Ken Pasmanick, for 37 years the first bassoon of the National Symphony Orchestra, has long been concerned about the paucity of solo works for his rich, dusky-sounding instrument. He decided a few years ago that one of the things he wanted was to commission an important new work for the bassoon. The product of that commitment will see light -- or voice -- for the first time here Thursday night, with the world premiere of Gunther Schuller's Bassoon Concerto, which Pasmanick will perform with the NSO under music director Mstislav Rostropovich.
Bassoon concertos are not common occurrences. Just about the only one known to a wide audience is Mozart's, a bubbling, bucolic product of his late teens in Salzburg (from 1774, in those days when, as we know now from "Amadeus," he was parrying with the archbishop).
Pasmanick started out on his commission with a fairly specific notion of what kind of work would be best. One of the reasons he chose Schuller, certainly, was the composer's identification with jazz -- his eclectic style is particularly influenced by jazz and he coined the term "third-stream music" to describe the amalgamation of jazz and art music.
"I didn't tell Gunther that much about what I had in mind, but I did tell him that I didn't want music that was reflective of mythic America (the majestic American Gothic sound that one hears in much of Copland and Bernstein)," says Pasmanick. "I told him that I wanted the work in part to have jazz elements, to have empathy for the stature of jazz, especially the improvisation aspect. I wanted something that was not abstract, something in a vocabulary that could be assimilated immediately.
"I've been playing in concert halls for 37 years, and there is still a rigidity of attitude toward jazz there, a tendency still to relegate it to pop programs."
The concerto that Schuller has delivered is, in Pasmanick's words, "kaleidoscopic essentially." But one movement certainly delivers what Pasmanick asked for. It is, he says, "a gorgeous, searing, tantalizing, exquisite blues movement." Pasmanick plays the solo part, and his words do not seem misplaced.
The concerto is in five brief movements -- more on the model of a very up-to-date divertimento than a traditional concerto. But the movements are in traditional forms -- each, appropriately enough, in a mode beginning with the letter "B." They are, in this sequence, a ballade, a berceuse, a burlesca, the blues and a badinerie.
The work is basically lyric in character. "Only two out of five could not be called lyrical." The exceptions are the badinerie and the burlesca.
Schuller does not make it easy for the soloist. "In general he defies the limits of the instrument," says Pasmanick, though with no real complaint. "What I started out having in mind was something that lay in the middle range of the instrument. I asked him not to be a Sherpa guide to the (difficult) high notes of the bassoon. But guess what! It didn't turn out that way."
Perhaps one reason is that the bassoon is at its loveliest at that level. Pasmanick regards the ultimate feasible note as a high E -- "though if you want to bleed internally you can get an F."
The poignant blues movement derives much of its cantabile beauty in a melody that builds gradually to that top E -- starting with a phrase that ends on high C, and then builds chromatically, the tension gradually rising in its phrase endings, to the E (C-sharp, D, D-sharp and then the E).
"Not only does Schuller write high," declares Pasmanick, "but he is asking me to perform in that level at a very virtuoso level. That generally is not what one does at that register."
The collaboration between performer and composer was an on-again, off-again proposition -- the relationship dictated by the busy schedules of both men.
"I got two movements in late October, the ballade and the burlesca. The others came on but in March I was getting sort of antsy about the last movement," recalls Pasmanick. "I started calling around and finally got him in the state of Washington. The last movement eventually came along."
There are also lesser-known works for bassoon -- by Weber, Hummel and Jolivet, to name a few -- but they are largely the province of the aficionado. And there is not yet anything for the bassoon of the stature, for instance, of the concertos composed for clarinet by Mozart and Copland.
The writing commonly identified with the bassoon, in fact, lies in large-scale orchestral works. Perhaps the most celebrated is the lyric theme that opens one of the world's most cacophonous works, Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du printemps." Other especially familiar passages are in Stravinsky's "The Firebird," Beethoven's Violin Concerto and in Ravel's "Bolero" and "Alborada del gracioso," all of which were performed by Pasmanick during a recent interview at his Chevy Chase home.
The Schuller work was financed privately, much of the money coming from National Symphony board members (among the contributors, the John Hechingers, the Henry Strongs, the Austin Kiplingers and conductor Mitch Miller). Schuller's own schedule will prevent his coming to the concerto's premiere. He will be in Germany, conducting yet another new work, his Third Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic.