NSO's Lewis Lipnick trades in his contrabassoon for contraforte's sweeter sound

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010

A few years ago, when the National Symphony Orchestra was rehearsing at the Kennedy Center for a performance of Stravinsky's "Petrushka," a funny thing happened to the orchestra's contrabassoonist, Lewis Lipnick. He was playing a solo passage on his instrument, which is known for its erratic, sometimes flatulent sound. It must have sounded particularly gassy that day. Someone in the trumpet section threw a roll of toilet paper at him.

Leonard Slatkin, who was conducting at the time, stopped the orchestra and looked at him thoughtfully. "Well, you know, Lew," Lipnick remembers him saying, "it wasn't undeserved."

It's tough being a contrabassoonist. You practice for hours, and it's still hard to coax the sound you want from your instrument. Lipnick, 64, who joined the NSO in 1970, gave the world premiere of the first-ever contrabassoon concerto in the repertory, but even he can't defend the thing. The very lowest notes, he says, "can easily 'misfire,' with rather unmusical results." The uppermost notes sound like "a very large goose with a very bad head cold."

As a result, contrabassoonists are the butt (so to speak) of countless orchestra jokes. There's a legendary story about the august conductor Sir Thomas Beecham observing, after one particularly flatulent solo during a rehearsal, "You may now pull the chain."

Getting good reviews

So it was something of a shock when, during Christoph Eschenbach's first regular-season performance with the orchestra two weeks ago, the contrabassoon passages in the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sounded downright beautiful. Fellow musicians kept coming up to Lipnick and complimenting him. For someone accustomed to being teased, it was almost bewildering, Lipnick said, when "people are telling you your instrument sounds good."

Here's what made the difference: Lipnick wasn't playing the contrabassoon. He's got a brand-new instrument, called the contraforte, created by two German instrument makers, which completely reimagines contrabassoon technology. This week, Lipnick was preparing eagerly for Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which the orchestra is playing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

"The scherzo in the second movement has some nasty stuff that never speaks on the contrabassoon," he says. But on the contraforte, "I hear every note."

The contrabassoon basically hasn't changed since the late 19th century. With the contraforte, which has been in development since around 2001, Guntram Wolf and Benedikt Eppelsheim, two independent instrument makers in Bavaria, set out to fix the problems that contrabassoon players have been struggling with for decades -- "unfortunate tones," said Peter Wolf, Guntram's son and co-worker, "or that buzzing sound it makes."

The bell of the contrabassoon faces down, the result of gradual lengthening of the pipe over the years; the fingerings are difficult; it's hard to play very quietly, or very loud. Rather than modify the existing contrabassoon, the Wolfs and Eppelsheim started over from scratch, using computer technology to help tap new possibilities and ensure they could exactly replicate any advances they made.

To Lipnick, the result looks like something out of Dr. Seuss. The NSO's trumpet players dubbed it "a rocket launcher."

But however unusual its appearance may be to aficionados, the change has been, Lipnick says, "like going from a PC to a Mac." The whole instrument is more streamlined and easier to play -- the fingerings are improved, and you can modulate dynamics easily. The contraforte's sound is actually closer in timbre to the bassoon's than the contrabassoon's ever was. And it's way less finicky.

Players of double-reed instruments, such as the oboe or contrabassoon, spend hours making reeds; Lipnick made more than 600 for the challenging concerto he commissioned in 2004 from the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Only about 20 of them were usable. The contraforte's reeds are slightly larger; Lipnick got six of them when he picked up the instrument in early September. They all work.

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