Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Welcome Satan – I mean Santa

For the next two weeks the CSO will be solely occupied playing ‘Welcome Yule’ concerts. WY is the kitschy, money making Christmas show put on every year. I think it has been going on for 10 or more years now.

In the past, WY concerts were offered as ‘members of’ (meaning: members of the CSO) concerts. ‘Members of’ concerts are extra work for extra pay and are strictly optional. In years past, the CSO would continue to play ‘regular concerts’ (i.e. classical symphonic music) while the WY shows were going on. CSO players could opt to have a very busy schedule right before the holiday break and earn a little extra money. Those of us not wishing to indulge in that crass form of entertainment could simply say no. The difference this year is that WY is now part of the regular schedule. Participation by CSO musicians is not optional, and of course there is no extra payment. Also, for the next two weeks there are no more regular orchestra concerts by the CSO. Classical music has left Orchestra Hall (or Symphony Center as it is now called), replaced by Xmas music.

The plus side for me is that WY uses a smaller orchestra – only four basses – so I don’t have to do it. In fact, not playing WY means I don’t have any CSO work until January 9, 2007. The CSO has traditionally not given concerts during a two weeks span from around Christmas until after the New Year.

While it may seem ridiculous for me – looking at a month paid vacation – to criticize the situation, I can’t help but feel depressed seeing the once proud CSO reduced to playing gaudy Christmas music.

Without mentioning names, some of the arrangements are truly awful. I played WY during one of the first years. Sitting next to my good friend and colleague Rob Kassinger, we were rehearsing a leaden arrangement of Frosty the Snowman that had the basses slogging along with almost every note below the ‘E’ string. I caught Rob’s eye and we both burst out laughing. It has been an ongoing joke since then – the elephantine Frosty lumbering along like some demented holiday Godzilla.

I understand that the organization needs to make money, but in my opinion WY goes too far. There is plenty of wonderful classical music appropriate for this time of year. That is what a great orchestra should be playing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

This week

This week's concert

Gunnelpumpers at the Muse Cafe

For the next two weeks the CSO is playing Welcome Yule Xmas concerts. Mercifully, I am off of that, so here is my less than busy schedule.


Monday
Travel from New York

Tuesday
10-1:30 Teaching
8 PM Gunnelpumpers

Wednesday - Sunday
off!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Sermon on the Mount



After hearing about them for quite a while, I finally got a look at the famous Max Dimoff warm-ups – I’ve also seen them referred to as the Cleveland warm-ups – an interesting collection of this that and the other. My eye went immediately to the Simandl Gradus ad Parnassum excerpts (Gradus ad Parnassum is Latin for ‘Steps to Mount Parnassus’, or some such thing) due to their similarity to some passages in the Bruckner sixth symphony I had recently been working on.

The passage from Gradus begins


Below the section is the admonition to ‘keep 4th firmly on the string throughout…’ I assume this means the 4th finger – whether this comes from Simandl or not I don’t know, having never studied Gradus.

Nevertheless, I assume the fingering to look something like this




This was something of a revelation, since I had no experience with these kinds of cross-string fingerings using the third and fourth fingers. For me, fingering the minor seventh across three strings was more in tune using 2 – 4, saving the 3 – 4 fingering for the 4th on adjacent strings. The advantage was twofold in that the longer 2nd finger was better to manage the stretch, and the first finger was freer to prepare for the next note.

This also created a kind of horizontal position



So far so good, but the next passages looked like this




Assuming no open strings – since the exercise modulates through all twelve keys – I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out how to keep the 4th finger down throughout. Anyone in possession of how to do this will receive rich rewards (or at least praise) if they email me a solution.

Having wasted many good hours trying to devise good fingerings for the similar Bruckner passages, I felt it might be fruitful to concoct my own exercise and see what would result. I began in a key that made open strings out of the question and came up with


The object was to begin with the Gradus inspired fingering and continue the pattern.

In descending, I noticed that shifting to the 4th finger produced better results than shifting to 3.

This


was better than

The problem with this fingering is that the repeated note changes strings. This can be addressed by beginning on the 4th string


The player should determine which produces the better sounding fingering.

