Bass Blog

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

Feel free to email your comments.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Egress

is not a female egret

Recently, a reader emailed me with some comments and questions about the number of bike and scooter riders in the orchestra, which got me thinking about the post concert routine. At this time of year my thoughts often turn to the subject of departure anyway, but since a permanent exit is still something of a distant dream, I am forced to contemplate the small pleasures of my nightly exits from the concert hall.

It probably goes without saying that backstage the aftermath of each and every concert is not necessarily a scene of triumph, revelry, or even one of goodwill. At times the post-concert dissipation has the feel of a sandlot baseball game abruptly ended by broken glass. Suddenly a dozen boys head off in all directions, some running, others, hands in pockets, whistle as they toe the dirt and shuffle away with a studied “who, me?” sort of indifference.

A colleague of mine with the gift for finding the perfect way to put things once answered the question of why he declined to have his bio and photograph included in the ‘Meet the Musicians’ section of the program book by saying “Anyone who wants to meet me can wait in the alley [after the concert].” Indeed, the alley is the place to see the most interesting post-concert departures. Those who leave through the lobby tend to either melt into the crowd honorably, or else hold forth before a knot of admirers. The alley is where scooter and bike riders take off, on foot the mad-dashers make their break for freedom, and the habitual illegal parkers sheepishly (one can only hope) settle behind the wheels of un-ticketed cars.

Before the renovation of our hall, when there was not much of a backstage to speak of, one could pass from the stage to the alley in about ten paces. That has all been ‘improved’ with the latest reconstruction. Still, there is something appealing about the abrupt transition one experiences when exiting the concert hall, passing through the loading dock and out into the alley; to be one moment rubbing elbows with the cultural elite, the next, with dumpsters.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Week 14

December 12-23

This week at the world’s gratingest orchestra

DVORÁK Slavonic Dances
MOZART Oboe Concerto
INTERMISSION
BIZET Suite No. 2 from L'Arlésienne
STRAUSS Suite from Der Rosenkavalier
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Eugene Izotov, oboe


Monday
2-8 Gunnelpumpers recording session

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7:30 concert (Janacek, Kancheli, Rachmaninov)

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-5:30 rehearsals

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
1:30 concert

Saturday
8 concert

Sunday
off (vacation begins!)

A six-hour recording session with that other group I play in probably would have culminated in a murder-suicide, but spending the day with the Gunnelpumpers was truly a pleasure. This session should wrap up the recording process for our first CD. I have no idea when it might come out. The myspace page is a bit out of date as I write this, but I’m sure Doug Johnson will put in the latest news soon enough.

Speaking of that other group, Morlot had an interesting take on how to approach the afterbeats in the Waltz sections of the Rosenkavalier suite. Basically, he wanted the fastest tempo strictly in time. In the slower tempos, the second beat placed as if still in the quick tempo. The result is that the second beat comes soonest in the slowest tempo, a bit later in the medium tempo, and in time in the fast tempo; despite the ungainly explanation (mine) a workable solution. Usually, the request for Viennese afterbeats produces as many takes on what that really means as there are players – sometimes more – with the resulting jumble about as Austrian (and full of…well…baloney) as Vienna Beef.

That made for an enlightening 5 minutes of rehearsal time. As for the other 145…. The maestro’s pluck out one eyelash at a time rehearsal technique might not have been the best approach for an orchestra that seems a little tired and is looking forward to vacation right now. That said, the lack of respect shown the present occupant of the podium is out of place. I can only conclude that the punch line to the old joke about the difference between an orchestra and a bull no longer applies.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Unnamed Holiday comes to an Unnamable Orchestra

At a certain time every year the hall is decked with large festive holiday wreaths and other trimmings appropriate to the season. Sometimes the décor and the concert program achieve a wonderful sort of dissonance, as was the case last week when we played Janacek’s Taras Bulba, based on Gogol’s bloody tale in which the protagonists all end up killed in gruesome ways.

