Interview: Jonathan Tunick, Broadway orchestrator and more

May 5, 2017

Jonathan Tunick is a show business legend: a composer/arranger/orchestrator/musical director for stage and screen; a collaborator with Stephen Sondheim, Placido Domingo, Barbra Streisand, and too many more to mention; and a winner of many awards.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear from Mr. Tunick a few years ago, when he contributed some information to my list of Broadway shows. Recently we were in touch again and he was kind enough to answer some of my woodwind-player questions about his work.

Jonathan Tunick

I understand you have background in clarinet playing. Are you still actively playing?

Although I can play the piano after a fashion, the clarinet was my true instrument. My uncle, a dedicated amateur who studied with Bellison, started me on the instrument at age ten, turning me over after a few months to Harold Freeman of the NBC Symphony, with whom I studied for several years. As a college freshman I had a year of saxophone lessons with Jimmy Abato, who gave me a few clarinet lessons as well. Later when I entered Juilliard I studied (mostly clarinet, but some saxophone too) with Joe Allard, a wonderful man and teacher, for four years. I consider him my principal teacher.

I was a fair classical clarinet player, played bass clarinet in the Juilliard Orchestra, and could play either lead or jazz in a band. My flute (Haynes, Louis Lot piccolo) playing was mediocre but passable. I freelanced in New York playing orchestra, opera, dance band, theater, resort and club dates through the sixties until my arranging career superseded my playing and my horns went into the closet.

A few years ago I started playing the clarinet again; chamber music with friends and fronting a 14-piece swing band made up of Broadway musicians around New York. I play a 1959 Buffet clarinet picked out for me by Joe Allard, and alternate between a Selmer Table HS** c.1938 and a Leon Russianoff c.1950 mouthpiece (these are Chedeville blanks faced by George Jenney) with Vandoren #4 and #5 reeds from my stash still in their sealed boxes since the 1960s.

Does your background as a woodwind player inform your orchestrations? How so?

More so as an orchestral and big-band section player in general than specifically as a woodwind player. The orchestra player learns to understand the principles of intonation, attack, articulation, sound color, and balance in a way that the pianist never can. The pianist will tend to hear chords vertically and so stack notes on the score rather than considering the movement of the parts. He or she will be tempted to write for orchestral instruments patterns that are comfortable for the piano, for example, repeated wide skips, which may be awkward for woodwind and other orchestral instruments.

This is why most of the great arrangers have been orchestra players rather than pianists. This said, it must be noted that the exceptions are dramatic ones: Wagner, Debussy, Strauss, Mahler, Ellington, Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Ralph Burns, etc.

What factors do you have to consider when writing parts for woodwind doublers? Do you have any rules of “thumb” about how long of a player will need for an instrument switch, or which instruments can go together in a book, or other logistical issues?

When planning an instrument change (and I try to avoid them altogether whenever possible) I simply count out the bars of rest in tempo while mentally going through the motion of changing instruments. Four bars of moderate tempo, six or eight of fast are usually enough.

I usually organize my sections somewhat along the following pattern, although many variations are possible

  1. (The “lead” chair and “flute specialist”) Lead alto, flute 1, piccolo, alto flute, clarinet 1 or 3. Will usually play 1st clarinet unless busy on flute, in which case reed 2 or 3 will be clarinet 1.
  2. (The “second” chair) Alto 2, flute 2, piccolo, clarinet 2.
  3. (The “clarinet specialist) Tenor, flute 3, clarinet 3 or 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet.
  4. (The “oboe specialist”) Tenor, oboe, English horn, clarinet 4.
  5. (The bassoon and “big horns” specialist) Baritone, bassoon, clarinet 5, bass clarinet.

If you eliminate the saxophones, a pattern more suited to operetta or classical players emerges:

  1. Flute, piccolo (optional clarinet double)
  2. Clarinet 1 (optional other clarinets and flute 2 double)
  3. Clarinet 2 (optional other clarinets and flute 3 double)
  4. Oboe, English horn (optional clarinet double)
  5. Bassoon (optional clarinet, bass clarinet, flute double)

Here is a good plan for four reeds, with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 1 or 2
  2. Alto saxophone, flute 2, clarinet 1 or 2, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 4)
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet (this might be on reed 2)

Phil Lang used a very versatile layout again with or without saxophones:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute 1, piccolo, clarinet 2 or 1
  2. Alto saxophone, clarinet 1, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet
  3. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet 3
  4. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, flute 2, clarinet 4

As bands become smaller, requirements become more stringent. Here is a typical format for three reeds:

  1. Alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, clarinet
  2. Tenor saxophone, oboe, English horn, clarinet (much greater clarinet ability required of this player than with 5 or even 4 reeds)
  3. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, clarinet, bass clarinet

If the score doesn’t require saxophones, The above formats work equally well without them; otherwise I try to do without doubles altogether, such as A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE, scored for 1. Oboe/English horn 2. B-flat/A clarinet and 3. bassoon, or INTO THE WOODS: 1. Flute/piccolo 2. Clarinet 3. Bassoon. This way I have a larger pool of accomplished players to choose from, especially out of town.

Do you often orchestrate for a Broadway-type woodwind section with specific doublers in mind, knowing their individual strengths, or do you more often write for musicians to be selected later? How much does that affect your writing?

I know my players well, and write to their particular abilities. Hiring a section is much like casting a show. I think of my players as specialists; the “flute specialist,” “oboe specialist,” “bassoon and big horns specialist,” etc., as well as the occasional need for a stylist: jazz, ethnic, etc. I assign solos according to the specialties. For example, the clarinet solo will not usually go to the oboe or bassoon specialist. When working out of town with an unfamiliar orchestra I am even more careful, avoiding unusual doubles altogether, even when assured by the contractor that he has people that “play all the instruments.” I remember all too well the guy who played bassoon, bass clarinet and baritone and they all sounded the same!

It seems that over the last few decades, woodwind sections for musicals have gotten smaller and smaller but also call for more and more instruments, including “world” instruments and other things. Is this true in your orchestrations?

In general, no. I use no more doubles than I ever did, and in most cases fewer. I want the player who plays the best, not the one who owns the most horns.

Do you have any advice for woodwind doublers who aspire to play on Broadway or other major venues?

Saxophone players seem not to realize the sheer brute power of this instrument. Three or four of them can swamp any brass section. They are amazed at how incredibly loud the saxes are when I invite one of them to come and listen up front. I’m always on the saxes to play softly, even under loud brass, and to use civilized mouthpieces with medium chambers and baffles.

But remember, this is just me. Other arrangers and leaders will have their own preferences and it’s up to you to find out what they want (very difficult) and do it for them (relatively easy).


Many thanks to Mr. Tunick for sharing his knowledge, and for all the great woodwind parts!

Comments

  1. Jessica McIlquham

    Brilliant article! Bookmarking for future reference.

    Reply

  2. Mike Wilson

    Great article. I’ve always enjoyed playing shows orchestrated by Mr. Tunick! Early on, I was hired by someone to play “Company” because when asked if I played alto flute, I said “yes, of course.” I went out and found an alto flute that weekend. And that alto flute has served me well, including “Nine”, “A Grand Night for Singing”, “Titanic” and other shows not by Mr. Tunick.

    Reply

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