Of course, my first inclination for fingering such a passage would be something like


After practicing various ways to do this, I end up gravitating toward the familiar. Still, there is always something to be gained by trying a new approach, many ways to climb a mountain, even when it is a mole-hill.

Monday, December 04, 2006

New York

This week's programs

Tuesday and Saturday

Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales
Ligeti Piano Concerto
INTERMISSION
Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin
Pierre Boulez conductor Pierre-Laurent Aimard piano

Friday

Mahler symphony #7
Pierre Boulez

Saturday

Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin
(Beyond the Score)

Schedule for the week

Monday
off

Tuesday
7:30 CSO concert

Wednesday
11-1 Teaching

Thursday
Travel to NY

Friday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert (Carnegie Hall)

Saturday
11-1:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert (Carnegie Hall)


Sunday
2-5 CSO concert (Carnegie Hall)

Monday
Travel to Chicago

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Who and what are the Gunnelpumpers?

In short, a band I play with started (and named) by my good friend and colleague Doug Johnson. The personnel varies from one performance to the next, due to who can show up or not, but the basic set up is three basses, guitar and two percussionists. Go to the link to find out more.

Usually we just show up, see who’s there and start playing. This week’s rehearsal was a first, and a slightly odd, un Gunnlepumper-like experience. However, we are going to try and record a CD in studio this Sunday so I suppose it helps to have a few things planned in advance. I will be very interested to see if playing in the studio we can still capture the essence of what happens in a totally improvised performance in front of a live audience.

Monday, November 27, 2006

It’s only Miraculous when it is together

The challenges in the Miraculous Mandarin are all rhythmic – there isn’t much passagework to play. This got a smile out of Mr. Boulez on the first run-through – which isn’t to say it went well.




Practicing something like that with a regular metronome is difficult to say the least. I don’t own a Dr. Beat or anything similar, but from what I have seen it wouldn’t be of much help due to the fast tempo and changing meters. To practice this, I created a couple of rhythm tracks in Finale. One with the steady eight notes, the other with the subdivisions Boulez is conducting. Muting the top staff, I practiced first with the other two and then muted the steady eighth notes to see if my own subdividing added up. Once I could play it arco up to speed, I switched to pizz – just for the heck of it. A rude awakening to say the least so I had to back down the tempo and start over.

This week

This week’s CSO program

Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales
Ligeti Piano Concerto
INTERMISSION
Bartók The Miraculous Mandarin
Pierre Boulez conductor Pierre-Laurent Aimard piano

Monday
Off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 PM CSO concert (Mahler 7)
9-?? Gunnelpumpers rehearsal

Wednesday
12-3:00 CSO rehearsal

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 PM CSO concert

Friday
Teaching TBD
1:30 CSO concert

Saturday
8 PM CSO concert

Sunday
3-5 CSO concert (Beyond the Score)
6-10 Gunnelpumpers recording session


This week’s seating

Guastafeste
Armstrong

Kassinger
Hovnanian

Lester
Opland

DiBello
Cline

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Mahler 7

My biggest fear starting this blog was that I wouldn’t have time to keep it up. Last week had a lot of music in it but I was too busy working to blog. Likewise, Mahler 7, although not the most difficult, interesting or challenging bass part of the Mahler Symphonies, has a lot of stuff in it worth of attention. The piece is almost an hour and a half after all.

I’ve picked a few interesting tidbits from here and there. By no means and exhaustive list of the difficult passages. I have on the shelf, so to speak, an edition of the complete bass parts to the later Mahler Symphonies I would like to publish with Discordia. So in staying my hand now, I hope that someday when that edition is available, those interested in the rest of the story will buy it.

Here is a passage from the first movement. This down and dirty fingering does not yield the most beautiful tone, but is a good ‘safe’ fingering or intonation in that it stays in tewo positions, more or less.

An exposed passage in the 2nd movement. There is another similar one near the end of the movement. I get obsessed with trying not to use the same finger twice in a row, or to leave any note in a position all by itself, hence the somewhat odd looking penultimate measure. The mordents are the main note, followed by its upper neighbor.

