The Rite of Spring can be frightening for some bassoonists, but Whitney Crockett doesn’t really get scared by it. At least not anymore. The famously high opening solo of Stravinsky’s ballet is something he started preparing in high school, and he’s worked on it over 1,000 times since. The first time he played it in concert was as a sophomore at Julliard, and best guess, he’s performed it almost one hundred times in total.
That said, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Principal Bassoon never takes it lightly. “It’s up there. It does stretch the range from what you’re typically comfortable in, especially when you’re younger. But once you understand how it all fits together, it’s kind of neat and it works really well — as long as you have the right reed!”
Under normal circumstances, he doesn’t go two months without touching it. “It’s a great test, for both player and reed. There are several things in it that are very, very difficult, period. And more as you’re preparing for a performance, of course. Anyone who has lived with a bassoonist definitely hates The Rite of Spring,” he jokingly laments.
To make things extra interesting for the orchestra’s four concerts this week at Walt Disney Concert Hall, circumstances leading into this week’s four concerts are decidedly not normal: a new bassoon, which he custom ordered from Heckel eleven years ago [really], finally arrived last month. These performances will mark this new instrument’s Rite of Spring debut.
“It’s great!” he says of his prize. “Nevertheless, when you switch instruments, you always have to accommodate for little differences in ergonomics and resistance and pitch, and I haven’t had time to play much of anything on it. That means back to the drawing board for Rite of Spring since everything is so touchy.”
Mr. Crockett pauses before finishing his thought with a bit of a chuckle: “So, I’m enjoying the instrument, but I’m not as much enjoying having to approach The Rite almost as if I hadn’t played it before.”
Compounding the challenge is the ongoing search for a good reed — in this case, the, um, right Rite reed, so to speak. I invite him to describe in detail one he’d use for the Stravinsky versus something by, say, Mozart or Shostakovich.
“It has to be very good, but it doesn’t have to be good at a lot of things,” he explains. “Generally, the reeds that are really good in the high register aren’t great in the low register, and that’s fine. For Rite, you need it to be reliable: relatively easy response, but strong enough to work in the high register. A lot of the best Rite of Spring reeds I’ve had aren’t fully scraped, they’re new reeds where the tip is going, um — the sound starts very easily but they don’t necessarily vibrate all the way.”
It’s not what you’d want for very different famous bassoon parts in two symphonies. “For Shostakovich 4, you actually need multiple reeds, though none of it is particularly high. You’ve got some stuff that you want to be really loud on, and then you’ve got the beautiful opening of the 3rd movement that’s supple and not so important that you’re loud. For Tchaikovsky 6, that one you need very supple, very easy attack, nice low pitch. Fully scraped, basically, so that it’s very easy and soft.”
All that said, the technical demands are ultimately secondary to musical considerations, and we talk about the potential ways a bassoonist approaches the piece.
“You have to make sure you’re prepared for that moment on stage when you play and when nothing else is happening,” he says. Yet while the mental approach is non-trivial, the musical approach is even more important.
“The biggest challenge I’ve had is this conflict between if it’s supposed to be really stretched, that it’s at the extreme of the range to get a tortured sound, or is it supposed to be elegant and beautiful and easy sounding, the way it’s evolved to be for the best players.”
He relays a story he’s heard of the composer himself telling the bassoonist of the Paris Opera that it should sound painful. “Fifteen days later, Stravinsky told a different soloist that it should sound ‘nice.’ So what do you do with that? Unless you’re a particular kind of person, “painful” and “nice” don’t usually overlap!”
He found clues on how to proceed in Stravinsky’s originally labeling of the solo as “dudki” as other Russian composers have done when trying to evoke the duduk, an Armenian double-reed folk instrument.
“It’s got connotations of shepherds playing. When you visualize that, what do you get? You get music coming from a long distance, and generally speaking, no matter how crude that instrument when it’s coming from long distances, the edges have been knocked off and the sound’s been smoothed out. Plus, this instrument is pretty sweet to begin with. It’s very interesting, very cool.”
Given that the duduk was apparently Stravinsky’s inspiration, he’s confident that playing it as smooth as possible is appropriate. “Some ask, ‘Why did he write it so high?’ Well, 100 years prior, the Weber Concerto had a high D which is also the highest note in The Rite of Spring, so there’s no evidence that he wanted it to sound bad, it’s just a little used part of the register. He wanted something that sounded new or different, and he liked that. It’s simple as that.”
“So my goal isn’t to sound rough, though that can happen. Thank God for that, right? Otherwise you can replace human musicians with robots,” he muses. “No, my goal is to make it sound like a shepherd playing beautifully in the field.”
None of the conductors Mr. Crockett has worked with has ever challenged him on that assumption, nor have they shaped his approach to the solo by telling him to do a little more of this or less of that. And he’s worked with some big names with strong opinions and rather different interpretations of The Rite of Spring: Charles Dutoit, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Valery Gergiev, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and of course, Gustavo Dudamel.
“I’ve got to say that I love the way Dudamel starts this. He invites you to start when you’re comfortable. More importantly, he waits for the audience to settle down before starting but he isn’t crazy about it. That’s opposed to someone who’d stand up there forever acting like he wants everything perfectly quiet, which is the last thing a bassoonist wants!” he laughs.
“Obviously, he’s no idiot,” he laughs. “He makes it as stress-free as it can possibly be. He wants you to succeed. And after that first part, it’s pretty much smooth sailing from there.”
The Los Angeles Philharmonic presents four concerts featuring the world premiere of El Rió de Luz by Alex Nante, Ginastera’s Estancia, and Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) by Stravinsky: Thursday, May 5 through Sunday, May 8, 2022. Tickets are still available HERE
- Chatting with the LA Phil woodwind principals Whitney Crockett, Denis Bouriakov, and Boris Allakhverdyan
- Portrait of Whitney Crockett: Mathew Imaging