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.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Agreed. I see virtually no room for you to complain. When CSO starts playing an entire pops season full of crass schlock every year, 52 weeks become 50. then 48, then 46 etc, and you watch your salary get smaller and smaller, then by all means complain away. I am willing to bet 99% of orchestra players hate pops as much as you and I do, but please... perspective, my friend!

Matt Heller said...

There's nothing wrong with a little holiday complaining, and 'Frosty the Demented Elephantine Godzilla' was the funniest holiday story I've read in a long time. Maybe 'Frosty the Flatulent', that's how our section would have played it.

No matter what it does for the orchestra's financial health, I think everyone leaves these kind of concerts feeling like they've just drunk too much egg nog. It's demoralizing for the players, and I think even festive concertgoers start to feel a little sugar-sick. So I agree with Michael, and I don't see why the CSO can't stuff its stockings without compromising its standards!

mh said...

Waiting for the CSO to put on 52 weeks of schlock before complaining is akin to the captain radioing for help only after the Titanic has come to rest on the bottom.

The ‘Chicagoland Pops Orchestra’ already exists. They’re playing with Johnny Mathis this weekend BTW. I’m still waiting for them to start playing Beethoven and Strauss (Richard, that is).

Anonymous said...

i think he meant 52 week season, not 52 weeks of pops

mh said...

Sorry, "an entire pops season" was confusing.

The notion of waiting until conditions deteriorate drastically before speaking up is disturbing to me. The history of working conditions at the CSO (as well as other orchestras) shows that musicians need to be proactive. Unfortunately in this profession you often don’t get respect unless you demand it.

However, my objection to the Xmas shows is not really about working conditions. There are pieces in our ‘normal’ repertoire equally or more unpleasant to perform. In fact, pops services are usually easier on the orchestra – the fact that I’m sitting at home writing this is proof of that. I find tacky Xmas music objectionable because it is a poor use of the orchestra. Any short-term financial gain has to be weighed against the decline in value it causes to the orchestra’s reputation in the long run. I believe the term for that is 'selling out'.

Anonymous said...

No, I don't think anyone sold out and I'm surprised you are complaining. The orchestra's reputation is hardly damaged by doing what is merely extra work and extra money for the organization. Guess what? Your organization needs the extra income and the facility and its staff must put money to drawer.

I REALLY DO think you have much better things to worry about.

Orchestra members would have been begging for their supper two hundred years ago (or even 150 years ago.)

Progress has been made.

MH said...

You will make a fine orchestra manager.

Don said...

There are some very bad arrangements. One would expect the CSO to use only the best.

Of course 'best' is very subjective. One man's garbage is another man's treasure.

I've always enjoyed playing the "Many Moods of Christmas". It's probably my favorite Christmas arrangement. Other fine players don't care for it.

mh said...

Unfortunately there are some really bad ones flaoting around out there.

Some arrangers write like they don't know the basses sound an octave lower, or that those sub 'E' notes sound really thick.

I'm partial to the 'classics' like 'Sleigh Ride'. I don't know 'The Many Moods of Christmas'.

Jason Heath said...

If ever there were an orchestra that shouldn't be playing "Welcome Yule" it would be the CSO. The fact that it is a part of the regular season and not a "members of" concert stinks.

E.C.D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathryn Nettleman said...

This is an interesting thread-- thanks, Jason, for linking it in a post on your blog. There are, it seems to me, a couple of key issues here: the worry that opening the door for one required Pops type program means more may follow; on the other hand, recognizing that there is all kinds of orchestral music out there and perhpas Zarathustra and Beethoven Piano concerti need not be played every week to maintain status as a legitimate top-five group.

I understand the argument that legitimacy and core beleifs must be fought for by us musicians. But in this case, a required holiday program at Christmastime-- reduced strings, at that-- doesn't seem to me to be that big a deal when one considers the bulk of rep CSO performs and its role as a leading ensemble.

Do popsy programs float most of our boats? No, but it is possible to do a holiday program without resorting to schlock of the lowest order; perhaps the musicians could focus on programming rather than just rejecting entirely? I assume this work does not supplant a subscription week?

Flexibility is required by all of us to maintain legitimacy as an industry. Sometimes, it is wise to sell what people buy, if in so doing we help maintain our core beleifs and acknowledge where our bread is buttered- we are performers, and therefore entertainers, after all. CSO has done other popsy programs in the past; it did a Ravinia program of playing along to Wizard of Oz a couple years ago (a program I myself performed a couple months ago with, you guessed it, Chicagoland Pops) and I know you guys did a John Williams thing. Is this OK? How does it differ from "Welome Yule"?

And finally, addressing someone's comment re calling out the subs to play-- HA! But perhaps that's a topic for a different discussion... :)

Thanks for the interesting posts and your thoughts, Michael and friends. Happy New Year.

Don said...

Robert Russell Bennett arranged 4 suites of carols for the Shaw Chorale and orchestra. I remember it coming out in the early '60s. I don't know which orchestra performed it.

It's rental music. Sometimes only one or two of the suites are used in conjunction with other tunes.

The Atlanta Symphony did it with Shaw about 20 years ago. It's pretty good but the earlier recording is the best.