For a number of years Pierre Boulez conducted these festive holiday weeks, and it seemed we were always doing something dark and twisted like The Miraculous Mandarin beneath the mistletoe. I thought I’d put that behind me when I stopped playing the Xmas concerts.


Photo showing the Holiday Wreath crate impeding access to the bass storage room. (Photo redacted to protect the identity of the orchestra and the deity)



View from my seat. (Note the poor attendance for these concerts…)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pledge of Allegiance

A brief note on the flag appearing on the right-hand side of this page is in order. In answer to a few inquiries, it is decidedly not the Hammer and Sickle of the old Soviet Union. Rather, I have chosen the flag of Animal Farm, Orwell’s satirical novel, in a design realized by Marc Pasquin. The somewhat poignant (to me, at least ) description of the flag from the novel has been added as a caption.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Week 13


December 10-15

This week’s program of ‘the orchestra that dare not speak its name’
--------------------------------------------------------------------
JANÁCEK Jealousy
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 4
INTERMISSION
KANCHELI ...à la Duduki
JANÁCEK Taras Bulba
Mark Elder, conductor
Stephen Hough, piano
-----------------------
Monday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7-10 CBE reheasal

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7:30 concert (Delius, Sibelius, Webern, Brahms)

Wednesday
12-2:30 rehearsal

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
8 concert

Saturday
10 CBE performance
8 concert

Sunday
off

Monday orchestra rehearsals make me about as depressed as anything I can think of. To make matters worse, the reason we lose a day off is so Welcome Yule can have a dress rehearsal on Wednesday evening. Thank heaven that has gone back to being a members-of (optional) program this year. Needles to say, I’m not playing.

Yes, Mark Elder is conducting us for another week. Somebody upstairs must really like him. I mean that literally; somebody upstairs (in our management) seems to like him a heck of a lot. Maybe God does as well, but that isn’t my affair.

Someone in our management sent orchestra members an email the other day informing us this coming Friday is “blah, blah, blah Symphony Day” (he used the real name) at the nearby Chipotle Mexican restaurant. Anyone with an orchestra ID gets a free burrito. It is a generous offer, as the burritos there are pretty good. I’m waiting for some zealot to jump up and challenge the use of the orchestra name, but I’m not holding my breath. Nothing messes with scruples like a little free food. I’m curious to see how many musicians take advantage of the offer. With the possibility of a stage full of burrito-stuffed musicians, the Friday matinee concert might be one to approach with caution.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bass-Ackward

At the behest of the conductor, the bass section is set up on the ‘wrong’ side of the stage this week – stage right, behind the first violins. The seconds are across, on the outside, with the cellos and violas in the middle. This arrangement has its pluses and minuses, detractors and supporters. The issues are many and varied; I become weary merely thinking about them, and so have no desire at this point to delve into the matter beyond my usual glib observations. We used to sit this way all the time under some guy who was music-director here; his name escapes me.

When we first made the change there were some interesting moments as we introduced members of the first violin section to the experience of having a bass bridge a few inches behind their heads. The firsts are a prim and proper lot, at least in contrast to the bass section, so a certain amount of ‘shock and awe’ was involved. Not all of them were happy to see us. I overheard two first violinists (both of whom, perhaps coincidentally, retired not long after the bass section moved into their neighborhood) discussing the new state of affairs. “The pizzicatos, they go off like bombs!” one of them complained.

It is always interesting to see what happens when creatures, almost deformed by habit, are asked to do something a little bit different. Moving across the stage and facing the opposite direction sometimes feels like entering a sort of ‘Bizzaro World’ where everything is as it was before, only backward. Inevitably the first few divisi passages get mishandled as players who forgot to look up and notice their surroundings beyond which side of the stand they are sitting on choose to play the wrong line.

Beyond the divisi passages, there is the issue of who turns the page. For the uninitiated, I should explain that in string sections, where we play two to a stand, there is an inside player and an outside player, referring to the one closer to the edge of the stage (outside) or away from it (inside). The players on a stand are also defined as ‘top’ or ‘bottom’, which isn’t as deliciously wrong as it sounds, referring only to the line a player should play (upper or lower) if the part is divided. This designation makes more sense for the sections in the middle of the orchestra, where both might be equidistant from the stage edge.