A couple of nifty fingerings from the Scherzo.

and


Here is an example of an unfortunate CSO ‘tradition’ – use of ricochet when it really isn’t called for. This is what Mahler wrote, essentially a little bass soli at the same fast tempo:


Here is the bowing:

The ‘throw the bow at the notes and hope for the best’ approach often yields unsatisfactory results. That is to say it usually comes out a jumble rather than together.

Friday, November 24, 2006

This week’s seating

Guastafeste
Hovnanian

Kassinger
Lester

Opland
Armstrong

DiBello
Cline

Arriving at the Tuesday rehearsal, I had no idea I was on the first stand. Usually we get some notice but I think things were up in the air a bit longer than usual due to players off for various reasons. Then again, the first stand is probably the best place to sit when you haven’t had time to practice the music.

The CSO doesn’t have a permanent assistant principal bass. The subject is probably worthy of several posts – maybe a book by someone someday. If I never get around to it, the reasons for the situation might become apparent by careful reading of this blog.

Monday, November 20, 2006

My work schedule

This week’s CSO program
Mahler Symphony #7
Pierre Boulez

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal

Wednesday
10-12:30
1:30-3:30
CSO rehearsals


Thursday
off

Friday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 PM CSO concert


Saturday
12-2:30 CSO rehearsal
2:45-3:45 teaching
8 PM CSO concert


Sunday
off

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Kodály Concerto for Orchestra

The Kodály Concerto for Orchestra was the biggest surprise this week. Nobody seemed to know it. Evidently it was written for the CSO and first performed here in 1941. Somebody quipped that this was probably the second performance. A bit unfair since it isn’t such a bad piece. There were a number of tricky passages that came up – and went by – quickly when we read through it. Here is a typical example of an exposed passage for cellos and basses, along with the emergency fingering I came up with. The tempo is about quarter = 120.




And this was a rude awakening. The pizzicato indication is not a typo. My stand partner was trying to use ‘banjo’ technique – pizzicato with the thumb and middle finger. I wondered if the slurs were supposed to indicate some sort of ‘strumming’ technique, so that is what I tried – alternating fingers and strumming from the top down. Later in the piece a similar pizzicato passage came up without the slurs, so I have no idea what they really mean.







I saw most players trying fingerings something like this:








I used the fingering I showed above just to be different. Staying on the G string has is advantages.

The last page had another surprise. The bowings we used are shown by the little slurs below the staff. The fingering had to be more or less a stopgap measure.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

This week’s seating

DiBello
Kassinger

Hovnanian
Armstrong

Lester
Cline

Fountain*
Edwards*

players off:
Guastafeste (release)
Kraemer
Opland

*Brian Fountain is the current diversity fellow; Richard Edwards was the previous one.

Using two substitutes is unusual, but due to the number of players off we need to do that this week. There are a few different types of time off. A release week is like a week of paid vacation. Each section picks release weeks before the season. The order of the choice is by random drawing and each player gets two picks. The orchestra management can revoke or change a release week with 21 days notice, but that rarely happens so a release week is a good way to plan a little vacation, take another gig, or do whatever you want without worrying about being called in to work. It is also possible to be rotated off a program, which is more or less like being on call. That happens when no player is on release and/or the program calls for fewer than 9 players. We usually get less advance notice of rotated time – sometimes none at all – so it is hard to make travel plans or schedule other things. Technically, if someone else gets sick or is unable to play it is possible the time off will vanish like a puff of smoke. I have always avoided answering the telephone during the first rehearsal or two on any week I am rotated off, just out of superstition.

It is also possible to take an unpaid leave of absence or a sabbatical. In addition, players can have tine off for various personal reasons. The only types of leave I will indicate here are release, rotation, sabbatical or unpaid leave.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

This week's CSO program

KODÁLY Concerto for Orchestra
GERSHWIN Piano Concerto
INTERMISSION
TÜÜR Zeitraum
LUTOSLAWSKI Concerto for Orchestra
Paavo Yärvi, conductor
Wayne Marshall, piano

This week's Ars Viva program

Mozart Overture to Lucio Silla, K. 135
Mozart Rondo in C, K. 373
MozartViolin Concerto No. 5 in A, K. 219
INTERMISSION
MozartSymphony No. 41 in C, K. 551 Jupiter
Alan Heatherington, conductor
David Taylor, violin

The Kodály and Tüür pieces I am sure are unknown to me. If I have ever played Mozart’s Overture to Lucio Silla I have no memory of it.

