Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

You're so vain

you probably think this blog is about you

The (poorly taken) photo is from Wall Drug in South Dakota. The sign behind the “Cowboy Orchestra”reads: “Our drugstore musicians ain't heard o' Petrillo. They play just for the thrillo.” (Note how their working conditions were unilaterally changed by management.) This is either a pretty old sign, or an extremely inside joke. I wonder how many folks who look at that know about James Petrillo?

Taken during my sabbatical last year, the photo seems all the more apropos lately since our contract was up for renegotiation this fall. Happily, after a few tense weeks an agreement was reached and everything is all smiles and bonhomie around the concert hall. Contract time is interesting to me mostly for its rhetorical excess – the pleas of poverty from management set against the claims that classical music is a priceless asset, as necessary to human survival as air and water. While the truth most probably lies somewhere in between, I feel that as a musician, albeit a cynical one,  my bet is that the deep pockets are even more unfathomable than the mysterious powers of music. I'm waiting to see the bottom of one, or the top of the other, with no real hope of glimpsing either before my career ends.

It is interesting that (at least at times other than during contract negotiations) management occasionally buys into what I think of as the myth of 'The Transformational Power of Music', which I would describe as the belief that some needy individuals, whether deprived of freedom, opportunity, or even the material necessities of life, might be changed profoundly through exposure to a concert of classical music. Then, of course, the coffers open and the funding flows freely toward such a glamorous and an ennobling end. Certainly not the only instances, but among the more notable examples of an institution getting caught up in that idea are the two tours we've taken to Russia. I think both trips were undertaken, at least in part, as some sort of effort to spread the message of freedom through music.  Although, during our first visit the U.S.S.R. was sounding its death rattle, I'm not convinced our performances had anything to do with its ultimate demise. Furthermore, trotting out an orchestra at some freedom-themed event always gives me a bit of a chuckle. If anything, the orchestra resembles, at best, a dictatorship in miniature (if occasionally even a benign one), and at worst, a dystopian, bureaucratic nightmare. I wonder how many strongmen or plutocrats who attend these concerts secretly lean back in their chairs with a feeling of self-satisfaction, seeing in the orchestra more affirmation than threat. Meanwhile the common citizen, for whom the music might offer solace, a balm against suffering, or even stir the heart to action, is nowhere to be seen, unable to afford a ticket.

When the Berlin Wall fell, with the obligatory triumphalist Beethoven's Ninth staged in the rubble, the cynic in me grumbled that if music really had such a transformational power, why didn't somebody put the orchestra there before the collapse, perhaps bringing it about years earlier? As a performer, it can be frustrating when the tail wags the dog, when symbolism Trumps the music, because musicians know that music really does have a transformational power. The little boy who, upon hearing the Schubert C major Symphony, threw down his crutches and walked, or the dictator who listened to the Missa Solemnis, wept and opened the doors to his prisons – I suppose these sorts of things might actually happen, but with such a vanishingly small probability that belief in them is essentially hokum, like trying to start a campfire by assembling the kindling then waiting for lightning to strike it. The transformational power of music is no myth, but I think it works in more subtle, certainly less direct ways. The showy, symbolic gestures our leaders sometimes fall in love with are wonderful, sometimes expensive, spectacles, which I grudgingly admit also have their place and their function. But music is most powerful as an element of culture when it becomes a part of people's day-today existence. I would go so far to say that music has more power when it is ordinary than when it is extraordinary. And, of course, the orchestra was there long before the Wall came down. The Berlin Philharmonic made its home for many years within a stone's throw of it. The many concerts given there, and the vibrancy of cultural life in the west had more power than any one-off concert could achieve, however glamorous. The real triumph was in the 'mundane' task of supporting a world class ensemble in a difficult environment – paying a wage that would attract the finest players, and making certain musicians would have the wherewithal to provide for the health and welfare of their families. Nothing particularly glamorous or mythical about that.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Cannon Fodder

Last week, either by design, or like so many things in this profession, by accident, the {redacted}SO at Ravinia explored the quintessence of our summer music festival experience. During the span of three concerts we performed a Zemlinsky Tone Poem, a pair of war-horse concertos (which both turned into white knuckle affairs), a Gala concert, that most American of summer staples – an all Tchaikovsky Spectacular, and, where we finally reached a kind of Waterloo, (insert Sad Trombone sound here) a film night performance of the movie Gladiator. About the only things missing were a major overtime boondoggle in favor of musicians and the devastating thunderstorm, which arrived Sunday evening about an hour too late to do anybody any good.

