Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

A real page-turner

Francesca da Rimini was on the menu last week. Tchaikovsky's infernal tone poem ranks low on my list of favorites, not only for its predictable harmonies and ear-crushing orchestration, but also because the edition we play from, the only imprint of the piece I've ever seen, is particularly bad. The editor's mistake of combining the cello and bass parts essentially doubles the number of pages, since the two sections play separate parts far more often than not, resulting in one bad page turn after another. The brisk tempo of the Allegro Vivo sections insures that a player barely has time to recover from one page turn before the next arrives. So scarring has been the experience that for me, The Divine Comedy evokes not the work of Dante, but describes the act of sitting on a double bass stool, having to get up to turn another page every thirty six measures, all while wearing a tailcoat. 

In music, the 19th century is mostly notable for the double bass virtuosi Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini. Yet even with those formidable bassists standing astride the era like a pair of musical colossi, the century must be viewed as a period of failed promise and unrealized potential for their instrument. Yet it began with so much optimism. The late symphonies of Beethoven assigned increasingly important roles to the bass line, culminating with a truly independent contrabass voice in the Ode to Joy of the 9th symphony. The decoupling of the cello and bass parts in early romantic music was initially greeted as hopeful sign that the double bass might be on the verge of assuming a more important, independent role in the orchestra. However, that brief period of optimism soon gave way to Weltschmerz as composers such as Richard Wagner took the recently emancipated double bass and immediately conscripted it into a new kind of servitude, shackling the instrument to the low brass section. By the latter half of the century, Francesca da Rimini, along with many similarly orchestrated pieces, represents a kind of nadir for the double bass in the orchestra.

Unlike the eternally suffering lovers, Paolo and Francesca, the cello and bass parts of Francesca da Rimini cry out to be torn asunder. From the baroque era through the symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert, a combined part for cellos and basses makes sense as the instruments play the same part far more often than not. Beyond the middle of the nineteenth century, depending on the composer, a separate double bass part becomes the norm. Simply as a practical matter, once the cello and bass lines diverge beyond a certain point, having two separate parts notated on individual staves becomes more of a liability than an asset when layout and pagination are considered, which makes the editorial decision to combine the cello and bass parts of Francesca da Rimini so unfortunate. There is also the ulterior motive that, beside the fact bassists don't need to see the cello part in order to keep their place, a certain amount of shame attends having our colleagues see how little we are doing behind them.

click to embiggen

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Party Like It's 1893

In years past, announcement of the schedule of concerts for a new season has sometimes been cause for great anticipation and optimism, while at other times it has provided motivation for me to double check the status of my retirement portfolio. This year, I decided to take a more dispassionate, data-centered approach to news of the 2018-2019 season1 by making a list of every work scheduled to be performed, including the year of composition, duration, number of performances, as well as a few details about the composer, and then seeing what the data had to say about it.

I made a few choices about what not to include. Tour repertoire tends to be even more repetitive than the season as a whole and, if I had to guess, is also more conservative. Since tour programs don't represent what we offer our hometown audience, I felt justified in leaving those programs out of the data set. I also omitted the so-called Film Nights, although they occupy two full weeks of next season, plus a number of performances interpolated into otherwise 'normal' weeks. I just don't feel those qualify as concerts, and I certainly didn't feel like counting Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the like, as 20th or 21st century music, so those didn't make the list. Besides those choices, anything offered as part of a subscription concert (minus the Star Spangled Banner) was included, as were the free outdoor concert and the Symphony Ball. Repertoire from concerts billed as Members of the {redacted}SO or from educational programs was not included. 

I used timings provided in our season schedule, which, I believe, are based on past performances. Actual performance times can vary wildly, depending who is on the podium. (We recently completed performances of a work listed in our schedule at 51 minutes that came in at about 65 minutes every night.) For new works, and others for which no timing was given, I made estimates based on a total concert time of 120 minutes. Seemingly reliable dates of composition were readily available online for most pieces. Where there was some question about the completion date, I tried to defer to the last year a piece had been worked on. In the case of arrangements, such as the Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet, the Ives arrangements by Schuman and Adams, I chose the date of the arrangement. I freely admit to a couple of guesstimates. Vivaldi Piccolo concerto? 1729 sounds good to me.

The list I compiled came to 325 performances of 104 pieces by 57 different composers, all in all, about 157 hours of music.

Here are a few fun facts about the upcoming season.

Party Like It's 1893
Confirming my suspicion that we are somewhat behind the times, the median year of composition for pieces scheduled to be performed next season turned out to be 1893. President Cleveland is welcome in the auditorium any time. I have no idea how this compares to past seasons, but my feeling is that, as orchestral time runs slower than normal time, we are gradually falling further and further behind. I'm still hoping that, before I retire sometime in the 21st century, we abandon our 18th century dress code, to mention one thing.

