Basset Horn Break Down

A 19th century basset horn (left) and a modern basset horn (right). A member of the clarinet family, the basset horn has a lower range and darker sound than the Bb clarinet.

It’s rare that a concert is stopped midway through a piece, but that’s exactly what happened during Sunday’s MOZART SERENADES concert when part of an instrument broke off mid-performance.

The heroic actions and incredible sight-reading talents of one California Symphony musician saved the day.

Rarely played today, the basset horn is featured in a number of Mozart’s orchestral works, operas, and concertos, including his iconic Gran Partita. Last weekend, Stephen Zielinski was one of two musicians playing the unusual instrument.

Stephen picks up the story…

Stephen Zielinski

“In the first half, I noticed that there was a lot of “water” (a polite word for spit) in one of the keys, which is not too uncommon.

After swabbing, I noticed the cork pad completely fell off the instrument! I tried to get it back on, but it needs to be a perfect seal in order to work. The cork that fell off is part of the instrument’s “register” key which is one of the most important pads of the instrument.

I had my Bb since I was playing in the first half on the Strauss, and we had an alternate part for Bb clarinet, which is close but not exact to the original part.

Since the basset horn is in F, I was reading the part without any markings and with all new key signatures.

It was definitely an exciting experience!”

—Stephen Zielinski, Principal Basset Horn
The pad that fell off is the one just under the little bridge in the photo

Donato adds: “The basset horn, which had been loaned to us, broke down after the second movement. We began the Adagio and Steve was clearly struggling, so I stopped and he told me that he would have to switch to his clarinet and play the version written for clarinet, which was miraculously in his folder…

He ran off stage to get it and did an extraordinary job playing the remaining movements!”

Kudos to Stephen for his heroic efforts and prodigious talents that meant the show could go on. It’s a performance we’ll remember for a long time!


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