Recording Stravinsky's Rite of Spring under the composer was a risky enterprise - down in no small part to an ancient, cracked contrabassoon called Sally
I received the call at 10pm on December 30, 1959 that every aspiring classical musician in New York wants to get. As a bassoonist, I was thrilled:
‘This is Loren Glickman calling for Columbia Reocrds. Can you be at 46th Street Studios tomorrow at 11, then at Carnegie the following two days for rehearsal and concerts, then the next two days at the St George Hotel in Brooklyn for recording?’
Wow. I tried to be calm. I said very coolly, ‘Let me check my calendar. I have something else, but I can clear it.’
‘You’ve got to have a contrabassoon,’ Glickman said. ‘We’re doing The Rite of Spring with Stravinsky conducting. In fact you will be second contrabassoon.’
Cool as hell, I lied: ‘Sure, I’ve got the instrument and my own part.’
I hung up in exhilarated panic: Stravinsky, paying work, recording, what a break!
Too bad I had no contrabassoon! The lowest of all instruments, seldom heard, usually pumping out modest bass sounds in a group, most unglamorous. Where could I get such a rare instrument right now?
Then it struck me: SALLY, the ancient, cracked, leaking contrabassoon in the Hendrie Hall band room at the Yale School of Music, my alma mater. Sally, a contrabassoon with attitude and a sound like an amplified goat fart. With no moderating volumes, she would play loud and ugly no matter the piece, Ravel, Mozart, whatever. She was, in her grisly way, perfect for beheadings and prison scenes in opera. The band teacher, Keith Wilson, was kind enough to drive in to open up the locker and loan me the instrument.
Next morning I was headed down the Cross Country Parkway with Sally anxious to get to 46th Street. Then another calamitous thought: Here I was about the play with world-class instrumentalists, a roomful of guys with Strads, Guarneri, and Powells (the flute), while I was stuck with loud old Sally. This could be humbling.
The first rehearsal, winds only, was very hurried, no time for fine adjustments. The Carnegie day, Sally was way out of line giving me big nasty noises, but it was a thrown together event, and Sally and I stayed below the radar of criticism except for funny looks from seats nearby.
The recording the next day at the St George in Brooklyn was different. Microphones hung everywhere, and one was placed exactly above Sally. What if she cut loose with one of her goat farts? The session started and she sprang a leak in a tone hole. I had to blow my brains out, but she only emitted ugly grunts unbecoming in a studio full of fiddles.
Saving the day, though, was Stravinsky. He beckoned for more and more snarling sounds from the winds. The rough folk-dance rhythms of the piece were never gruff enough, and short notes he wanted whiplash-like staccato. Sally thrived on this encouragement, and even though I was dizzy from blowing into a leaky sieve, her sonority took the lead in raw acoustic. Her short notes were filthy ugly, but in this interpretation she was in her glory and with the conductor. At one point the player behind me said, ‘What was that god-awful sound you just made?’
Another issue arose. Stravinsky was tired, he looked small, a little scared, and he was conducting dangerously behind the beat. The Rite of Spring notoriously requires precise timing to negotiate the asymmetrical rhythms. To play all this music was a challenge enough; to do it without cues and beats was terrifying.
To the rescue came the musicians, who realised Stravinsky’s limitation, and began cueing internally as if part of a 108-piece chamber orchestra. With concertmaster Isadore Cohen and oboist Leonard Arner waving and nodding through long takes, the orchestra became more and more motivated, driving tempos ahead, making louds really loud, with knife-edge ensemble. Finally, the percussion and Harvey Philips on tuba formed their own team to lead execution of the final ‘Danse Sacrale’.
When the last note was played, Stravinsky pulled out a bottle of whisky on the podium, drank deeply and passed the bottle around. Walking out wilted but elated the piccolo player Marty Orenstein said, ‘Can that be a good recording? We were all so turned-on I couldn’t tell.’
Sally went back to Hendrie Hall band room and I never saw her again. The recording was reviewed as the best ever. If one listens closely, Sally can be heard clearly. And she can be downloaded, uploaded, Ipodded for eternity. Rest her soul.
The notes for the above reminiscence were triggered by my coming across my 1959 Musician’s Diary when cleaning out my studio after 60 years in music.
Robert Thompson is an American bassoonist of international renown for whom the great Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik wrote his acclaimed Bassoon Concerto, which Thompson recorded in 1985. He has also promoted much contemporary music, including the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and the American composer John Downey, whose work 'The Edge of Space Fantasy' for bassoon and orchestra he recorded for Chandos with the LSO in London. His recordings of the classic repertoire including Vivaldi and Mozart are also highly regarded.