Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thinking about Sound

Last night I played solo English horn for the opening of Verdi's Falstaff at the New York City Opera. The first entrance of the English horn is in Part 2 of Act I and is unusual for a Verdi Cor Anglais melody in that it's not sad. Most often in bel canto opera, when the lower member of the oboe family is hauled out, it's to intone the most heart-wrenching, soul-searching melodies. In this case things are quite different. The opera's four women have just been introduced—Alice Ford, Nannetta, Meg Page, and Mistress Quickly—when Alice and Meg discover that the love letters each received from Sir John read, save the salutations, verbatim. His wooing words and false ardor are painted in the orchestra with a somewhat loping English horn solo, dripping with feigned earnestness as it meanders down to the instrument's lowest range. The characteristic timbre of the English horn rising from the pit suggests serious business. Playing on those expectations, Verdi reveals the author's untrustworthy intentions with a joke of orchestration. The final note of the melody—a D below middle C—is out of the English horn's range, so that note is given to the clarinet. The sudden change of timbre on the very culmination of the melody makes the whole affair risible. As the letter becomes more ardent, the English horn follows suit with even more elaborate material, but the melody is ultimately maladroit and a bit bottom-heavy. (Consider the source.)

Last night before the performance, my friend Steve Hartman, who played principal clarinet, brought two instruments over to where I was warming up. One clarinet was pitched in B-flat and the other in A. He wanted to see which horn gave the best timbral effect in that passage. The experiment was great fun, and the result, I think, really hit the mark. (He used the B-flat clarinet.)

Thinking about sound and finding its invisible shades of meaning is a remarkable way to spend ones life. Verdi's music, full of imaginative propositions, can only come to life in the living breathing musicians lucky enough to be playing any given evening.

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