Alexander Zemlinsky, one of the composers championed by our departing warm-weather music director, makes the perfect mascot to represent the recent travails of the {redacted}SO in our summer home. Alma Schindler's rejection of a homely musical underdog in favor of the more handsome and successful Gustav Mahler emblamizes the way classical music itself has been jilted by our summer overlords in favor of the more appealing (and lucrative) Broadway and Pop acts which are now the current paramours of the festival brain trust. In the movies, the underdog makes an improbable, if predictable, comeback, while in real life, the weaker forces consult focus groups and audience surveys as they continue to back-pedal, before finally declaring victory.

Of course, the apex, zenith, and nadir of any musical season is the gala concert, which in summertime includes the added spectacle of seeing several hundred very uncomfortable looking gentlemen strutting about in ninety-degree heat wearing tuxedos. At least members of the smarter can sex resort to sleeveless or even strapless attire. A concert is really something when the most delicate playing from the orchestra takes place during the Star Spangled Banner, but such was the case in our Gala Tchaikovsky Spectacular. Maxim Vengerov, who survived the violin concerto by sheer force of will and a seasoned veteran's ability to keep his head down (and a straight face) during the tutti sections, got the evening off to a roaring start, earning bravos for, if nothing else, surviving salvo after salvo of in-artful accompaniment. Advancing deeper into Russian territory, the orchestral campaign stretched its supply-lines to common sense almost to the breaking point and became bogged down during an overlong suite from Swan Lake that evoked images more pachydermical than avian – if there is anything less than fortissimo in that ballet, I'd love to play it someday, but alas. In the end, the Grand Orchestral Army marched on to its dénouement in that ode to the Musical-Industrial Complex, The 1812 Overture. I guess it says something about a musical evening when the inevitable, longed for conclusion, is the warm caress of the cannonball.

Just as the Grand Army of the French Republic found no rest after its Pyrrhic conquest of Moscow, the mighty {redacted}SO, heads bowed but spirits not yet completely broken by the aforementioned Gala concert, had to return the very next evening for the Film Night performance of Gladiator.

Hans Zimmer may very well be a great film composer. Gladiator may very well be a great, or even competent film score. At this point in my career (or perhaps just this summer) I think shell shock can be attributed as significant cause to disqualify me as any kind of of judge. I will say, however, there is a certain level of Dante's Hell in which arguably one of the greatest orchestras in our time zone sits idly by in ninety-plus-degree heat during rehearsal while a conductor, in the monstrously erroneous belief he is earning kudos for doing so, scratches his head and mulls over whether the percussion section should be shaking a necklace made of Puka rather than Cowry shells, or if the ratchet in use has thirty-six rather than thirty-eight teeth, or if the baton used to strike the Taiko drum is of Hinoki or Taro wood.

It seems as if these film night concerts are here to stay, which isn't an entirely bad thing. Although Gladiator wasn't a sellout by any stretch of the imagination, these type of concerts seem to be popular even if the musical appeal of the selections is sometimes pretty questionable. Making these the backbone of a symphonic season might be questionable strategy as well. Using a pickup orchestra, or what we call 'members of' (optional extra employment) would ensure a happier orchestra – think of how much better a galley plies the waves with free men at the oars rather than slaves – and it would also free management from some of those pesky union rules about weekly service counts and whatnot. Even Napoleon knew some things are best handled by mercenaries.

P.S. As originally published, this post contained some language that was regrettably sexist and vulgar.  My apologies.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Fantastic Fingering

Seeing a noted soloist return as a conductor is not often cause for high hopes, whether the transformation occurs after age has taken its toll on the playing, or in mid career, ennui, or an inflated ego has inflamed the desire to conquer a higher musical mountain. Although but a few steps, the journey between the soloist's spot at the footlights and the podium is a perilous road which has buried many a neophyte beneath an avalanche of overwhelming details, thrown many an overeager yet unprepared dilettante down into a hidden crevasse, or left many a dabbler dawdling along the crisscrossing paths of interpretive uncertainty.

With these thoughts in the back of my mind, Nikolaj Znaider playing a Mozart concerto and conducting Symphonie fantastique on the Ravinia schedule looked like cause for concern. As if to confirm my worst fears, when greeting the orchestra, his Israeli-tinged accent immediately brought on a horrible, pit-of-the-stomach sinking feeling, flashbacks to our own local fin de siècle malaise. Fortunately, he quickly dispelled those awful feelings with his cheerful, warmhearted demeanor on the podium. After years of trying to figure out the relationship between our winter and summer managers, or if there is one at all – sometimes they seem to be thumbing their noses at each-other, at others, they seem to be ignoring each-other altogether – I've given up trying to figure things out like why we had just played the Berlioz about two weeks prior, during our annual week-long residency at a local arboretum. (The two concerts were about forty miles apart. I wonder if there is any overlap in audience.) Whatever the reason, I wouldn't say the musicians were on the edge of their seats, eager to play the piece again so soon. I might even say exactly the opposite was true. But against all odds Znaider succeeded in making it a more or less pleasant experience. Not the best performance we've ever given, but he did some nice things, and I find him very likeable.

