SOME PEOPLE think of the bassoon as the Rodney Dangerfield of concert instruments. It seldom gets any respect. Something about its sound and shape makes it hard to take seriously.
The approximately 300 bassoonists who are mem- bers of the International Double Reed Society would like you to think otherwise. They are not kidding. Look in their bible and you'll find a warning, strict as any federal law or edict. This bible -- all five volumes of it -- takes up half of a library shelf.
"Bassoons should be kept out of the hands of children and unauthorized persons; they are not toys for the ignorant." So warns authority Will Jensen in his exhausting study, gravely titled, "The Bassoon." It certainly makes you think twice. Maybe even three times.
This week, on the campus of Towson State University, more than 600 men and women have gathered to celebrate the bassoon, and, with no less seriousness, the oboe, English horn and the contrabassoon. All members of the International Double Reed Society, these musicians from the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia are attending master classes, concerts and exhibitions devoted to their instruments.
Norma Hooks, bassoonist with the Columbia Orchestra and co-host of the event, says, "In addition to being the 20th anniversary of the IDRS, it's the largest confer- ence of its kind in the world. At last count, registra- tion topped 640." As conventioneers go, double-reed players know how to have a good time. Yesterday's program featured the world premiere of "Lip My Reeds" by classical music comedian P.D.Q. Bach. (Prof. Peter Schickele, alias P.D.Q. Bach, by the way, is a self-described reformed bassoonist.)
These are also very serious professionals. The conference, which started Tuesday and continues through Saturday, includes a competition tomorrow for top oboists from around the world. There are classes about history, musicians' occupational hazards and instrument design and manufacture. One of the scheduled lecture-classes is called "Oboe Cracks, Finally a Cure."
If such a lecture seems mysterious or arcane, the plangent sound of an oboe is not. Concert audiences hear it frequently in short solos, such as the unexpected and desolate oboe cadenza in the first movement of the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. The bassoon and the larger, deeper-voiced contrabassoon, however, remain less familiar.
Phillip Kolker, principal bassoonist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for the past 19 years, says, "Most people in the audience hear the bassoon -- its very human quality -- and wonder what it is. They think someone is singing, but they never see anyone." Kolker's voice takes on a zealot's fervor. "That is what makes the bassoon so wonderful."
That may be so, but many composers have chosen to explore a different quality of the bassoon -- its comic side: the gruff, stuffy Grandfather in Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," the grotesque cackling of the witches in Berlioz's "Fantastic Symphony" and perhaps the most famous example, the eerie, deeply alien solo that opens Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."
Like the best clowns, however, the bassoon also possesses a twinge of melancholy. It always sounds poised on the imminent edge of heartbreak.
"I don't mind being the humorist of the orchestra," says Kolker, "but only if it's because I tell jokes backstage. I prefer to think of the bassoon as the Italian tenor of the symphony."
A sort of Pavarotti of the woodwind family?
Kolker cites many examples to prove his point: the Tchaikovsky symphonies, particularly the Fourth; the infinitely sensual solo in Ravel's "Bolero"; or the fabulously colored "Scheherazade" by Rimsky-Korsakov.
"These works contain passages in which the bassoon appears to sing forever," he adds.
This sonic versatility stems from the bassoon's construction. Made of maple, the instrument contains a serpentine metal tube. Bent like a hairpin, this tubing, if it were fully extended, would stretch out over 8 feet. The player's breath travels through this tube, creating sound.
A bassoonist holds the instrument across his body, like a saxophone player, with a strap attached to carry some of its considerable weight. One of the challenges of the bassoon is its number of keys -- more than 20. Unlike most woodwinds, it requires frequent use of both thumbs. Think of it like playing a piano, a piano turned on its side.
None of this would work however, without the instrument's double reed. Made from a cane plant grown only in the south of France and remote regions of Turkey and Yugoslavia, the reed creates vibrations that give the bassoon its timbre.
Norma Hooks calls the reed "a beast." It is subject to weather, temperature and atmospheric pressure. The trip an instrument makes from the warm car to the concert hall in the middle of winter can wreak havoc, causing the instrument and reed to expand and contract, throwing off its intonation.
Sharing sympathy about such problems is another purpose of the reed society conference. "The best part of this event," says Hooks, "is the chance to talk about things like this and discover how some of the best players in the world cope with such difficulties."
One can envision the 300 bassoonists getting together under the banner, "Bassoonists of the world, unite!" Hooks is more direct.
"In an orchestra there are usually two or three bassoons and 30 to 40 violinists. When the conference closes on Saturday, all of the participants will get together and play Handel's 'Music for the Royal Fireworks.' "
She pauses and then adds, "This time there won't be any violins."