Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fw: "Butt of the orchestra gets a makeover" (05.11.10)

This letter appeared in The Guardian Weekly, Dec.3, 1210.
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Tuesday, November 09, 2010 1:30 PM
Subject: "Butt of the orchestra gets a makeover" (05.11.10)

The revolutionary design of the contraforte may someday render the traditional contrabassoon obsolete, as well as relieving bassoonists from being the unfortunate butts of orchestral jokes. Yet I recall one contrabassoonist---a deceased colleague of mine who played for many years in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera House—who was probably the sole bassoonist in orchestral history never reviled or joked about. I refer to Hugo Burghauser, who was invited to join the Vienna Opera Orchestra by no less than Richard Strauss in 1917. Mr. Burghauser was President of the Vienna Philharmonic from 1933 to 1938, and during his regime hired Arturo Toscanini, Karl Boehm, Herbert Von Karajan, and Bruno Walter. His complex journey into the Met orchestra pit began when he fled the Nazis in 1938. Practically penniless, he ran into Carla Toscanini in Paris, where she was on a shopping spree. Without hesitation she gave him money for a boat trip to America, where she and Arturo were also headed the next day. In New York, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, Sir Rudolf Bing, (who was an opera-buff clerk in a Viennese bookstore in 1934, while Burghauser was indisputably the most powerful figure in the music world), heard of his plight and offered him the Met orchestra position of contrabassoon.

            Whenever maestro Boehm conducted at the Met and spied Burghauser sitting in the rear of the pit, there were invariably nostalgic embraces and moist eyes. Sadly though, the former President of the Vienna Philharmonic was not the same virtuoso bassoonist hired by Strauss in 1917. I recall maestro Boehm conducting a series of Beethoven's Fidelios, in which there is a notorious brief solo for contrabassoon. As Ms. Midgette notes in her article, the contrabassoon is known for its "sometimes flatulent sound." Now whenever that solo came (even at the broadcast!), what emitted from Burghauser's Heckel instrument can only be described as sheer flatulence. Yet not one musician laughed or even breathed during those few catastrophic moments, while Boehm, who was known to fly into a rage over musical mishaps, merely tossed his old comrade a faint smile and a wink. It saddens me that the contraforte was invented over a half century too late for poor Burghauser.


Les Dreyer

(Retired violinist with the Met Opera Orchestra)

180 West End Ave.

NYC 10023  USA