For most composers, "bassoon" rhymes with "buffoon." The deepest of the woodwind instruments, when it gets any special attention at all, is usually given the role of a clown--a producer of funny and sometimes vulgar noises.
But bassoonist Bernard Garfield of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a longtime friend of composer Ezra Laderman, and in Laderman's new Concerto for Flute and Bassoon, which had its Washington premiere last night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the bassoon acquires some depth, wistfulness, a touch of gentle gravity and a lyricism that it has seldom been allowed to exercise since the concertos of Mozart and Vivaldi. In contrast, the flute (played by another old friend of Laderman's, Murray Panitz) often seems a bit frivolous--though in their lengthy dialogues, with occasional interventions by the orchestra, the high and low winds finally reach a solid form of agreement.
In the program notes, Laderman points out some of the polarities on which this imaginative and beautifully crafted work is constructed: carefree vs. sober; strict vs. free; tonal vs. atonal, and notes that their reconciliation is its basic process. He might also have mentioned the polarity of strength and restraint--the dramatic juxtaposition of two of the lightest voices in the orchestra against its enormous power, and the way in which they find a modus vivendi. The music was beautifully played with a texture often like chamber music and had a substance that calls for further hearings.
The program opened, rather curiously, with Dvorak's magnificent Cello Concerto, a work that is usually the climax of any program on which it appears. It was the second interpretation of that work heard in the Concert Hall within a week and gave a prime opportunity for some comparisons. Lynn Harrell, one of America's most respected cellists, played with an obvious love and knowledge of the music but with a tone that seemed thin and wiry compared with that of Frans Helmerson, who played it with the National Symphony last week; a technique that sometimes had more subtlety (particularly in some exquisite pianissimo passages) but less self-assurance; intonation that was occasionally approximate; and a few notes that were slurred or dropped. These are all comparative judgments, of course, and Helmerson's performance last week was one of the most exciting I have ever heard.
The Philadelphia Orchestra, on the other hand, although it sounds like what it is--an orchestra in transition--is still playing routinely at a level seldom reached by the National Symphony. Even with a few rough spots (only by Philadelphia standards), it works with an ease and self-assurance that may lie in the future for the Washingtonians. It showed these qualities and sounded most like the old Philadelphia in the final selection, Liszt's "Les Pre'ludes," as meretricious a piece of trumped-up bombast as the romantic repertoire offers but one which the Philadelphians nearly managed to make sound convincing.