Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian plays bass in an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Return to Mordor

 
A pattern seems to be evolving at Ravinia; begin the truncated summer session with a week of Christoph von Dohnányi and end with a week of Lord of the Rings. I'm not sure how many years the eighty-three-year-old maestro has left, but now that the LOTR folks have turned The Hobbit into a trilogy of films, we have five more to go. (If they tackle The Silmarillion, I'll probably throw myself under a train. If Ravinia ever makes us play LOTR, the musical, I might self immolate in the parking lot.)
 
Sometimes it feels as if Sauron himself takes a hand in scheduling during the summer season. Nothing whips the Orc-hestra into that deadly combination of boredom and anger like fifteen hours of rehearsal spent going over (and over) two Beethoven Symphonies and two Piano Concertos (3, 3, 4 and 5 – don't ask me which is which; I'm desperately trying to put the whole thing behind me). Dohnányi, who has admirable qualities as a musician, also has a disposition which forces him to leave no turn un-scorned, and makes for some tedious rehearsals. The ensemble really seemed to hit its stride sometime around Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, with three rehearsals yet to go before the opening concert, the finest playing might have been lavished on the fellows cutting the grass or zipping around the empty park on their Segways.
 
These weren't the first outdoor concerts of the 2013 summer season, however. A couple weeks prior, the {redacted}SO took its show on the road to a local arboretum and presented three performances in a fairly bucolic setting. The motivation for doing such a thing, while somewhat complex, has to include a degree of frustration at the way in which the orchestra finds itself increasingly sidelined at Ravinia. After spending nine-or-so months a year as ostensibly the finest orchestra in our zip-code, it is something of a come-down to arrive at our summer 'home' and discover we are several rungs on the ladder below the likes of Steely Dan and Brian Wilson. (No offense to Messrs. Dan and Wilson – I'm sure they are fine musicians.) So, one option for those chafing under the dominion of the lidless eye is to make like the Elves of Middle Earth, get in a boat and set sail for friendlier shores.
 
During my student days, a friend faced a dilemma when he wanted to bring a girlfriend home for the holidays. His religiously conservative parents wouldn't allow any sort of cohabitation to go on under their roof. But, like the orthodox of many faiths, they allowed for a giant loophole, one which permitted my friend to do whatever he wanted, so long as it happened inside a tent in the backyard. I couldn't help but think of my old college pal while playing at the arboretum, as our very tent-like temporary stage groaned, creaked, and flapped like a ship caught in a gale. The price of freedom, I suppose, is sometimes having to put up with rustic conditions.
 
The concerts we put on were 1) The Music of John Williams, 2) the ubiquitous summer staple, an all Tchaikovsky program, and 3) a family concert of Mexican, Spanish, and South American selections that, on paper, looked the most insubstantial of the three, but which I found to be the most satisfying of the lot. As often happens when attempting to reach out to a 'new' audience, the programmers, perhaps showing a lack of faith in the commodity on offer, aimed low. Modesty and decorum prevent me from dwelling too much on what went down in the tent my friend erected in his back yard, but I assume he didn't curl up in his sleeping bag with a flashlight and a Superman Comic. It is one thing to win your freedom, and still another to know what to do with it. To continue banging away at a tired analogy, the consummation of the relationship between the orchestra and our audience ought to be the presentation of the finest music by the best musicians. Whatever the plans for the future, I hope our organization doesn't lose sight of that. Anything less is not worth leaving the house for, or, in other words, if you plan on getting busy, get serious.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Heart of Darkness

The Rivers Festival came to an end on June 9th, although the onstage activities seemed to take a week off for a Haydn/Martinu/Scriabin program that had nothing to do with rivers, as far as I could tell. Music directors conduct what they want, when they want to, and the rest of the season kind of takes shape around that. However, among other things going on that week, there was some sort of outdoor concert which the MD took part in, and also a bunch of brass players went down the local river in a boat (He got a real pretty mouth ain't he? - insert your favorite quote from deliverance here. I don't think Dueling Banjos arranged for Tuba and Bass Trombone made it onto the program, but who knows, I wasn't there, and since the nice web-page devoted to the festival has disappeared, everything I'm writing is based on very imprecise recollection).
 
