Calgary Phil musicians Michael Hope, Assistant Principal Bassoon, and Slavko Popovic, Principal Clarinet, released a new video this week featuring a duet for clarinet and bassoon. The two had been hoping to get together to record a different performance, but when that wasn’t possible, they chose a new work that would allow them to record their parts separately, then fuse them together through the magic of technology.

We asked them to tell us about the music and share the story behind the video:

What sparked the idea for this project?

Slavko: Mike and I were talking about possibly getting together to play and record Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon — sadly, the new restrictions put a stop to that. I then immediately thought we could record one movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Duos for Clarinet and Bassoon. It’s much, much easier to put together on the computer compared to the Poulenc — and seeing as Beethoven recently had his 250th birthday, we thought it appropriate to select this work!

Is clarinet and bassoon a common pairing?

Michael: It’s a really common pairing (Slavko lovingly calls this combo the ‘claraboon’). I think because clarinet and bassoon players are always sitting beside each other in orchestra, we know how good the instruments sound together. Plus, we just naturally get along with each other (most of the time…) and play duets a lot. We’re doing more projects like this together while we wait for things to get back to normal.

Tell us a little bit about the music you chose.

Slavko: The piece we recorded is the last movement from Beethoven’s Duo No. 3 for Clarinet and Bassoon, titled ‘Aria con Variazioni.’ Beethoven wrote a slew of wind chamber music during his early years living in Bonn, Germany, prior to his move to Vienna, Austria in 1792, but these three duos were not published until 1830, after his death. We’re not certain who he wrote them for, but the interesting thing to note is that these are the first duos composed for this specific combination of instruments, without accompaniment. Up until Beethoven’s time, composers commonly used the clarinet and bassoon as solo instruments or in combination with strings or winds. This was a new and fresh idea for Beethoven to combine just those two instruments alone! It seems to have inspired composers such as Franz Danzi to write his Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon with orchestra, and even Richard Strauss to compose his Duett-Concertino.

How do you play a duet when you can’t be in the same room together?

Michael: This was the tricky part! Slavko recorded his part and e-mailed it to me. I then recorded my part while listening to his part in an earphone. (This part was easy — I’m used to following and listening to Slavko and we do this all the time live in orchestra. Plus, he’s a natural musician and a great leader.) I then put the two parts together using computer programs, which took several hours. Just setting a natural acoustic was challenging (i.e. making it sound like we were in the same room) and of course making sure everything was together. It’s funny — using software to solve musical problems after the fact is fun and magical, but it does take time. Ironically, what took us hours to solve when we were apart would have taken mere seconds to work out if we had been rehearsing in person.

In addition to creating videos like this, what are some of the other things you’re doing to keep your skills sharp?

Slavko: With all this free time, I have more opportunities to be alone with my instrument. It’s been nice to go over certain repertoire I wouldn’t have had time to before the pandemic, unless I had to perform it. I’ve also been going through all of my etude books — I kind of feel like a student again! Also during the pandemic, I have rekindled my interest in composing and arranging. At the moment I’m working on my own arrangement of various operatic arias by Mozart for Two Clarinets and Two Bassoons, as well as a piece of my own.

Michael: I’m practising a lot. Staying in condition can be challenging when you’re not going to work every day, so private workouts are the best way to go (in addition to exercise and rest, of course). Projects like this video are important too — just to keep in the habit of listening to one another.

What are you most looking forward to when limits on gatherings are lifted?

Slavko: Playing with all of my colleagues, and sharing the great music that we play with our audience, of course! This pandemic has been extremely devastating to everybody, but the music industry has been hit hard for sure. I was really sad that we weren’t able to complete our Beethoven cycle that started last February, and I’m missing all the great symphonic and operatic literature that we play. Although, I do love chamber music, and am grateful that we are able to record all these virtual concerts for our audience. In chamber music, I’ve been working very closely with some colleagues that I otherwise would not be able to while sitting in the back of the Orchestra, so it’s nice to get to know and also hear them in a more exposed, intimate setting.