16 Nov 2018

Meet the NZSO's newest bassoon

From Upbeat, 1:59 pm on 16 November 2018

David Angus, the Principal Contrabassoon with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, shows us his new toy ... a contraforte.

The contraforte is a radical new rethink of the 250-year old contrabassoon.

People have a lot of affection for the contrabassoon, but it's always had its limitations and has never been used as widely as the other secondary woodwind instruments like the cor anglais and the bass clarinet.

Now the German instrument maker Guntram Wolf has gone back to the drawing board and produced a new instrument, which they’ve called a contraforte.

Many contrabassoonists are welcoming the increased power and better control of sound it gives them. But it’s been so radically redesigned that some are questioning whether it really has an authentic place in the orchestra.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra has recently purchased a new contraforte and the man who gets to play it, David Angus, is buzzing with its possibilities.

In the video, he demonstrates the contraforte and compares it to the contrabassoon. He's joined for a couple of duets by his colleague Leni Hoeschen, David on contraforte, Leni on contrabassoon.

The contrabassoon is the deep bass member of the woodwind section in the symphony orchestra, inhabiting the same low pitch space as the double bass and the tuba.

Although there had been precursors dating back to around 1590, the contrabassoon as we know it today was developed in the mid-18th century. At 5.5 metres, its tubing is twice the length of a standard bassoon and its lowest note is an octave below a bassoon’s.

Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart all used it on occasion, but it was Beethoven who introduced it to the symphony when he included it in his Fifth Symphony (1808).

The contrabassoon in Beethoven’s time may not have been all that easy to handle because of its size.

Since then, the piping has been folded up on itself to make it more manageable to wield. Rather than holding it across their body like the bassoon, the player now rests the instrument on the ground in front of their body.

Over the years, it has been used more and more by orchestral composers and it takes prominent solos in a number of pieces including Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and his Mother Goose Suite, where it portrays the Beast to the clarinet’s Beauty.

Perhaps the new instrument will inspire a new legion of composers to write exciting new orchestral and solo parts for it.