To be honest, I ducked out that week for some much needed relief in order to play a set of concerts with a local period instrument group. While the Rivers Festival brought some new and interesting repertoire to the stage, it also brought its fair share of earsplitting selections as well. Some of the most enjoyable pieces, Bates, Revueltas, were also among hardest on the eardrums. So after several weeks in which I felt as if I might have been playing concerts for the hearing impaired, and/or in danger of joining their ranks myself, it was very nice to do something lower down on both the decibel and pay scales.
 
Although the performances took place after the scheduled end date of the festival, I did manage to get back on board for what was, I think, the last hurrah of River-themed entertainment, Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Gotterdamerung. It is well and proper to end this sort of festival at the Rhine; the waterway connecting Switzerland and the Netherlands has to be about as sacred to the classical music buff as the Ganges is to the Hindu.
 
Was the Rivers Festival success? Did it irrigate the parched musical landscape of our city, or did it siphon off precious, limited resources into unnecessary feelgood projects, fueled by focus-group generated corporate doublespeak? From my position onstage, it is impossible to comment on the many things I did not participate in. As mentioned earlier, I appreciated the influx of new or underperformed repertoire. If the various symposia and other events were a boondoggle, I cannot tell. I would greatly appreciate hearing what readers have to say about it.
 
Festivals may come and go, seasons change, music directors retire or move on, but one unavoidable fact, like death and taxes (depending on the circumstance, more odious than either) is the music of Anton Bruckner. We ended the proceedings last week with his 1st symphony, which I was really dreading until someone pointed out that the designation 'number one', rather than a descriptive title, merely functioned as an ordinal number. As a double bassist, like many of my comrades who play the instrument, I can confess without embarrassment to having thrived by reaping the benefits of lowered expectations. Therefore, when a colleague turned to me during one of the rehearsals and said “this piece isn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be,” I had a visceral sense of understanding. The most interesting thing I took away from the experience was noting the nested symmetry between the one work and the composer's entire output, observing how the great organist's maddening attention to detail, his dogged working through of an idea to its sometimes ridiculous conclusion, had persisted from the very beginning of his career and stayed the course from one symphony to the next, just as within each of the symphonies, that same maniacal persistence carried from one note to the next, one measure to the next, one section to the next, and so on. The ideas common to many, if not all the Bruckner Symphonies, depending on one's viewpoint either brilliant or execrable, seem to have sprung from his head fully formed and taken on the existence of unalterable truths, worthy of endless, worshipful repetition.
 
The 'downtown' portion of our season ended with a choral collaboration, including the Vivaldi Magnificat and Verdi 4 Sacred Pieces. After a week with a period instrument ensemble, the Vivaldi, although no surprise, came as a real shock to the system, a kind of “OK, you're back in Kansas” moment. The Verdi, on the other hand certainly more apropos, showed the assembled forces to better effect. It was nice to end on a high note. 

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Without a Paddle

Rivers Festival, May 9 – June 9
 
 
After two weeks of the Rivers Festival, it is hard to determine if we are headed up or down stream. Whatever direction, the journey has had its interesting moments. In spite of the minor drought of audience members, the Festival deserves credit for at least attempting to find some connection to the world outside the concert hall. Heaven knows we need some of that. For those interested in more background information, a handsome website has been put together. Go to {redacted}so.org and look for the link to the Rivers Festival.
 
Although talking about classical music programming has about as much relevance as a couple of Byzantine priests arguing over which moldering object in the reliquary might be the most holy, I'll risk putting a toe in those waters by saying I have appreciated the Festival for bringing a few seldom heard pieces to the stage. The usual dead, male, European composers will all still be dead, male, and European when the festival is over. (And besides, if their greatness will somehow fade from memory when other music is played every now and then, perhaps they were not so great to begin with.) And if we are going to rely on using 'popularity' to determine programming, we'll end up playing a lot more Film Nights and show tunes from now on. So, although while not everything we have played so far may qualify for 'greatest music ever written' status, I have few regrets over presenting these pieces to the public.
 
The programmers of the Festival cast a fairly broad net to round up the repertoire, some of which seems to have a tenuous connection to the matter at hand. Although not officially part of the Festival, a Beyond the Score presentation of Scheherazade found its way onto the schedule this month. The piece (spoiler alert) has a shipwreck near the end and Rimsky-Korsakov was apparently a sailor, a fact which was pointed out extensively during the presentation, perhaps as some sort of aquatic tie-in. The Rite of Spring (also not in the festival itself, but included in a list of 2012-2013 season 'Rivers Repertoire') had me scratching my head until a colleague bonked me over the head with the all-too-obvious relationship. Even the Film Night program that also sneaked its way into the middle of the Festival had a vaguely aqueous tie-in, Singin' in the Rain has water right there in the title.
 
