Friday, June 24, 2011

New Music for "Old" Instruments with Cincinnati Opera

Cincinnati Opera is creating a brand new production of John Adams' opera A Flowering Tree, a beautiful opera set in India about the power of true love. I was able to sit through part of a sitzprobe (opera lingo for a music rehearsal without staging) in our beautiful Music Hall. I was struck by the variety of sounds and incredible textures of the music with the composer’s skilled use of the orchestra. One instrument that he seemed to delight in using was the recorder. There were two recorder players in the orchestra: Rob Turner and David Dyer. Rob has taught at Catacoustic recorder workshops, and he agreed to answer some questions about this experience playing with Cincinnati Opera.

What types of recorders are you playing? How does it work with balance with the rest of the orchestra?

We're playing the top-of-the line plastic Yamaha soprano and alto recorders that have a woodgrain finish. The pitch of the orchestra is "officially" a=441, and when things warm up it's probably closer to a=442. Since even higher pitches are common in Japan these days, the Yamaha recorders work well in this regard. It is hard for us to hear what the balance is like, but the Yamahas project very well and we are told that the balance is good. There is also a sound designer who has microphones distributed through the orchestra for the purpose of tweaking balance (rather than amplification for its own sake).

John Adams seems to know about how to use the recorder, and I love how it comes through with the orchestra. Have you played much contemporary music for old instruments, such as the recorder or Baroque flute (which I believe you play)? Do you feel that other composers know how to write effectively for the recorder? What is your advice to composers interested in writing for the recorder?

John Adams' use of recorder in this piece is very interesting. And Joana Carneiro, the conductor, is absolutely wonderful! The writing is not, on the face of it, note-to-note, so difficult, and Adams does not use any of the extended techniques that are often associated with contemporary recorder music. HOWEVER, the first recorder entry is at measure 382, and by that time there have already been 66 meter changes, including things like going from 2/2 to a couple of measures of 3/2 to a single 3/8 measure (the relative duration of the quarter-note would be the constant) and back to 2/2 for a measure before settling into 5/8 (subdivided 2:3, then 3:2 for two measures, then back to 2:3 for several more measures) oh, and did I mention that within these all meter changes we're playing quarter-note triplet figures in some of the 2/2, except where it's eighth/quarter or quarter/eighth triplets... My first entry is m. 480, by which time there have been 103 meter changes. OYYYY!!! But it sounds absolutely beautiful!

I've heard the conductor say that this has been the easiest, quickest-to-come-together production of this opera that she's led, including shows in places like Citè de la Musique in Paris. But even some of the regular CSO players have been walking around looking a little shell-shocked. One thing is for certain: it's not Vivaldi! The recorder part also has quite a few percussion cues written in, for maracas, rain stick, etc. This is reminiscent of Carl Orff's "Schulwerk," which uses recorders as well as "rhythm band" instruments to introduce young children to rudiments of music. In this performance the percussion is given to the professional percussionists (thank goodness!!!).

I really have not played much contemporary music for recorder. It's interesting enough to me when I listen to it, but I have always been interested in recorder primarily because of its baroque repertoire, and much less because of the instrument itself. In a way, for me to play in a contemporary piece with a symphony orchestra is probably not so different than it would be for, say, someone whose day-to-day musical life focuses on auto-harp or dulcimer in roots music like that of the Carter Family. The idioms and the musical approach are that different. I do find this opera a fascinating challenge, and have really enjoyed getting to know more members of the CSO, but baroque music is where I really feel "at home."

Among "early" instruments, the recorder is unique: while there is contemporary repertoire for baroque transverse flute, harpsichord, or baroque violin (or viola da gamba?), for instance, familiarity with contemporary music and its techniques is a "must" for recorder players in a way that simply is not the case for, say baroque violinists. Players of other "old" instruments are usually taken seriously for devoting themselves to their instruments' "Golden Age" repertoire, while for recorder players at most conservatories and in almost all recorder competitions a knowledge of contemporary repertoire and extended techniques is simply de rigueur. Perhaps this can be traced back to teacher virtuosos like Frans Brüggen and Hans Martin Linde and
their own interest in contemporary music in the 1950’s-80’s, when they were bringing the recorder back to the attention of the music world. At that time some of the people in the "serious" music world who were most open to the HIP (historically-informed performance) approach were people who were also very interested in contemporary music. Because of the acoustical differences between period and modern instruments and early woodwinds' relative lack of keywork, there are certainly sonic effects that are only available on period instruments. I think that it would be essential for composers to work closely with recorder players in developing a clear sense of the recorder's musical possibilities, especially since our culture reinforces the sense of the recorder as a toy ("play recorder in third grade, and next year you'll get a "real" instrument like a flute or a trumpet or a clarinet") and not as a legitimate instrument like any other, with its own sets of possibilities and issues. In the end, though, I really leave all that to others!

I know that people will be impressed by hearing the recorder as played by professionals, rather than by little grade school kids. What is your advice for someone who is interested in learning the instrument?

For those interested in learning to play recorder, lots of listening to live and recorded recorder music is essential. A good teacher is always helpful, and there are a few around. Some music lovers would agree with the seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys on the subject of the recorder, "the sound of it being, of all sounds in the world, most pleasing to me." For many of those people there's no better way to experience that sound than to play recorder themselves.

Tell me about what you are doing these days. I know you are living in Dayton. How are things there? Are you keeping busy with music? Any instrument making? Briefly talk about what instruments you have made in the past.

I'm living in Dayton, looking after my 88 year-old mother, teaching and performing. While for many years I made recorders and flutes based on period originals found in museums and private collections around the world, I stopped making instruments a few years ago when I could no longer see with the kind of acuity needed to do the work. (Now I can "only" see .0025" with my good eye whereas before it was more like < .001".) So, I'm focused on making music, instead, which was what I meant to do all along. My primary instruments are, and have been for many years, baroque transverse flute and recorder.

For more information about Cincinnati Opera’s upcoming performances of A Flowering Tree, see

(Please note photo credits for first and second images go to Jennie Chacon and Chris Yelton, and the third photo credit goes to Cincinnati Opera employee Aimee Sposito Martini. The fourth photo is Rob Turner with his recorder, credit to Phillip Jones.)