Take Note!

The bassoon is the joker of the orchestra, because too many composers have given it an excess of parts that (let’s be frank about this) make it sound like a duck with a cold.

Larry A. Lipkis, Bertha-Mae Starner ’27 and Jay F. Starner Professor of Music and composer in residence, has a different idea. For the Houston Symphony’s principal bassoon, Benjamin Kamins, he has written a concerto in which the long-bodied instrument with the hookah-pipe mouthpiece impersonates Pierrot, the perennial sad clown of the commedia dell’arte.

The concerto is the third of a trilogy of commedia-based showcases for a solo instrument with orchestra. “Scaramouche,” for cello (1989), has been recorded by Carter Brey and the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra on the Koch International label; and “Harlequin,” for bass trombone (1997), was premiered by Jeffrey Reynolds and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen. “Pierrot” will be premiered January 18-20 by the Houston Symphony.

Lipkis said he was inspired by a gallery of commedia characters on the walls of a 17th-century Bohemian castle for the first movement, Henri Rousseau’s “Carnival Night” for the slow movement. The finale, “The Flight to Seventh Heaven,” comes from the writings (not the artwork) of the French painter Georges Rouault.

The composer wrote the first draft of the concerto during a sabbatical last fall, consulting with Kamins, a friend from childhood, as he revised and polished. “Ben and I go back literally to birth,” he said. “His father and my father were best friends in high school, and both became physicians in Los Angeles. Even before that, their mothers were friends and played bridge together.”

“What we liked about Larry’s style,” said Aurelie Desmarais, the orchestra’s senior director for artistic planning, “was that it had both asense of humor and a sense of drama, and it seemed to suit Ben’s personality very much.”

His next project, conveniently enough, is not only already written but has been performed. It’s a piece for brass quintet and organ, which premiered October 28 at First Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem, and will be played there again at a Thanksgiving Day service.

November 20, 2001

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