The repertoire has so far skewed towards the folksy (Moldau, Mississippi River) or the Jungle-y (Amazonas, Panambi, Noche de las Mayas). Takemitsu's Riverrun was something a bit different and definitely a highlight for me. As always, I find myself wishing the programming could have gone a bit further. Crumb's Echoes of Time and the River would have made an excellent addition to the Festival and given the underrepresented 1960s more of a voice.
 
Crumb did win the Pulitzer for 'Echoes', for what it is worth, so perhaps inclusion in the Festival might not have been totally out of place. Another prizewinning composer did make it onto the schedule. Florence Price won first prize from the Wanamaker foundation for her Symphony in E minor, although her Mississippi River is naturally what we ended up performing as part of the Festival. The problem with a lot of 'river music' is that it falls into the formula of presenting a series of tableaus, as if we were floating by on a raft at some sort of kitschy theme park. First we come upon a group of natives in loincloths, beating drums. Around the next bend, a cheerful family of animatronic bears are singing 'round the campfire with banjos and a washtub bass. Further on, some shirtless woodsmen burst into a rustic folk melody. Beethoven avoided the pitfall by placing the 'observer' on the river bank instead. Clever, prescient fellow.
 
Actually, the topic of perspective came up when I spoke with my friend, Dr X. (Since he generated a lot of interest after his guest post, at this point I need to clarify that the doctor is a: straight, and b: happily married.) Anyhow, the good doctor reminded me of Heraclitus' famous saying (“No man ever steps in the same river twice”) and mentioned how music resembles a river of sound, never the same.  He went on to express some regret over his previous post. How can one complain of repetitious programming with both listener and performer in a constant state of flux? Perhaps the real mystery to music lies in the minute differences from one performance to the next. How is the Bruckner 7th Symphony a totally new piece when the maestro has eaten chicken instead of beef before the concert? Or pasta. Perhaps we need less variation, but deeper concentration. Variety is both a profound truth about the world and an illusion which obscures it, he said. Needless to say, the Doctor, in the process of buying his tickets for next season, is very confused.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Oh Doctor!

My vacation took me far away from the first couple weeks of the latest installment of music director mania. The third week had some underplayed gems on the program - Mendelssohn Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Beethoven Consecration of the House, Schumann Rhenish. (Mozart, Piano Concerto no. 21 with Pollini rounded out the show.)
 
Legitimately a masterpiece, the Schumann is also the least underplayed of the of the three. Nevertheless, I would gladly trade in a few extraneous repetitions of Bruckner 4, Beethoven 3, (and while in the key of E flat, throw in Ein Heldenleben) for a couple more performances of the Rhenish over the years. Consecration of the House might fall under the rubric of 'forgettable' works by great composers, and even butt of the (hilarious) observation that there are no undiscovered masterpieces. (Then again, there is no bit of received wisdom that can't be shoehorned into a tired old saying by some wag in the musicians' lounge either.) And even so, this 'Wellington's Victory for arts administrators' might have some deeper, hidden meaning, maybe a wry comment on banality by the great composer, who knows. It is hard to get to the bottom of a piece if you never hear it. I would trade at least a couple of the hundred or so 7th symphonies to play it once or twice a decade. Finally, while no Midsummer Night's Dream, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is not without charm of its own, but hasn't been played here since the (Fritz) Reiner era. (Maybe the programmers promised to get around to it in the Carl Reiner era.) Heck, we've played "Bear Down {redacted} Bears" more times than that since then, and if we had a better football team, the programming imbalance would be even more lopsided.
 
Recently, the subject of programming came up in a discussion with a friend of mine, who I'll call Dr X. The Doctor, who has attended scores of concerts over the span of about 20 years, admitted to me the woeful inadequacy of his musical training as a schoolboy, and later, as a college student. He went on to confess further that he relied on the orchestra as his main source of musical education, assuming that attending as many concerts as possible would lead to his developing a well rounded knowledge of the classical genre. He also admitted to being something of a homebody whose exposure to concerts came almost exclusively from the {redacted}SO.
 