(Non bassists should consider stopping at this point.)

Symphonie fantastique has a bunch of fun passages for the double basses, a few of which even make it onto audition lists from time to time – Marche au supplice, Scène au champs, Ronde du Sabbat, and the excerpt below, which is from what I'd guess one might call the development section of the first movement, Rêveries – Passions. The fingering dates back to my student days, and it's either a very good fingering, or else I'm very lazy, because I've never changed it.

From where the quarter notes begin, the first three bars aren't 'extensions', although that is certainly a possibility depending on string length and hand size, but rather 'pivots' (where the thumb doesn't move). The first real shift occurs between the 'g' and 'e' (where it says: 'shift').

The next several bars might become clearer with brackets showing the different 'positions', and, consequently, where the shifts occur. 

The overlapping brackets in the second bar show where the thumb is 'brought up'. After the perfect fifth (e – a: 4 – 1) is established, the hand pivots on the first finger, leading to the minor third (a – c: 1 – +). I find this fingering for minor thirds to be pretty comfortable, and the diminished triads, adding the 2nd finger are solid. The shift (from a to e, 1 – 2) moves the entire hand up a half-step to establish the triad on a-sharp

In the following measure, the first finger remains in place (a-sharp = b-flat) and the thumb moves up one half-step. One bar later, it is the thumb which remains in place while the 1st and 2nd fingers move up a whole-step to set up another diminished triad. In the final two bars, the 'd' is closed with the thumb, then the hand pivots on the first finger and the thumb comes off the string so the harmonic may be touched with the 4th finger. As Berlioz might have said, voila!

A few more comments.

For my taste, the 'small' or 'quick' little crescendos and diminuendos, such as occur throughout this any many other passages in Berlioz, can almost never be too exaggerated. Making these dramatic dynamic effects, which are often at odds with the meter, gives more of the lurid, frenzied, and in this case dreamlike character to the music.

The quarter-note passage appears in the part with four notes slurred. Splitting those slurs in half makes it easier to maximize the crescendos. This bowing is, I think, the 'industry standard'. I'm curious to hear from anyone who adheres to the printed slurs.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pray for Rain


Since no summer of Bass Bloggery can go by without commentary on the season at Ravinia, it is time to take on the festival.
“What are you doing home on a Saturday night?” one of my neighbors who knows what I do for a living asked during a recent impromptu front porch gathering, calling attention to the fact that in years past the rigors of my profession often forced me to eschew the warm weather social scene on our block. Happily, I could inform my neighbor since the {redacted}SO would only have three Saturday performances all summer, my attendance at future gatherings would be more likely. Having been at something of a loss for words to describe this year's iteration of the festival, and also desiring to come across as a bit less judgey about our summer working conditions, I hit upon the notion that through numbers I might be able to describe the situation. Numbers, after all, being impartial arbiters of fact, don't lie. So here are a few numbers about the {redacted}SO summer season at Ravinia.
Number of weeks – 6
Total concerts – 16
Concerts conducted by Music Director – 5
Saturday concerts (see above) – 3
Sunday concerts – 4
Weekend concerts of classical music – 1.5 (One half point deduction for Gala all Tchaikovsky concert use of live canon)
Film nights – 4
Pops concerts – 2
Classical music concerts of orchestra without soloist(s) – 0
Rehearsals needed to put together film night Fantasia concert – 3
Rehearsals needed to record soundtrack with James Levine – 0 (I think we had 3 recording sessions...)
Performances of Star Spangled Banner – 2
Performances of works by Mozart – 3
Performances of works by Beethoven – 2 (not counting Fantasia)
Performances of works by Tchaikovsky – 2 (not counting Fantasia)
Performances of works by Elfman – 15
Performances of works by living composers (excluding pops or film nights) – 7 (OK, I'm joking: 0)
Total number of rehearsals – 34
Rehearsals per concert – 2.125
Concerts under conductors I have never heard of – 5
Perhaps I'm finally succumbing to Old Fart Syndrome (OFS), the main symptom of which is clinging to the belief that everything which occurred in the past is vastly superior to that which is happening now. Nevertheless, I seem to recall the {redacted}SO experience at Ravinia used to be something quite different from what it has become. We used to put on eight weeks of concerts, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from about the middle of June until the middle of August. A colleague pointed out that back in the day, the number of rehearsals per concert was more like 1.5. Three full rehearsals for Fantasia last week was cruel, but unfortunately not unusual punishment. I tried to find a schedule online from 1990, my first full summer at Ravinia but those pre-internet things aren't always so easy to find, so I gave up after a few clicks (another symptom of OFS is extreme impatience). A few tantalizing clues, along with a clouded memory leave me with the impression we opened with Mahler 2nd and later in the summer did Das Klagende Lied with guest conductor James Conlon. We also performed works by Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, of all people. A 'pops' concert back then was James Levine conducting Gershwin overtures as well as playing Rhapsody in Blue with the orchestra, which became a Deutsche Grammophon recording. The first three concerts of this season are Porgy and Bess, conducted by Bobby McFerrin, a film night mashup of the two Fantasia movies, and another film night of Danny Elfman's Tim Burton film scores. Sadly, even with the LoTR films behind us, it seems there is no escaping another summer dose of all things Efl-ish.
(Photo above taken from the Ravinia Festival Brochure – redaction by Bass Blog editorial staff.)