I had always assumed the universal rule in string sections was inside or bottom players should turn pages. That was until our section moved across to stage right and some of the inside players (who were playing the bottom line) sat on their hands, making the argument that the player on the right hand side of the stand should turn, because that was the way we did it on the other side of the stage. The seconds, the other section that gets ‘flipped’ when they move across the stage like the bass section, seem to have the flexibility to let the inside player turn, no matter where they sit. But everybody knows violinists are more agile than bassists. In the middle of the stage, the cellists, always the clever ones, solved the problem by having the principal sit on the left hand (driver’s) side of the stand, making the shotgun position (on the right, the ‘inside’ or ‘bottom’ of the stand) turn pages.

I cannot help but point out that since a principal player should never sully his hands turning pages for a subordinate, when we sit stage right, the assistant (on the inside) turns for the first stand while the rest of the section does the opposite. The result is that the entire string section adheres to the ‘inside (or bottom) player turns’ rule except for stands two, three and four of the bass section. I’m curious to know if this sort of thing comes up anywhere else.

Disagreeing with the way things are done, I see no point in pursuing the matter. Although, for the most part, we are an easygoing bunch, this is precisely the sort of issue our section could not discuss amicably.

Delving into what seems like trivial issue – who turns the page – is revelatory in that it underscores the alienation of the bass section from the rest of the strings. A number of things more serious than who turns a page, bowings, articulations, phrasing, tend not to apply to the basses. In fact, recently, I had occasion to recall one of my old teachers, Ronald Simon (Seattle Symphony) who once told me his autobiography would have the title “Except the Basses.”

Physically, the closest the front of the bass section ever gets to the conductor is equivalent to the back of the other string sections. We are pointedly not represented in the ‘inner circle’ (the first stands of violins, violas and cellos surrounding the conductor) that Algonquin Round Table where bowings, articulations, and other lofty matters pertaining to the strings are discussed. Often the results of those discussions reach the bass section late, not at all, or worse, in distorted form. Our section is often like the poor fellow at the end of the long line in the game of ‘telephone’ who has to stand up and deliver the absurd transformation of the original whispered message. In another sense, one might compare the bass player to a cat who, when separated from his littermates and turned out into the alley, reverts eventually back to its feral state. But the same animal, kept indoors and given love and training equal to his siblings is quite possibly capable of domestication.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Week 12

December 3 – 9

This week’s program of the ‘orchestra which must not be named’

DELIUS A Song of Summer
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 6
INTERMISSION
WEBERN Five Pieces for Orchestra
BRAHMS Double Concerto
Mark Elder, conductor
Robert Chen, violin
Jan Vogler, cello

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7:30 concert (Ravel, Shostakovich)

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-6 rehearsals
7 CBE rehearsal

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
8 concert

Saturday
10 CBE rehearsal
8 concert

Sunday
10 CBE rehearsal

CBE is, of course, the Chicago Bass Ensemble. Last time I checked, it was OK to use the name here. We are taking part in the International Society for Improvised Music, second annual conference. If you think I’m making that up, check out their web site although at the time of this writing the link to the conference program wasn’t working properly. The CBE has a brief blurb about our performance here. That’s all I know about it.

As for that other group, I’m really looking forward to hearing Robert Chen play the Brahms. I've heard some reputable violinists come to grief over that piece, but everything I’ve heard Robert do has been stellar, so it should be a good performance. Sorry to say, I don’t know anything about the cellist.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Week 11

November 26 – December 2

This week’s program of the orchestra in which I play

RAVEL Piano Concerto in G Major
INTERMISSION
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad)
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Yundi Li, piano

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-5:30 rehearsals

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
8 concert

Saturday
8 concert

Sunday
off

There is no way that standing atop a pyramid and looking out over an endless jungle one day, and the next, riding a bicycle into a chilly wind along Lake (…) to go rehearse Shostakovich 7 isn’t a letdown of sorts. Still, this week has had its enjoyable moments.

