisingly, I did know this.

When Neikrug talks about employing idiosyncratic material for the instrument, that doesn’t surprise you either, presumably. What does he mean, and do you agree?


I imagine he means that the music fits the bassoon, and that composers before him have already used the bassoon is similar ways. I would absolutely agree. With the exception of all the shakes in the final movement. No other composer to my knowledge has ever made such extensive use of this technique before with the bassoon.

What do you like about the piece and what should we listen for?

I like the wonderful variety in the piece: variety of color, mood, style. Marc Neikrug makes such great use of the orchestra. The first movement is a great emotional ride for the bassoon and orchestra. I really like the sad, crying melodic lines of the bassoon in the second movement. The last movement has a rather sophisticated jazz vibe going and of course all of those crazy shakes. The cadenza is over the top, and everything is whipped into a great frenzy to end it.

We append the BSO’s notes below:

Marc Neikrug’s Bassoon Concerto, co-commissioned by the BSO, National Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and National Arts Center Orchestra, receives its world premiere with these performances. Mr. Neikrug writes, “As in a proper concerto, I wanted to have the soloist lead the musical discourse. So I found idiosyncratic material for the bassoon as the thematic genesis. I was attracted to particular aspects of the bassoon: its ability to play large leaping intervals, its very characteristic plaintive voice, and the very singular sound of its tremolos or shakes. These were the main inspirations for the piece. The first movement makes great use of the large leaps both in its opening thematic material and its secondary music. The second movement is in two distinct parts exploiting the unique sound of the lyric bassoon voice. The third particularly makes use of the shakes. The third movement also uses a metric device of continuously smaller units to induce a feeling of accelerating to the finish.”
Composer Marc Neikrug has had an international career for 30 years. He has written chamber music, symphonic music, music-theater and opera. Major performances have taken place with the New York, Los Angeles and Buffalo Philharmonics, as well as the symphonies in Pittsburgh, Houston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, New World (Miami), St. Louis, Washington DC, Chicago, Utah, Dallas, Phoenix, New Mexico, the Minnesota and Cleveland orchestras, and the St. Paul and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestras.

His works have been performed internationally, by the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa, the BBC Symphony, London Synfonietta, English Chamber Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, Zurich Tonhalle, Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, Berlin Radio Orchestra, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Barcelona Symphony, Liege Orchestra, Lisbon Orchestra, Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Osaka Symphony, Jerusalem Symphony, and the Israel Chamber Orchestra. Festival performances have been at Ravinia, Tanglewood, Hollywood Bowl, Aspen, Angel Fire, La Jolla, Marlboro, Menlo, London’s South Bank, Aldeburgh, Berlin Festival, Franfurt Festival, Schleswig Holstein, Zurich, Melbourne, Tokyo’s Music Today, and Jerusalem.

Among noted performers of his music are Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Christoph Eschenbach, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Alan Gilbert, David Zinman, Leonard Slatkin, Lawrence Foster, Oliver Knussen, James Galway, Pinchas Zukerman, Maximilian Schell, John Turturro, and the Emerson, Vermeer, Tokyo and Orion Quartets. His music-theater work Through Roses was commissioned by London’s South Bank Festival with the National Theater. Since its premiere in 1980 it has had hundreds of performances in fifteen countries and has been translated into 11 languages. There are three CDs on Deutsche Grammaphon, Enya, and Koch International.

There have also been two films produced: a documentary by Christopher Nupen, and a feature film directed by Jurgen Flimm and starring Maximilian Schell. Los Alamos, an anti-nuclear opera written in 1988, is the only American opera ever commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Its American premiere was at the Aspen Music Festival. Mr. Neikrug has been composer-in-residence at the Marlboro, Santa Fe, Angel Fire, Bravo Vail, and La Jolla festivals. Works have been recorded on Deutsche Grammaphon, Koch International, Stereophile, Laurel, and Enya records. His publishers are G. Schirmer and Chester Music.

Richard Svoboda has been principal bassoonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players since 1989. He is currently on the faculties of the New England Conservatory of Music and the Tanglewood Music Center. He has also taught at the Sarasota Music Festival, the Grand Teton Orchestral Seminar, the Popkin-Glickman Bassoon Camp, and the Symphony School of America, and has given master classes throughout the world. Prior to his appointment to the BSO, he performed for ten seasons as principal bassoonist of the Jacksonville Symphony. He studied with William Winstead, George Berry, and Gary Echols. Mr. Svoboda appears frequently with chamber ensembles, as orchestral soloist, and in recital. Among his solo appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra have been performances of John Williams’s bassoon concerto The Five Sacred Trees with the composer conducting, as well as Weber’s Concerto for Bassoon under the baton of Seiji Ozawa. A Nebraska native, Mr. Svoboda graduated with high distinction from the University of Nebraska, where he received a bachelor of music in education degree. He is married and has four daughters.

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