Bass Blog

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

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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

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.