Although he looks like someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a darkened alley, Semyon Bychkov is a pretty personable conductor. There is a fair amount of grumbling over his (too quick) tempos, but I’m happy the piece doesn’t go on a second longer than it has to. I thought he made a pretty good case for what he is trying to do.

Thanks for the many supportive emails about the name change.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Bass Blogger’s Response to Just Criticism


Perhaps a few words about the change in the title of this blog are in order. Today I was informed there were some ‘complaints’ that the three letter initials of the orchestra I play in, used in the former title of this blog, constituted a violation of the contract provision governing use of the orchestra name. I certainly don’t want to run afoul of the law, so changes to the title, introductory paragraph as well as my personal information were made as soon as possible. However, I have not had the time to excise the offending initials from archived posts, so I urge the rare individual who might stumble across them to exercise an Orwellian sort of failure to see what is (for the time being) in plain sight.

An odd side note: the individual who relayed the ‘complaints’ to me has had a prominent banner advertisement running on a web site that easily gets a hundred times as many hits as mine for several months featuring his name as well as the name of the orchestra we both play in. I’m scratching my head over that, and a few other things as well. I suppose, like Winston Smith, the only thing to do is uncork another bottle of Victory Gin.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Clearing the Inbox

Since I have some time off, I thought it might be a good time to delve into the large backlog of questions readers have submitted.


I recently discovered your blog and enjoy learning from you about the life of an orchestral musician. I have a couple of questions that you might consider for your blog.

1. The ability of musicians like you to pick up and learn so much music so fast astounds me. How do you do it? Or is this ability a gift that you either have or don't have?

2. Surely you can't like all of the works that you play. I suspect that you probably even have come to hate a few works in the standard repertory. Or find yourself loathing new works that you're playing for the first time. How do you make learning and performing these pieces palatable? Or at least bearable? (Of course, besides being paid to do so.)

Tom Lowderbaugh

1) Any player can learn to pick up new material more quickly. Some are better at it naturally than others. That said, we don’t play something new every week. A very cursory scan of the season schedule for this year shows the CSO playing about 100 different pieces, not including pops or film night concerts. Of those I could only find about 20 I have not yet played.

2) Your parenthetic qualifier removes the easy answer to this question from consideration.

While many colleagues might express loathing or hatred of new works (and by this I mean anything previously unknown to them), my own view is, like with fine cuisine, feelings need to simmer for quite some time in order to obtain the necessary depth and complexity, so I reserve loathing and hatred for things I know very well. Certainly a previously unknown piece of music may immediately produce feelings of displeasure, discomfort, or in extreme cases, disgust, but the refined musician learns to mute the visceral reactions in favor of a more measured response. To find something despicable for intellectual reasons is, in the long run, much more satisfying.

Some have concluded because performers onstage might harbor secret feelings of negativity towards what they are playing this makes musicians comparable to practitioners of the ‘world’s oldest profession’. But in my experience I find myself surrounded by individuals who have an incredible amount of pride in what they do and a high degree of professional integrity. I take it as a personal challenge to make certain that I try to play pieces I do not like as well as I possibly can. In the case of certain modern works, there is almost a perverse pleasure in it, i.e. “If this is really what you want me to play, here it is!”

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Time off, the other side of the story

One of the saddest, most depressing parts of our recent contract negotiations had to be reading the many musician comments about injuries and physical problems experienced due to overwork. As a way of saving money, the orchestra was reduced in size by attrition during the last two contracts. String sections (except the bass section – we’re all clinging to our jobs for dear life) lost the most work relief when retiring players were not replaced. The alarming connection between increased workload and the amount of injuries reported helped bring the work relief issue to the forefront.

