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The Central Coast Philharmonia

The contrabassoon

The contrabassoon has long been celebrated as the one and only contrabass wind instrument in the standard orchestra. Since the fifth symphony of Beethoven, composers have relied on the contrabassoon to fill all contra woodwind needs, and this has lead to a great deal of music being written for the contrabassoon. The contrabassoon is really a rather strange instrument with an almost alien sound. It makes an excellent bass to the woodwind section and it can be effective support for the less clear string bass section. The contrabassoon tends to blend well with other instruments, though its creative use as a soloistic voice can produce some truly wild textures. Many times, this instrument is felt rather than heard, and it can be covered easily, which means that it is great for supporting, but rather less effective for in-your-face sort of material. For this reason, many ensembles in France use the louder and more aggressively present contrabass sarrusophone in place of the contrabassoon. Intonation also can be a problem on both of these instruments as the pitches are low in frequency and the rather large double reed always carries an element of unpredictability. However, in the hands of a good player and a good composer, the contra can really be a special voice which transcends the typical orchestral timbre range. Unfortunately, the contrabassoon is not as common as it should be given its deep classical founding, and in many situations it may be difficult to acquire one for a performance. For some effective use of contrabassoon, check out Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Holst's the Planets, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10, John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, John Williams' Treesong, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Adam Gilberti's Forces of Nature, and of course the Concerto for Contrabassoon by Daniel Dorff. Also it has seen much excellent use in motion picture scorings, where it is very common; for this, check out James Newton Howard's Dinosaur and John William's Harry Potter soundtracks, and the scorings of the Star Wars epics. Though almost every piece on the Genesis Concert program contains the contrabassoon, it will feature most in Seismic Disturbances, Four Poems and Reflections of Honor.

Some technical info:
The contrabassoon is written for in bass clef, sounding an octave lower than written (and an octave lower than the bassoon) and has roughly the same written range as the bassoon. Contrabassoons are capable of great piano dynamics and tend to buzz a bit at louder ones; they are also capable of fast and dry staccato and in the hands of a good player can be very agile. The high contrabassoon range is very weird and has a certain degree of strained raunchiness if exposed. The contrabassoon is very thin in its upper register and intonation can be problematic, and thus this is not the characteristic range of the instrument. For more info on contrabassoons, check out www.contrabassoon.com and the contrabassoon section of the "Contrabass Compendium" at www.contrabass.com.


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