A Musical Offering

It is decreed that clowns can fly to the seventh heaven, abandoning the sad winters of earthly life, to satisfy their taste for the imagination.

—Georges Rouault

The bassoon is the joker of the orchestra. Too many composers have given it music 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 at the College, has a different idea. For the Houston Symphony’s principal bassoon, Benjamin Kamins, he wrote a concerto in which the long-bodied instrument with the hookah-pipe mouthpiece impersonates Pierrot, the perennial clown with the broken heart of the commedia dell’arte.

The concerto was commissioned by the orchestra as part of a series of new pieces created for its centennial in 2013. It premiered January 18-20 at Jones Symphony Hall.

Pierrot is the third commedia-inspired solo showcase Lipkis has written. Scaramouche (1989), for cello, has been recorded by Carter Brey and the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra on the Koch International label; and Harlequin (1997), for bass trombone, was premiered by Jeffrey Reynolds and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Lipkis says he based Pierrot on painters and paintings: Henri Rousseau’s “Carnival Night,” for instance, inspired the slow movement. The finale, “The Flight to Seventh Heaven,” comes from the words (above) of the French painter Georges Rouault.

The composer wrote the first draft of the concerto during a sabbatical in 2000, 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 who played bridge together.”

“It seemed to suit Ben’s personality very well,” said Aurelie Desmarais, the orchestra’s senior director for artistic planning.

Conductor Hans Graf, the symphony’s music director, who led the premiere, called it “very good music, intelligently written.”

“It takes the bassoon seriously, and it has a real symphonic orchestra part,” he said by telephone from Bordeaux, France.

Charles Ward, music critic of the Houston Chronicle, praised the composer’s “keen ear for attractive harmonies and a fresh blending of instruments,” while criticizing “a fundamental problem in writing for the bassoon: it can never be heard over a full orchestra going full tilt.”

Some musicians are narrow specialists. Not Lipkis, who embraces music from the Middle Ages to the current century. At the College, he teaches an array of music-theory courses; works one-on-one with student composers; and is active in the College’s early music activities, including the Collegium Musicum and the Mostly Monteverdi Ensemble. He and his wife, Linda, co-host a weekly classical-music segment on WDIY-FM, the Lehigh Valley public radio station.

Larry Lipkis