Passed Up by the NSO, Concerto For Contrabassoon Premieres in Norway

by Tim Page, Washington Post Staff Writer

In 1979 Lewis Lipnick, the contrabassoonist of the National Symphony Orchestra, played the world premiere of the first concerto ever written for this gigantic and growl-y instrument, which can descend far below the range of the tuba and the double bass to make the deepest sounds generally heard from a classical ensemble.

"I asked Gunther Schuller to compose the piece," Lipnick recalled last week, speaking of the American composer and conductor, "and he replied, 'I've been looking for an excuse to write something for that damned thing for years!' " The NSO's music director at the time, Mstislav Rostropovich, not only conducted the premiere of Schuller's concerto but paid for the commission out of his own pocket.

More than a quarter-century later, Lipnick, now 59, arranged for another large piece to be written for what he calls his "underappreciated and misunderstood" instrument. With $40,000 of his own money, he commissioned a Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra — a vast, panoramic and immensely difficult 39-minutework in three movements — from the highly regarded Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Again he offered the premiere performance to the NSO.

This time the response from the orchestra was very different. After some initial words of encouragement, the NSO turned the concerto down, sight unseen. And so Lipnick played the world premiere last night in Bergen, Norway, with the Bergen Philharmonic under the direction of Andrew Litton. Performances in three Finnish cities will follow in March. The concerto will be recorded for the Bis label and issued on CD later this year.

"Ever since 1979 and the Schuller premiere, I've been searching for another composer who could write an even more ambitious work for contrabassoon," Lipnick said. "I've had the opportunity to perform many contemporary works by living composers. Although the majority of these works had contrabassoon parts, very few displayed any innovative or challenging use of the instrument. In fact, when I spoke to many of these composers about a contrabassoon concerto, they either thought the idea to be crazy or professed ignorance of the instrument's capabilities."

Then, in 2003, the NSO performed Aho's Symphony No. 9 for Trombone and Orchestra, under the direction of Osmo Vanska, now music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. "I realized that Aho was not afraid to take the trombone, another misunderstood instrument, far, far beyond its previously established limits," Lipnick said. "In fact, the solo part of that work challenges both the trombone and the performer to do things that most other musicians would believe impossible. However . . . the work was a huge success with both audience and orchestra, and showed that the trombone is just as capable a solo instrument as any other."

"I knew then that I'd found my composer, and I couldn't be happier with what he came up with," Lipnick continued. "But man, is it tough! Don't get me wrong. I wanted the concerto to be challenging. I asked Kalevi to push the limits of the instrument, but I never realized that would mean taking the contrabassoon a full octave over its range. The piece is virtually unplayable — which is one reason it will be so exciting to play it!"

One recent afternoon at the West End apartment he shares with his actress wife, Lynn-Jane Foreman Lipnick, and two much-loved cats, Lipnick brought out both his gigantic contrabassoon and the gigantic score that Aho has composed for it. The concerto opens with a long, dark soliloquy (proof, Lipnick says, that the contrabassoon can "sing as well as rumble"), proceeds through a quicksilver scherzo that is punctuated with some dazzling and terrifying leaps, and then to a finale that seems to encompass all that has gone before, concluding in the reflective glow of a quiet chorale.

Reached in Finland, Aho declared himself delighted with Lipnick's interpretation. "Lew played the whole solo part to me when I visited Washington a month ago," he said. "I was very happy about his playing. In the concerto I have tried to raise the contrabassoon as an instrument to new expressive dimensions, and after hearing Lew's playing, I have the feeling that I have succeeded in this aim. I can hardly wait for the premiere."

Conductor Litton, who spent four years with the NSO at the beginning of his career, called the concerto "fantastic," noting, "I'm a huge Mahler and Shostakovich fan, and this comes from the same sound world. It's my first experience with any of Aho's music firsthand — I know his music from CDs, of course — and it has been just thrilling for me and for the orchestra. . . . The music is so filled with rich colors and ideas — and it is good to be reminded that the contrabassoon can sound so beautiful when it is played lyrically.

"I think the orchestra was a little anxious when I added this to our program," Litton continued. "Most wind concertos are only about 20 minutes, while this is twice that long and incredibly complicated. And after it is over, we have the complete Mahler Sixth symphony to go through, which sometimes takes up a whole program in itself. So the orchestra is a little tired right now, but I keep reminding them that they have all of next week off."

Will Washington ever get a chance to hear the Aho concerto? "I simply don't know," Rita Shapiro, the NSO's executive director, said. "We've certainly enjoyed the music of his that we've heard from [the Minnesota Orchestra]. But we have no plans to play it right now."

Originally printed in the Washington Post on February 24, 2006.
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