Monday, June 08, 2015


Well, I'm back.” – Sam Gamgee
Sorry for the lengthy hiatus. For some of the time, I have a good excuse for not posting – I was away on sabbatical for a year – and for the rest of it, I have an even better one – general malaise, with a side of laziness.
Thanks to those kindly who inquired as to the fate of the blog, and even in a few rare instances, my own well-being. The requests to have the blog start up again were all greatly appreciated and truly touching. Any fellow creeping along a high ledge, hearing the crowd below encouraging him to 'jump!' would be so moved.
After rubbing elbows with the peculiar brand of paranoia extant in the orchestra for many years, I find it difficult to divulge my exact whereabouts during my time off. With the beginning and endpoints shrouded in secrecy, details of my travels to other points around the globe must remain necessarily vague. Flirting with treasonous candor, a few nuggets of information are more than I should provide.
My goal was to spend the entire year out of the zip code, in a different time zone, and for at least half the time, off the continent all-together. For four months, I sojourned in an American city, famous for its bridge, if not other things. During that time I prepared a possibly ill-advised (as if there was any other kind of) double bass recital, which I presented in my hometown.
The next four months were spent in an island nation, notable for the tendency of its inhabitants to drive on the left-hand side of the road. After that, the remainder of the year passed in a city on the European Continent, formerly a great naval power, now celebrated for its scenic canals, if not its cuisine.
I returned to work in September 2014, with every intention of starting up the old blog again. But, as I found out, it's hard to get on when the merry-go-round is already spinning. And after a year away, the orchestra can seem a bit overwhelming, like gazing at one of those Bruegel paintings of teeming village life. The longer you look, the more quirky and curious things you might see – there are always small scenes of cruelty or debauchery lurking at the corners.
The only incident worth recounting from my sabbatical happened right at the beginning.
A couple days drive from a Large Midwestern City will bring you to the congressional district of a former vice president, ironically the man most responsible for ushering the phrase 'undisclosed location' into common usage. When choosing a roadside motel, especially with a year's worth of belongings crammed into one's car, the often warring desires for cheapness or comfort are subsumed by the need to park as closely to the room as possible. Finding myself in this particular undisclosed part of the country, I had very low expectations.
The first surprise came at finding a cheap, clean motel, with parking right at the door to the room. Next was discovering the place had a happy hour with all the free beer you could drink. The bartender, who I vowed never to forget but whose name flew right out of my head after the second large plastic cupful, kept the tap flowing freely. Besides myself and the bartender, the place was deserted except for a group of four thickly bearded men in camouflage, and a bunch of animal heads bearing doleful witness through their glass eyes.
How about a little television? The friendly barman snapped on the set before supplying the room with another round.
Even with the set behind me, it wasn't long before the hairs on the back of my neck began standing up. That unmistakable sound – I can't bring myself to really call it music. I'll be damned if LOTR:TTT* wasn't on TV. Almost unbelievably, those were the last concerts I'd played with the {redacted}SO before my sabbatical began, a few days earlier.
One of the camouflaged gentlemen, and it struck me I had no idea whether they were dressed for an excursion of animal or human slaughter, was out of his seat, quick as a cat, heading for the TV. With a hand on the knob, and in a voice that left no doubt anyone in disagreement would likely find their head mounted on the wall among the glassy-eyed creatures, he asked rhetorically, nobody's watching this, are they?
My sabbatical went on for another 363 days, but I might as well have headed home the next morning. I didn't learn a more profound thing the entire time: You can find a kindred spirit in the most unlikely of places.
*Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers