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

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2010; C01

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.

Then there's the price. A top-of-the-line contrabassoon can cost $70,000. Lipnick's contraforte cost about $36,000. Even with the expense of traveling to Germany, renting a car and buying two business-class tickets for the return flight so his new instrument could travel in its own seat, he considers it money well spent. He's been playing the contrabassoon for more than 40 years. But after only a few weeks with the contraforte, he's putting his old instrument up for sale.

U.S. reaction

Introducing something completely new into the traditional mix of orchestra instruments is a big step. "People want to see how it's received" before buying the instrument for themselves, Peter Wolf says. Some orchestra players in Australia, and a member of Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern, were among the early adopters; by now, Wolf estimates, the firm has sold 30 or 40 contrafortes around the world.

But the United States has been slower on the uptake. Lipnick is the company's third American purchaser and the first to play the instrument in a major American orchestra.

There have been other attempts to fix the contrabassoon over the years. Arlen Fast, the contrabassoonist with the New York Philharmonic, spent several years developing his own fixes after realizing that the instrument couldn't deal with the technical demands of the standard bassoon etude books. Fast says he developed a prototype that "revolutionized the key system" and shopped it to different manufacturers until he found a fit. Fox Products has been manufacturing Fast System contrabassoons since 2001. It has sold 16 of the instruments so far -- three of them to Fast himself.

Fast knows about the contraforte, but to him it's a different instrument. "It's another version of a bass double-reed instrument," he says. "The contraforte has a larger bore and larger pads, more like a saxophone."

"You can argue about whether it's appropriate," he says, to use it in place of a contrabassoon. "The conductor may not like it."

Lipnick was curiously unapprehensive about how the NSO's new music director might react to having a new instrument -- or a new version of an old instrument -- in his orchestra. He was right not to worry. Eschenbach was immediately approving. "It's different," Lipnick says Eschenbach told him, "but I like it."

Lipnick, meanwhile, is adjusting to his newfound popularity with his colleagues. Even the trumpet players.

"It actually sounds beautiful," one of them told him. "I can't make fun of you anymore."

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