This immediately piqued my interest, as I am of the opinion that organizations dedicated to the so-called 'high arts' have a duty to enlighten as well as entertain. The Doctor, who has continued to renew his subscription year after year, has undoubtedly been entertained, but I was keenly interested to know what sort of education he had obtained merely by attending our concerts over the span of many years. After a considerable amount of cajoling, I persuaded the good Doctor to put his knowledge into writing.

The Doctor asked that I beg the readers' indulgence, as he claims to have written nothing more than prescriptions since his student days and is a little shy about his prose. He also asked me to state that he often arrives at concerts dead tired after a long day at the clinic, which might have lead to him nodding off a few times over the years; and of course, he had no idea there would be a test at the end.
 
 
What I learned at the Symphony
by Dr X
 
 
The father of so-called classical music is Bach. Unfortunately, as his music is best handled by specialists, it is rarely heard in the concert hall today.
 
The first of the great symphonists was Haydn. A simple man, he was practically innumerate, writing about 6 or 7 symphonies but giving them numbers like 96, 104, and so on. In spite of its high quality and universal appeal, his music is rarely played.
 
Mozart wrote a great many piano concertos, three Italian operas, and parts of a requiem mass. As a symphonist, his output was slightly greater than that of Haydn. Sharing Haydn's innumeracy he gave his symphonies evocative titles such as Jupiter, Haffner, Prague, and Thirty-nine.
 
The first composer to complete a well-ordered set of nine symphonies was Beethoven. The even numbered were evidently 'practice symphonies' written between the more serious compositions and are rarely performed any longer.
 
Schubert, mainly the composer of about a thousand songs, took enough time off to write either one, or two-and-a-half symphonies. Sensing his own early demise, he numbered them 8 and 9.
 
Berlioz wrote one Fantastic Symphony. Mendelssohn and Schumann were also composers, but their symphonies have been mostly forgotten, or are apparently of interest to academics only.
 
The most important composer of the 19th century, Richard Wagner didn't write any symphonies at all, in fact, he might have loathed instrumentalists. He is best known for the Ring cycle and for inventing a chord progression which he expanded into a 5-hour long opera, Tristan and Isolde. The harmonic ambiguity of Tristan and Isolde permeated all music that came after, and miraculously, even some that came before.
 
Wagner's chief disciple was Anton Bruckner, who wrote the same symphony 11 times, elevating the idea of chord progressions as music to its highest level.
 
Brahms completed 3 symphonies that end loudly, and one which is no longer played.
 
Tchaikovsky finished 3 symphonies before effecting his own demise. His Pathétique symphony, oddly given the designation as 'number 6' is chiefly known for ending softly yet still remaining part of the repertoire.
 
No one knows how many symphonies Dvorak wrote. One or two of them (numbered 8 and 9, of course) remain in the repertoire to this day.
 
Mahler raced against his own mortality to finish a complete set of 9 symphonies. Depending on who you ask, Mahler had enough ideas in his head to write about 25 symphonies, or maybe 4 really good ones.
 
Richard Strauss came from a musical family. He showed great promise in his early 'tone poems' but gave it all up to write operas.
 
Stravinsky was another composer of the early 20th century who showed great promise before retreating into neoclassicism.
 
The great French composers were Debussy and Ravel. The former wrote La Mer, the latter, a bunch of 'Spanish' music.
 
Schoenberg was the most important composer of the 20th century although he wrote almost no music. Taking Wagner's ambiguous chord progression from Tristan, he essentially posed the question "What if everybody behaved like that?" and in answer came up with the 12-tone system. The result was the end of tonality and the beginning of the 2nd Viennese school. The greatest accomplishments of the 2nd Viennese school were intimidating composers like Stravinsky, Strauss and a few others.
 
Shostakovitch and Stalin spent a lifetime thumbing their noses at each other; the resulting gift to us is a fine set of about twelve symphonies.
 
