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You’ll find hundreds of symphonic works if you search “oboe” or “clarinet” on the internet, but what about works featuring their baritone cousin, the bassoon? I count 39. Granted, this isn’t top statistical data, but you must admit that the bassoon is vastly underfeatured in symphonic solos. Other than the mop scene in Fantasia and the grouchy grandad in Peter and the Wolf, when was the last time you heard a complex, large-scale classical work spotlighting this versatile and tonally magnificent instrument? Now, after the world premiere of Clarice Assad’s Terra, Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra, a Philadelphia Orchestra commission, I hope you can chime in “last week!”
Terra is as fine a woodwind concerto as you are likely to hear—a major step to showering the bassoon with the glory it deserves. With Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the podium and soloist Daniel Matsukawa, this five-movement concerto was a feast for the ear and a vehicle for Matsukawa to show us the incredible range of this regal instrument and his mastery of all its technical quirks and challenges.
I was also thrilled to hear a successful large-scale symphonic work of approximately 30 minutes by a contemporary woman composer from a musically underrepresented country (in this case, Brazil). Great work by Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians!
An enchanting concerto
Assad’s work is a joy to hear, drawing heavily from her cultural roots. Her impressive scoring features a full traditional orchestra plus, by my count, 19 percussion instruments beyond the classical timpani. The names of those percussion instruments—such as thunder sheet and pitched wood planks—roll off the tongue like rough poetry and add excitement and zest to a work already infused with dance rhythms and Amazonian melodies. And then there is the bassoon, a gorgeous double-reed instrument of highly polished wood and gleaming golden keys. The instrument is nearly five feet in length and weighs around 7.5 pounds, quite a burden to shoulder for a half-hour performance.
I was enchanted by the concerto’s variety of textures, inventive orchestration, and virtuosic passages, all celebrating the wonders of our planet, from the breathy depiction of air in the first movement to dances of the Earth at the end. Assad exploits the large tonal range of the bassoon (over three octaves) as Matsukawa performed difficult runs and leaps as though they were child’s play. The bassoonist maintained a creamy tone and pleasantly startled with snappy inflections, often in tandem with unorthodox percussive rhythms. I hope we’ll be hearing this piece in other concert halls and recordings in the future.
Berio on Boccherini
The program opened with Berio’s four original versions of Luigi Boccherini’s The Night Retreat of Madrid. While the work may be unfamiliar to most listeners, the theme is one of Boccherini’s most popular and beloved tunes. The work is somewhat like Ravel’s Bolero in that it starts quietly with two military drums and a violin solo but then breaks away, developing to a crescendo mid-point among 11 variations. The work then retreats, like a military marching unit, with strong playing by the orchestra throughout.
Marrying feeling and form
The concert ended with a blockbuster rendition of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. Nézet-Séguin, one of the most exciting conductors of Rachmaninoff today, pulled out all the stops with this lushly romantic production. Yes, it’s long, but how often are we free to spend a complete hour in uninterrupted emotional abandon? And for all this intense feeling, the conductor understands the structure and intellectual underpinnings, providing a rare marriage of feeling and form.
In an unorthodox but smart programmatic twist, the Symphony No. 2 was on the Friday and Saturday programs (October 13 and 14), but the Symphony No. 1 took its place on Thursday’s lineup. This worked out well, as Rachmaninoff enthusiasts could hear both works in two days and listen to the Assad premiere a second time. The performance of No. 2 included beautiful solo work by the trumpet section and the expression of breathtaking tenderness by Ricardo Morales, principal clarinet, in the famous third-movement solo. Slipping into the major mode, the work concluded with a rousing final movement, full of fire and optimism, rare for “the Rach” but lucky for us.
What, When, Where
Yannick Conducts Rachmaninoff. Clarice Assad; Terra, Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra. Luciano Berio; Four Original Versions of Luigi Boccherini’s The Night Retreat of Madrid. Sergei Rachmaninoff; Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Daniel Matsukawa, bassoon. The Philadelphia Orchestra. October 12, 13, and 14, 2023, at Kimmel Cultural Campus's Verizon Hall, 300 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online by calling patron services at (215) 893-1999 or emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, patron services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
Masks are not required in Kimmel Cultural Campus venues.
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