The last post poked fun at the Byzantine ways time off is defined and parceled out to musicians. Some of the arcane provisions in the contract are products of evolution, as it is easier in the course of negotiations to tack on new clauses, sections, and subsections to existing language rather than cleaning the slate and agreeing to simple, concise terms. Of course, both sides of the negotiating table have their own reasons for keeping the contract language opaque. The chimerical ‘release week’ seems to be one of those evolutionary oddities, hidden in plain sight for various reasons. But hopefully now that the issue is emerging from the shadows everyone can admit time off is no laughing matter.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Blessed Relief

Every Dog Has His Day

It is never too early in a season to start thinking about time off, although as I mentioned here once before it is often best to hold vacation weeks in abeyance until the dog days of the season. Since I seem to have hit my own personal dog days a little early this year it is probably for the best that I find myself faced with the next three weeks off.

Possibly to someone in a different profession three weeks off sounds exactly like what it is, but in my world time off comes in various ‘flavors’. So what I am enjoying now is a sort of three-scoop ice cream cone of work relief, with each scoop more delicious than the last.

I’m certain an explanation is in order.

This week (November, 5 – 11) I am rotated off the program. Technically, I am on call. Should a colleague fall ill or be otherwise discomfited I could be called into action at any moment. Of course, the likelihood of this happening decreases as the week and the rehearsals for the concert go on. Lest anyone think I am waiting to jump into action, a freshly rosined bow leaning by the front door, the car engine idling, I confess the strategy for a week like this is to studiously avoid answering the telephone for the first few days, make an offering for the continued health of my colleagues, and continue on about my business.

Next week is a split orchestra week. There are actually two kinds of split orchestra weeks, but I will defer explanation of the differences. To continue the ice cream flavor analogy, one is like coffee, the other, cappuccino. Split orchestra weeks happen when we play repertoire requiring a small orchestra. There are two weeks a year of the type happening next week and players are required to play one of them and receive the other as guaranteed time off. But that isn’t the end of the story. Often, the programs on a split week require less than half of the orchestra. When this is the case, players assigned to the split week may be rotated off. So it is possible for two players to be off the same week, one on call, the other not. I think I am not on call next week, but I have to check.

The following week, the week of Thanksgiving, is one of my released weeks. Released weeks are the chimera of time off in the orchestra. Even the term is elusive; is it released week, or release week? I’ve heard both. The confusion reminds me of the term in football describing that odd little pass quarterbacks throw, sometimes out of desperation, sometimes mischievously; the shuffle pass, or is it the shovel pass? Everybody knows what it is, but what is it? Scour the contract for a section dealing with ‘Released Weeks’ or ‘Release Weeks’ and you may come up empty. And yet, every new player comes into the CSO knowing they get two ‘release weeks’ off every year. It’s one of the first things you learn about after being shown your locker, the stage, and the restrooms.

The short definition of a released week is seven days off, not on call. String players choose weeks by lottery before the start of every season while winds and percussion are constrained by repertoire and other considerations. These weeks are valuable because they are flexible (to a point) and guaranteed; a player might take an out of town engagement, plan family activities, or whatever, with the secure knowledge they will not be called back.

So, what does a player do with their time off? Answers to that are the subject for another post.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Week 07

This week’s CSO program

SIBELIUS Violin Concerto
INTERMISSION
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major (Romantic) (1880 version)
Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor
Arabella Steinbacher, violin

Monday
7:30 MOB concert

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
1:30 CSO concert

Saturday
CBE rehearsal TBA
8 CSO concert

Sunday
3 CSO concert
7 CBE rehearsal

I write this on Wednesday October 31, sitting by the front door giving out candy to the 500 or so of the little extortionists we expect to greet this year. So far, rehearsals for the concert this week have resembled long, mildly unpleasant medical procedures rather than preparation for a musical performance. I am happy to report the patient not much worse for wear after three treatments. I even have to grudgingly admit the Maestro’s ‘mechanistic’ approach to the Bruckner produced some good results. Rather than a harmony lesson, we got a look at the nuts and bolts of the piece.