Better off dead?
Of the 57 composers, 62 were alive at the time of this writing, their pieces receiving 18 of the 325 performances. About 4 of the 157 hours of music scheduled for next season was written by someone who still has a pulse. I'm praying for all of their continued good health.

The winners are
Mozart - 32 performances of 10 different pieces.
Brahms - 20 performances of 6 different pieces.

One hit wonders
(composers with only one performance)
Johann Strauss Jr
Josef Strauss
Yes, that last one is a real shocker. The first two, not so much.

Year of the Woman? Think again.
Performances of works by female composers, 0.
Alex Ross had a nice comment on this.
One index of backward thinking is a lack of female composers. If an orchestra is programming few female composers, it is almost certainly playing little new music, since any serious consideration of the music of our time would have to include a large number of women.

Composer(s) of color
William Grant Still

Mind the Gaps
Repertoire spans the period 1729 – 2019. The longest gap between pieces is 32 years (1741-1773), separating the Handel Messiah and Mozart symphony 25, more or less a concession that the orchestra rarely dips its toe into the Baroque or early classical eras anymore. From 1773 and 1969 there is never a gap of more than 10 years between pieces, although the interval between the Chopin Piano concerto (1830) and Wagner Rienzi (1840) is just that. As expected, most of the action happens around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Although the current decade is represented by three new works, the lack of music from the recent past comes as more of a disappointment than a surprise. Lately, I'm wondering how much of music appreciation involves nostalgia. Since there needs to be a certain passage of time before nostalgia takes hold, the recent past is relatively unattractive in a nostalgic sense. One would hate to think of music programmers as being enamored of the latest shiny bauble, like the spoiled child who, upon receiving a new toy at every occasion, quickly loses interest in the previous acquisitions and shoves them into a closet to molder, forgotten.

The gaps in programming became more obvious when I grouped the repertoire by decade. (y-axis is number of performances)

There is a twenty year gap between the Schuman 9th Symphony (1969) and the Adams arrangement of Ives At the River (1989), and then another twenty years to Daugherty's Letters to Mrs Bixby (2009). Nothing from the 1970s, or 1990s, and virtually nothing from the '80s or the '00s. In fact, since the Adams/Ives is an arrangement by one composer of an earlier arrangement by another, one could make the argument that the real gap is an astonishing 40 years, 1969 – 2009. To pile on with the bleak news, Adams/Ives, Daugherty, as well as Corigliano's One sweet Morning, are all short vocal pieces, meaning that all of the repertoire from 1970 – 2016 totals about 15 minutes of music.

We recently premiered a commissioned work, a fine piece by my colleague Max Raimi. In spite of a good reception from the public, musicians, and, crucially, the Music Director, one wonders if the piece will suffer the same fate as so many of our commissions and world premiers and never be heard in our hall again. Perhaps, as part of the commission process, the orchestra could commit to more than one performance, maybe 3 over 5 years, or some similar arrangement. (Certainly, in case the submitted work was truly execrable, some sort of veto process could be included.) As so many of our much-ballyhooed commissioned or premiered works receive one performance before disappearing without a trace, I often find myself imagining a group of laborers on lunch break in a Belfast shipyard, circa 1913. Remember that ship we launched last year? What was is called? Titanic, or something, name escapes me. Wonder what became of that? Shrugging, they turn back to building the next boat.

1 the 'downtown' season, concerts at {redacted} between September 20, 2018 and June 29, 2019
2 includes John Adams, arranger of Ives, At the River

Friday, March 23, 2018

Raising the dead


A few years ago I embarked on a project to record a set of six Sonatas by Benedetto Marcello. A small but very unfortunate accident was a major factor in my never completing the set. The hard drive with six as yet unreleased movements crashed – actually fell off the dolly with all my equipment and shattered on a cement floor – taking with it the final two movements of Sonata IV and all of Sonata V. After such a setback, it was difficult metaphorically as well as literally to pick up the pieces and go on. Also, the recording process, where I would load both of my instruments and all my recording gear into a car and drive to an undisclosed location, usually in the middle of the night, to make the recordings, had become increasingly burdensome, so I went on to other things.

Quite some time ago now, someone informed me the links to the audio files no longer worked, and, indeed, when I checked, the file hosting service I had been using was long ago defunct. I was content to leave it at that until recently someone else accused me of deception or trickery, implying that the disappearance of the audio content had somehow been arranged on purpose, as away to hide my shame. In defense of my honor and, paradoxically, at the risk of losing it again quickly by re-exposing these recordings to public scrutiny, I feel I have no choice but to make them available.

