Bass Blog

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

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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.