Die Meistersinger: The View from the Pit

by William Short, principal bassoon

On Saturday night, at roughly 10:00 PM, the elegiac Prelude to the third and final act of Die Meistersinger will begin. It comes four hours into a six hour-long evening, by which point Wagner’s comedic masterpiece has certainly begun to take its toll on everyone onstage, backstage, and in the pit. It is the subject of the first installment of a new series, produced by the MET Orchestra Musicians in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera, that will go further than “behind-the-scenes.” It will delve into the hearts and minds of the artists and craftspeople who make opera’s greatest stage come alive seven times per week.

A Leader among Soloists

Jerry Grossman (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Jerry Grossman (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

According to Principal Cellist Jerry Grossman, the long line at the beginning of the prelude occupies a part of the cello’s range that “distinguishes the cello voice in the orchestra.” It “lies well” on the instrument; it’s satisfying to play. The phrase is essentially a long diminuendo, with a single “hairpin” (a crescendo followed by a diminuendo). Passages like this require a tremendous amount of control over the bow, which Jerry refers to as a necessity for any string player. “You plan your bow according to the precise needs of every single phrase that you play.” This planning requires control over three variables: bow speed, bow pressure (how hard the player is pressing the bow into the string), and the location of the bow on the string. The latter two considerations are intimately connected: when the bow is at the “frog,” or right under the player’s right hand, it is easiest to apply pressure on the string. One has to constantly adjust the amount of bow pressure as one moves from the frog to the tip (the other end).

One might assume that Jerry must physically “lead” his section, particularly in a moment like this, but he explains that “only a couple of people can actually see me in the section. There’s a collective sense of what I may be doing…[but] I don’t play with any grand gestures. What I’ve learned over the years is that my leadership is not on a minute-by-minute, note-by-note kind of level. They’re following everything they see and hear, from the conductor, from the stage - they’re not really following me. But over time, they develop a sense of who I am as a musician. I try to lead by example.”

Indeed, the principal string players are the only orchestral instrumentalists who must simultaneously lead and blend with their section, so that the audience hears only a single instrumental “voice.” However, there are occasional circumstances in which extraordinary results can be achieved with the opposite approach. In a passage like the opening of Act III, “Jimmy [Levine] asks that we all play like soloists. I used to squirm whenever he’d say that, because I was afraid of what might come out, but truth be told it usually comes out great, because it ensures that everybody plays with a lot of personal involvement. We really dig in.”

Alone in a Chorale

After eight bars of increasingly dense, tortured string writing, four horns and two bassoons usher in a simple, glorious cadence. In the chorale that follows, bassoonist Daniel Shelly serves as the bass voice, a solo line that must be present without ever dominating the musical texture. “I’m just trying to lay a nice foundation down. [Principal Bassoon Patricia Rogers] has some really delicate stuff to do and I’m just trying to support that.” This dedication to the particular demands of his position extends beyond Dan’s musical intent. His reeds (which he makes himself) are specifically geared toward his role. He explains, “I like to keep them very light, very responsive” to be able to more easily support his colleagues. “The basses and baritones in the chorus in the second act of Aïda - that’s the sound I’m going for.”

Daniel Shelly

Daniel Shelly

In this particular chorale, Dan must do more than support the principal bassoon - he must also “lock in with the horns [by using] very little vibrato and matching their dynamic.” Dan admits that “it’s nerve-wracking, because Trish [Rogers] doesn’t play in the last few bars.” Even though the audience hears a blended chorale, there is enough physical distance between the bassoon and horn sections that he feels very much alone and exposed. He compensates for this by following the conductor even more closely, noting that, out of the entire orchestra, the bassoon section has perhaps the best view of the conductor.

“I’m always trying to keep the pitch down.” This is particularly important because orchestras tend to allow pitch to drift ever-higher, especially as exhaustion sets in and instrumentalists start to lose the fine muscle control that affects pitch. He does this by always “trying to keep [his] airflow going” to keep the burden off of the muscles that make up the embouchure (the facial muscles used to control the reed). “These chorales are just so gorgeous, and the strings here are a hard act to follow.”

Learning to Breathe

Ten feet away, Fourth Horn Barbara Jöstlein Currie’s role as the lowest member of the horn section requires a similarly specialized skill set. She notes that “all of the section players are there to match whatever the first horn is doing - note length, intonation. [The first horn] will often be on this very exposed tight wire, and you have to maintain a team feeling among the section.”

Barbara Jöstlein Currie (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Barbara Jöstlein Currie (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

“When you play any Wagner operas, you start breathing a lot more, you develop much better air support.” Breathing, a seemingly simple action, is something that must be honed to a level that bears little resemblance to everyday experience. “It’s like, when you’re working out at the gym, you’re breathing very differently from when you’re just having a conversation.” Not only does Barbara have to consider the quality of her breaths, she must coordinate with her section, also: “[Second Horn] Michelle [Baker] and I will arrange it so that we know where to breathe and where not to breathe. We don’t want our breaths to overlap, because then there will be a hole in the line.”

“It takes a couple of performances to adjust to the length of the opera, and by then you start making minor adjustments, like leaving out one little bar because you know it’s in unison with the second horn. Those first couple of performances are always a little nerve-wracking because you don’t know exactly how you’ll feel later in the opera.” For an opera like Meistersinger, Barbara adjusts her daily activities (as much as being a mother of three allows). “Some people take a nap…drink a lot of water…eat enough, but not too much - nothing too spicy or salty. That can really mess with your chops.”

Maintaining Momentum

Erik Ralske (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Erik Ralske (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

At the forefront of the chorale is Principal Horn Erik Ralske, who joined the MET Orchestra in 2010 after 17 years in the New York Philharmonic. “As a brass player, coming from an orchestral career, you know the Overture, and you think, ‘OK, five hours and forty-five minutes more of that.’ But [the rest of Die Meistersinger] just the opposite. It’s like chamber music, and you’re afraid everything is going to be too loud.” Until, that is, the Prelude to Act III. “After so many hours of being a background contributor, you’re just so grateful to take a full breath and blow it all out!”

Erik’s primary focus is “trying to move very rhythmically but not letting it become ‘vertical’ - to keep as much lyricism and smoothness in the line as possible. Except for the very end, it really stays very straight, very much in tempo.” Like Jerry, Erik’s focus is less on physically moving to lead the horn section. As he puts it, “The horn makes a lousy baton.” Instead, “breathing together in a natural and rhythmic fashion helps everyone come in together, and if there’s an inevitability to each eighth note - if everything moves in a logical fashion, the music will speak for itself.”

“In music, you’re always moving toward greater tension or release and that has to be reflected on a molecular level. It's critical when you’re playing slow, lyrical music - there has to be life within any long note. You always have to feel a sense of momentum in one direction or another; otherwise, long phrases can start becoming vertical. The constituent ‘beats’ within a long note can’t just stay static.” It is this momentum, as Erik aptly puts it, that makes the Prelude to Act III remarkable. It is characteristic of Wagner in its sense of inevitability, a quality that makes it uniquely satisfying for musicians and listeners alike. It is always inexorably moving toward ever-greater emotional catharsis. Wagner demands an immense amount of physical and mental commitment, but his works reward the effort in the most spectacular way. In the end, it is always worthwhile.