It is natural to occasionally entertain doubts about one's path in life, specifically as related to one's choice of profession. From my perspective, near the top of the list of occupational hazards, right below being forced to look at photographs of myself, would be listening to recordings of my playing, which has made this endeavor particularly difficult.

Below are links to all of the relevant posts, with links to audio files (hopefully) intact.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

4 + 4 = 7

Some weeks the best strategy is to close one's eyes and to think, if not of England, at least about double bass fingerings.

On background, and for those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the instrument, apart from its size, the most distinctive difference between the double bass and the other stringed instruments of the orchestra is that, where the violin, viola, and cello tune in fifths, their larger relative tunes in fourths. This seemingly picayune difference actually represents a broad chasm, for although both are classified as 'perfect' intervals, fourths are actually a bit less pure than their 'goody-two-shoes' inversion, the fifth, which can almost do no wrong, harmonically speaking. On the other hand, the so-called 'perfect' fourth, with its checkered past, is actually considered dissonant in some cases. Imagine the dilemma suffered by bassists as they awake each morning wondering whether or not their strings are tuned consonantly or dissonantly! There are a number of reasons that the tuning in fourths became standard for the double bass. Certainly the longer string length made keeping the open strings closer together in pitch an attractive option. The smaller interval between strings makes for less shifting in step-wise passages; unfortunately, in this scheme larger intervals become farther apart. Tradition, or ancestry, might have played an even more important role, as the double bass inherited the tuning, along with some of its physical characteristics, from its forefathers in the Viol family. In fact, the modern double bass owes so much to its ancestors, the gentle, largely forgotten Viols, that while the violin, viola, and cello might truly be considered siblings, the double bass is, at best, a distant cousin. Now that modern science has revealed the persistence of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, it is interesting to surreptitiously glance at passers-by in search of echoes from our prehistoric past. Prominent brow? Weak chin? Elongated skull? Concert goers might avail themselves of a similar opportunity and glance over at the double basses, making note of the sloped shoulders, flat backs (I'm referring to the instruments here, not the players.), smooth C bouts, and so on, relics from a bygone era, eking out an existence on the fringes of the modern orchestra.

Discussion of Double Bass technique and pedagogy can have all the fun and fascination of comparing the hairstyles of Byzantine emperors. So, for the purpose at hand here, it is probably sufficient to note that most modern-day bassists in the orchestra use a technique where (in the first octave on each string) a 'hand position' spans two semi-tones, in other words, a whole-step. This span, taken across two strings, equals a perfect fifth, across three, an octave.

Intervals larger than a whole-step require a shift, string crossing, or some sort of 'extended' technique. Incidentally, and perhaps counter-intuitively, in my experience one of the most problematic intervals to deal with is the perfect forth. To play this interval, like all those larger than a whole-step, requires a shift, string crossing, or some sort of creative solution, with problems arising from the fact that, as the two notes lie directly across the string from each other, they must be barred (played with the same finger stopping two strings), or the hand angled so that a different finger may be used for each note, or the same finger can 'jump' across the strings (at the cost of legato phrasing), or else a string crossing and a shift can be used in conjunction. Stack two perfect fourths one atop the other and you get a minor seventh. (Yes, in music four and four make seven, one of the more minor annoyances.) The problems playing the minor seventh are those of the perfect fourth, compounded, which brings us to this passage from the latter third of the Finale of the Mendelssohn fourth symphony, measures 222-230. From the audience, you might notice the hands of the double bassists playing this passage on one string suddenly moving in agitated fashion in order to make all of the small shifts, up and down, like the needle of a sewing machine, or something else, altogether more embarrassing.

Apart from requiring many small shifts, the biggest problem here is the minor seventh at m. 223

N.B. If the 'D' is played on the 'G' (top) string, the 'E' on the adjacent string is about nine inches away, measured on one of my instruments – certainly a stretch to aspire to, but beyond the bounds of most normal human anatomy, and a long way to travel between two notes at the rapid tempo of the Saltarello. Of course, taking the two notes on the second and third strings is also possible. This distance measured on my bass at about six inches – a stretch certainly attainable by the average hand – but generating a number of additional problems, not least of which is the muddiness of tone which results from playing high notes on low strings. The solution I arrived at

seems a little less preposterous when taken in the context of what I wanted to do from m. 225

This fingering eliminates many shifts (only one after the third beat of m. 225) while adding a number of string crossings. Lately, I've become enamored of fingerings that let me leave my fingers down as long as possible. In performance, I 'bailed out' early and went back to first position in m. 227

Like certain interpersonal relationships, getting into thumb position is easier than than getting out, so you have to pick your spots carefully.  Here is then is the complete passage, with a decent alternative for mm. 225-226 below.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Once more unto the breach

“Of course, you know this piece very well.”

