LEWIS Lipnick is one of the stars of the classy musicales that Ditte Kaufman has every other month in her Capitol Hill townhoue. After doing his part in a sextet or octet, Lipnick will usuallplay a bassoon solo. But at the last musicale all Lipnick performed was some quick scat in the corner of the Kaufman kitchen. It went something like this:
Dobe do be dododo dobede dobede do do dobedede ...
Lipnick didn't bring his bassoon to the last musicale. He was trying to have a night off. For the last two months he had all but slept with the other instrument he plays for the National Symphony Orchestra, the contrabassoon.
"In January I'll be performing not just a premiere but the first contrabassoon concerto in the history of music." That's the way Lipnick billed his big nights with the National Symphony this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. "In this concerto Gunther Schuller has written parts so difficult that at first I didn't know how to make the sounds.
"I'd have to stand in front of Schuller and blow.He'd push here and push there on my instrument and we'd get the sound. Another composer poser came to hear how I was doing and he said, 'I never knew the contrabassoon could make sounds like that.' The sounds are improbable, almost impossible. I have a three-and-a-half octave jump. I have to push the instrument to the limit. I had to work 120 hours just to perfect two measures of the score, two measures!" That translates to 120 hours of rehearsal for six seconds of sound.
It might seem like Schuller and Lipnick are going a bit overboard. They are, but not for themselves.
"The contrabassoon is 16 feet of plumbing. It makes the lowest sound in the orchestra, but a lot of the time the sound it makes is a joke. Antal Dorati tells a story that after the contrabassoon played a part, Sir Thomas Beecham crowed, 'Don't forget to pull the chain!'" Lipnick explained, not laughing. "I got the idea for this concerto after a composer at a symposium said taht the contrabassoon made an ugly sound. I asked Dorati to write a concerto for contrabassoon but the said he wouldn't know how to begin. He recommended Schuller.
"I talked to Schuller when he came to town and he said he'd always wanted to write something for the contrabassoon. He said if I got him the money, he'd do it. Mrs. Kay Shouse [benefactor of Wolf Trap Filene Center] tried to help me get the money but she couldn't do it, so I was just about to give up. Then I mentioned it to Slava [National Symphony music director Mstislav Rostropovich] and he said, 'Must have it! Must have it! I get you the money!' And he got $7,500 from the National Symphony Board.
"Contrabassoonists all over the world already know about it. I got a call at three in the morning from one in California. When I was in Germany last spring contrabassoonists kept asking me if I had heard about the concerto. Schuller thinks that after his concerto there'll be three more composed in a few years. The things I'm doing are difficult but soon kids in school will be doing them.
This Tuesday a new struggle for rights will begin. Schuller's piece is no mere concerto. It's a demand: Free the Contrabassoon! Wake up, Family of Instruments, a memer long condemned to the back of the orchestra is coming out.
It is customary in profiles like this one to highlight those things which the man in the spotlight shares with all of us. Lipnick does have a nickname -- "Lewey the Lip." He has a CB radio in his BMW. He loves Mrs. Gunther Schuller's soup. He's also a 32-year-old Jewish boy who wears a Bavarian jacket. He explains that incongruity this way:
"This may not sound very patriotic, but I'm sick of America."
Give a contrabassoonist a concerto and he goes after a culture.
"Cultural life here is terrible. I'm sick of hearing a big beat wherever I go. Everything is surfacy, dictated by fashion. I'm thinking of moving to Germany, where people respect the things I respect. Germans love art, music. And not just the elite. In Salzburg I heard a woman humming a Mozart bassoon concerto on a bus! Can you imagine that happening here?
"How can a people that killed six million Jews still have such love for art and music? I met a Nazi in Austria and it was frightening. But I can't hold the past against younger Germans.
"I know there are people in America who love music the way I do, but I just don't believe the nation as a whole will ever respect what I do. Congress will never respect what I do. Lockheed will never fail, but symphonies will.
"Even in the concert hall I sense that people in the audience think we're some type of machine. They don't think we're human. But when I bought my Bavarian jacket in Munich, my German friend introduced me to the shop owner as a symphony musician. The owner started calling me 'Herr Doktor Professor' and opened a line of credit for me.
"During concerts here when I don't have a part to play I look at the audience. People cough, open candy wrappers, slam doors when they leave and talk. In Salzburg I sneezed at a concert. Everybody around me turned around and stared at me. I wanted to shrink away.
"The fashion here now is to give everything a standing ovaton. Standing ovations have to be given only to nearly perfect performances, not to everything! The symphony can give a bad performance and still get a standing ovation. Audiences don't respect us by their lack of attention and then they insult themselves by overreacting after the performance.
"And another thing, the people that run the Kennedy Center run it like the Pentagon. The humidity has to be controlled to save the instruments. Sometimes it goes down to 12 percent. It ruins my reeds."
The last gripe may seem arcane to the layman, but Lipnick doesn't like anybody showing disrespect for his instrument.
So here's a hometown boy entering the music history books, but if he could get a deal to go to Germany with job security, he'd take it. Fortunately for us, the chances are slim.
"German orchestras get paid less than American, and German musicians can bump any foreigner if they can prove they play just as well," Lipnick explained.
The best that can be made of the situation is for lovers of music to sit quietly while Lipnick and his contrabassoon break sound barriers. Then on the bus on the way home hum Mozart, or better yet, scat a little of Schullerhs "Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra":
Dobe do be dododo dobede dobede do do dobedede ...