My work schedule

Monday
off

Tuesday
10 - 12:30
CSO rehearsal

Wednesday
10 - 12:30
1:30 - 3:30
CSO rehearsals

Thursday
10 - 12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
11 - 1 teaching
3- 6 Ars Viva rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Saturday
3 - 6 Ars Viva rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Sunday
2 - 5 Ars Viva rehearsal
7:30 Ars Viva concert

Monday
7:30 Ars Viva concert

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Muted Mozart

Since we played Mozart at the CSO this past week, I suppose it is a good time to talk about one of the traditions here. When I first started playing with the CSO I was surprised to see that the bass section played most baroque and many classical pieces (usually Mozart) with mutes on. Apparently this was meant to keep the section from playing too loud or is based on some weird interpretation of historical ‘performance practice’. As with many things that go on here, I’ve never managed to get a logical explanation for it. A number of players in the section don’t seem to agree with the practice and slowly began ignoring it – a sort of passive resistance movement. So that is why if you see the CSO playing Bach or Mozart you might notice one or two bass players with mutes on and one or two without.

A friend of mine who plays a lot of early music in Europe – I’m going to leave him out of this by not mentioning his name or the groups he has played and recorded with – once surprised me with the statement that the bass can ‘never be bright enough’. As I have thought about it over the years it has changed into my own personal mantra that the bass can never be clear enough. I’m referring mainly to Baroque and Classical era music. The role of the double bass changed in the 19th century and a simple generalization cannot cover all types of music. Nevertheless, I have always been disturbed by the idea of playing the older music with a mute on, particularly the rubber type that tend to make the sound more muffled than muted, at the very time when maximum clarity and articulation are called for.

Playing both softly and clearly is a difficult skill and can actually be very tiring. Playing Mozart and Mahler on the same concert can pose a challenge, but those are things players need to hone their skills to master. Slapping a mute on the bass and continuing to play in the same old way is not the answer.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

No Muti

The coming week of CSO concerts suddenly became less of a happening when Ricardo Muti cancelled his appearance due to illness (apparently the flu). There has been a lot of buzz about Muti as a candidate for music director here. However, he has not conducted the CSO in over 30 years (1974?) so it is more based on hype than first hand knowledge. Still, Muti is probably the ‘biggest’ name circulating about as heir to Barenboim. Missing his only scheduled opportunity to conduct us this season must throw a monkey wrench into the whole search process.
So the program this week has changed from Muti conducting

BRAHMS Symphony No. 2
INTERMISSION
HINDEMITH Nobilissima visione
SCRIABIN The Poem of Ecstasy

to Ludovic Morlot conducting

SCHUMANN Overture to Manfred
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 (Jonathan Biss)
INTERMISSION
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4

Click here for some ruminations on fingerings for the Tchaikowsky

In addition, a special ‘non subscription’ concert on Thursday evening has been cancelled. Evidently whoever arranged the concert wanted Muti or nothing so we get the night off. I can’t remember anything like that happening before. In fact this has turned into one of the lightest workweeks at the CSO I have ever seen – only four services.


My work week


Monday
9:30 – 2
Bass Quartet recording session

Tuesday
11 AM teaching

Wednesday
1:30 – 3:30
4:30 – 7
CSO rehearsals

Thursday
10 – 12:30
CSO rehearsal

Friday
11 AM
teaching
2:15 – 3:45
Bass sectional(Roosevelt)
5 PMteaching
8 PMCSO concert

Saturday
and Sunday off


The bass quartet is the Chicago Bass Ensemble, a new group with no website yet that I know of. The other members are Jacque Harper, Doug Johnson, and John Floeter, all Chicago area freelancers. We are recording a demo with the first movement of Bass Quartet #2 by Jan Alm, some arrangements of choral pieces by Hindemith, and a couple Renaissance pieces. I think the sectional at Roosevelt will cover Beethoven 5 and Stravinsky Pulcinella although I suppose I should look into that before Friday.