Here is a rehearsal schedule to drive musicians crazy:

Wednesday
10-12:30
Bruckner Symphony No. 4
Sibelius Violin concerto (without soloist)

1:30-3:30
Sibelius (with soloist)
Bruckner

First, I can’t remember the last time we rehearsed any concerto without the soloist. Nobody would expect such treatment for something as familiar as the Sibelius. Next, putting the Bruckner at the beginning of the first rehearsal and the end of the second insures the maximum number of players will sit around waiting to play. As a rule, rehearsals are scheduled according to a sort of ‘Farewell Symphony’ rule, with the smaller pieces coming later so that those who don’t play might go home.

The players suggested the more sensible schedule of
10-12:30 Bruckner

1:30-3:30 Sibelius

but were turned down because the Maestro had to have Bruckner on both rehearsals. Well, wouldn’t you know, on Wednesday, he spent the entire morning picking, poking, prodding, and otherwise dissecting the Bruckner until it became apparent he wouldn’t get to Sibelius after all. Then, as I expected all along, he decided we didn’t need to return to the Bruckner in the second rehearsal either. And, of course, he got to take credit for the magnanimous gesture of letting musicians go home early in what turned out to be sort of a nifty end-around of the musicians who asked for that schedule in the first place.

The only other note this week is that the Sibelius is a piece I always look forward to. It doesn’t seem to matter who is playing violin.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Week 06

October 22-29

This (last) week’s CSO program

MOZART Symphony No. 25
TURNAGE Chicago Remains
INTERMISSION
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2
Bernard Haitink, Conductor
Emanuel Ax, Piano

This (last) week’s MOB Program

MOZART Les Petits Riens
DELALANDE Te Deum
INTERMISSION
CHARPENTIR Te Deum, H. 146
Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin
Jane Glover, conductor
Sarah Gartshore, soprano
Amy Conn, soprano
Karim Sulayman, tenor
Harold Brock, tenor
Douglas Anderson, baritone
Peter Van De Graaff, bass-baritone

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
2-5 MOB rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert (Wagner/Mahler)

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-5:30 CSO rehearsals
7-10 MOB rehearsal

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rhearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
1:30 CSO concert
7-10 MOB rehearsal

Saturday
3:30-6:30 MOB rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Sunday
10-12 Chicago Bass Ensemble rehearsal
7:30 MOB concert

Monday
7:30 MOB concert

Due to a busy schedule, I’ve fallen a week behind with the blog. The CSO concerts were enjoyable. Emanuel Ax is always a pleasure. I was off the Mozart (2 basses only), so that was wonderful. The Turnage piece was also a pleasant surprise. Without it sounding derivative, I thought I detected hints of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez and Zappa – all good influences in my book.

The MOB concerts are a rare diversion from the normal sort of Bach, Handel, Telemann fare. It is funny how in the German Baroque music everything in the parts is just so while a lot of this French stuff is a mess – hard to decipher roadmaps, frequent changes from Inegal to straight, none of which are in the print . But it has been an enjoyable challenge. Thanks to some top-notch soloists, this turned out to be a pretty good concert.

Yes, that is a bass quartet rehearsal at 10 AM on a Sunday. The CBE is gearing up for our big concert on November 7th, or else I would have been happily sleeping.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Un gorilla dalle 800 libbre

In spite of the fascinating things I’ve been blogging about lately – boring tour travel, uneaten breakfasts, bass boxes, and the like – the astute reader might have noticed the omission of a subject of some importance to the CSO. I am of course referring to the fact that Riccardo Muti conducted us for four weeks this fall. I can assure my readers that I actually looked up once or twice over the past month and took note of who was conducting and how, but I purposefully withheld comment until the feverish excitement had died down.

Muti is undoubtedly one of the names under serious consideration for the music director position here. More than any other conductor on the ‘short list’, a great deal of hype and speculation preceded his arrival. It didn’t hurt that Muti’s appearance coincided with the conclusion of contract negotiations that had our European tour and the preceding week of concerts hanging in the balance. Either fate or very clever design produced a charged atmosphere where his taking the podium became something of an almost operatic denouement.