To the naïve or untrained observer, it might appear that the Maestro beginning rehearsals with such a compliment is off to a good start. However, this bit of flattery clangs off the ears of the hardened orchestral musician like a dropped mute, especially when it serves as the prelude to, maybe even an apology in advance for hours, perhaps even days, spent in a painstaking vivisection of the repertoire on offer. Indeed, in this context 'knowing the piece very well' is often coded language for received wisdom, the accumulation of error, or of a misguided tradition, which the conductor is about to sweep away with a number of well chosen words, leaving in its place something cleaner, more authentic, an ur-interpretation of what was once naively thought familiar. The empty promises ring hollow when brought up against the reality of the limited allotment of rehearsal time, not to mention the hubris of feeling oneself capable of knocking down an edifice in order to build a brand new castle-in-the-air during a few hours of rehearsal. Many times, when unrealistic expectations manifest themselves as inadequate preparation, it is this disdained 'knowledge' of the orchestra that saves a foundering performance.

To claim an orchestra knows a piece very well is a multifaceted assertion, but one which essentially boils down to an acknowledgment that the orchestra, as a group, knows how to execute a good performance on its own, with minimal guidance (sometimes even in the face of malevolence or gross negligence) from the podium. Obviously, this knowledge includes each individual player's mastery of their instrument, but further extends to familiarity with the other parts, which, in a practical sense, and in this context most importantly, means knowing what to listen for, how to respond to it, and how to incorporate that into the physical act of performing. This knowledge is pragmatic, visceral as well as intellectual; it is the accretion of all the player's experiences, numerous trials and errors over many years, triumphs, train-wrecks, hours spent in rehearsal, in practice, in listening, and for some, even in contemplation.

Just as merely attending a few lectures on human anatomy, reading a few textbooks, perhaps observing a dissection, might not make a person a good lover, listening to a conductor talk about music is not necessarily the best route to a good performance. The better conductors seem to understand how to balance the mechanistic with the spiritual when it comes to spending precious rehearsal time, acknowledging that, much like one's personal hygiene, the knowledge of the orchestra, in its visceral and practical sense, requires a certain amount of repeated, sometimes unpleasant, usually unglamorous, attention.

At one end of the spectrum is the conductor who relies too heavily on the knowledge of the orchestra, merely waving arms around and accepting whatever happens. Like the charlatan baker, who, having an order for a birthday cake canceled, merely scrapes off the frosted inscription and presents the cake to the next unsuspecting customer, this conductor adds little to the orchestra's store of knowledge, but instead cashes in on the work of others. This Maestro's appearance on the podium is a sort of nightly stage dive, where the orchestra, in possession of a sense of dignity, not to mention professionalism, along with the inability to take spontaneous collective action, catches him or her every time. The antipode of such a Maestro is, at the 'highest level' of the profession, more common, and, by most musicians, considered at least somewhat insufferable, namely, the incessant talker, the Maestro who does not leave enough rehearsal time for the orchestra to actually put into practice the myriad ideas presented. Perhaps as symptom of encroaching age, I find that, although I'm often scratching my head, trying to figure out how what is being said is going to help the week's performance, I have more patience for the talkative Maestro than some of my colleagues. Yes, the boyhood reminiscences, or what some far-flung critic had to say about a long-forgotten performance are odious, but other podium offerings make me happy to 'learn as I earn' - the steps to the ländler, for instance, or the difference between an Austrian and a German military march (or at least the fact that such a difference exists - interesting how many Austrians I've met who are at pains to point out the most subtle discrepancies between themselves and Germans), these may not be the most important things in the moment, certainly not from my particular corner of the orchestra, but they are interesting, and, year in year out, add to the collective wisdom of the orchestra.

The conductor, like the doctor who sees serious malady and does nothing, should be discouraged. Similarly, his counterpart, the well-meaning, overzealous ideologue whose first impulse is to immediately euthanize the patient and set about effecting a resurrection, should be gently dissuaded. Each Maestro who takes the podium leaves a mark, contributing to the orchestra's collective wisdom. The orchestra, out of necessity, and as a survival instinct, prioritizes pragmatism, and in so doing can be somewhat ruthless in dismissing otherwise well-meaning conductors. However, from a player's perspective, the steps to making a positive contribution, and to avoid becoming a cautionary tale, seem to be obvious, yet somehow illusive.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank the various readers of the Bass Blog, both colleagues and people unknown to me, who have contacted me during my lengthy hiatus. Your inquiries as to the fate of the Blog, not to mention my own well-being, have been greatly appreciated. I thank you for your enduring patience with this self-destructive hobby of mine. Of course, due to my contrarian nature, those who expressed pleasure at the disappearance of the Blog, and wished for its continued non-existence, provided the ultimate motivating factor in my decision to resurrect it.