The two greatest composers alive at the end of the 20th century were Elliot Carter and Pierre Boulez. At the turn of the 21st century, one of them was still composing music, but no one knows who.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Potemkin Village

 
The orchestral musician needs to know which things are bad and which are good. This usually applies to conductors and repertoire, but it easily spreads to soloists, critics, administrators, and a myriad of other things as well. A quick and easy aid to forming an opinion is to have a default setting, let's say any new thing is bad until it passes a litmus test to qualify for goodness. The reverse is of course true, albeit rare, as nobody wants to play the fool. Much lively debate goes on backstage as players take sides or work towards formulating opinions about the good and the bad. Some folks enjoy the verbal sparring. Others get less pleasure from it or become positively annoyed. If you take the debate too personally, it can be painful to see a sacred cow slaughtered on the altar of prevailing opinion; or else, hearing a perennial scapegoat suddenly elevated might bring on a sort of persecution mania, the feeling everyone around you has mysteriously taken leave of their senses and are all in league with each-other, plotting the downfall of music. As in the movies or literature, where the villainous are often more fascinating than the virtuous, discussing shortcomings proves more entertaining than singing praises, so sometimes it feels as if anyone who approves of anything is fighting a sort of rearguard action.
 
Events beyond the scope of this blog kept me from devoting a significant amount of forethought to my job, so the following concert kind of crept up on me, forcing me to make a snap judgment.
 
Borodin In the Steppes of Central Asia
Khachaturian Flute Concerto
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
 
This has to be bad concert, right? - the great Russian chemist's Ode to the Caravan, Aram 'Catchy' Khachaturian's immortal (read: un-killable) concerto, the oft-repeated, tragicomic 4th symphony - surely this had to be the most craven catering to mass appeal. And, as nothing can be truly lofty without trampling on at least a few bourgeois toes, this concert tiptoeing around in stocking feet had to be contemptible in some way, didn't it? Of course, the predictably raucous audience reaction spoke otherwise. There were standing ovations for everything that ended loudly. I also talked to a few people who were at the concert and loved it. So, maybe it was a great concert, the customer always being right and all. So much for the default setting.
 
Going back in time another week, we see this concert on the books:
 
Wagner Siegfried Idyll
Schoenberg Violin Concerto
Mahler Adagio from Symphony No. 10
Wagner Prelude to Parsifal
 
Not quite your classic shit sandwich - maybe more like gefilte fish and koogle on a Kaiser Roll - this odd concoction was originally to have been conducted by Pierre Boulez. (Incidentally, seeing the names Barenboim and Boulez together on a program brought back so many feelings of nostalgia - I kept thinking of the song "That Old Black Magic".) Strangely enough, just like the Khachaturian, the Schoenberg also received a rousing standing ovation, although, to be fair, it was the only piece on the program that ended loudly. This might have been a trap set by the wily Boulez, who I imagined dreamed up this program as a way to slip 12-tone music to an audience and make them clap for it the way some people slip a pill to a dog and make him swallow it. And who can say why an audience erupts for a particular piece and not another? Sometimes the 'Standing O' might be simply honoring a weary soloist for having strutted an sweated his hour upon the stage. Or else folks are merely standing to don their winter coats, getting a jump on the traffic or the line for the restroom. Nevertheless, there you had it, people standing and clapping lustily after a piece by Schoenberg.
 
One can perform an interesting thought experiment if we extract the 'fillings' from these two sandwiches and examine them side by side. The Khachaturian and Schoenberg concertos have little enough in common, so that without a great deal of effort, one can construct all sorts of antipodal relationships, from neutral (tonal/atonal), to opinionated (accessible/indecipherable), and on to the scathing (beloved/trash). Holding these 'antipodes' in the mind for as long as one can endure, it is an interesting experience to suddenly imagine a reality in which they were merged, where the irreconcilable is mysteriously and magically reconciled. Not exactly a religious experience, in fact, some would merely call it being open minded, but interesting all the same.
 
One sign an institution might be circling the drain is the encroachment of the so-called 'Pops' concert. 'Pops', which I believe derives from 'popular' somehow, suggests what is normally on offer might be 'not popular' - kind of an admission of defeat right out of the gate. Scheduling more 'Pops' is a way to sell tickets by supposedly giving people what they really want, which is something different from what is usually on the program, thus reenforcing the notion people don't want what you are trying to sell them. The 'Pops' strategy works, up to a point. When more people buy tickets to hear Schubert than Schoenberg, our sense of righteousness is upheld. But when still more come to hear Sondheim or Star Wars, regret sets in, and the audience, who we previously trusted, has now gone over to the dark side. Once the tail has started wagging the dog, it is hard to get it to stop. The fatal mistake might be in underestimating the taste and tolerance of the audience and playing down to that. The reactions to two quite different sandwich fillings over the past couple weeks has to be a positive sign that audiences are willing and able to demonstrate a little open mindedness.