The perils and pitfalls of going on record about someone who may well end up as my boss are obvious even to me, so I’m not about to provide a blow-by-blow analysis of Muti’s conducting. More interesting to me was the reaction of the orchestra.

With the hype over Muti’s arrival ramping up I observed some different reactions. A number of players were highly skeptical about him for one reason or another. The more the excitement over his arrival grew, the more skeptical they became. Others bought into the myth-in-the-making wholesale.

The one common assumption seemed to be that Muti might be a difficult, perhaps egotistical person. Whether this was cause for skepticism or premature adulation probably depended on each individual musician’s tendency towards Masochism or Sadism.

Anyhow, members of both camps waited eagerly to be proved right when he actually began working with us. I was secretly pleased when Muti turned out to be personable, self effacing (for a conductor anyway) and funny, proving many wrong.

The quick acceptance and even affection for Muti came as a shock to me – something I haven’t seen here before. It was more than slightly strange hearing some of the most wizened, perennial conductor hating players tittering on like schoolgirls. “Do you think he likes us? I really hope he likes us!” The one lesson I learned was that this orchestra has no practice playing hard to get.

But Muti played his part masterfully, cultivating the good will he encountered. He acted like a man given the keys to a pretty nice car, who had the savvy not to look too closely under the hood or swipe his finger across the dashboard while the owner was still watching. Instead, he took us for a pleasant drive around the Italian countryside. I kept waiting for him to throw a wet rag over the whole affair – stop the orchestra to tell us our tremolo sucked, for instance – but thank heavens he had better sense than that.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Week 05

October 15-21

This week’s CSO program

WAGNER Siegfried Idyll
INTERMISSION
MAHLER Symphony No. 6
Bernard Haitink, conductor

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert (FAURÉ, DEBUSSY, COPLAND, ADAMS)

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-5:30 CSO rehearsals

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
8 CSO concert

Saturday
8 CSO concert

Sunday
off

Haitink conducting Mahler should make this a high point of the season. Unfortunately the concerts are not sold out. There is something very wrong with that.

Friday, October 12, 2007

This is my box

Sometimes I wonder if we bassists surround ourselves with all sorts of specialized equipment as an antidote to the general dreariness of playing the instrument. Could all of the special chairs, oversized cases, endpin rests, bass bibs, bow quivers, grinding wheels, etc. etc., signify some desperate search for fulfillment? I have no idea, and that isn’t really even the subject of this post.

When a question came in about our ‘bass boxes’, visible in one of the tour photos, I realized my negligence in not bringing them up sooner.

The CSO did a few small east coast tours in the 90s. On one of them we played in Boston and there the bassists were surprised to find little boxes set beside each of our bass stools. Normally we each had a regular chair on which to rest the bass during breaks. The chairs also were a good place to put rosin, the ubiquitous filthy bass rag, watches, wallets, or whatever the player might wish to unencumber himself of before playing. But those chairs took up a lot of room and tended to get in the way. The boxes were a clever solution.

Not to be outdone, our stagehands built their own version and presented them to us later in the season. The boxes have gone through a couple of redesigns over the years – better handles, Velcro latch, more durable padding – so that now I would venture to say they are darn near perfect.

Here is a photo showing the boxes. (Sorry for the railing in the foreground)

This is the latest design, showing the carpet-material padding. (Box courtesy of Rob Kassinger)


This is my box. I certainly hope the six-inch deep compartment is the untidiest one in the section. It is stuffed with: grimy bass rags, rosin, pencils, cough drops, earplugs, the empty wrappers from the previous two items, practice mute, tuner, Prince CD (don’t ask), CD titled ‘Welcome Sir Simon’ presented to CSO musicians by the Berlin Philharmonic (never opened), various memos to CSO musicians, Japanese phrase book, long ‘E’ string (to be used as a garotte for unruly stand partners), serrated red dowel (used in some modern piece and never returned), cow moo-er (one of those cylindrical things you flip over that make a cow mooing sound – indispensable for late Mahler symphonies with cowbells), and a green glow-in-the-dark skull on a handle with a little trigger that makes the eyes roll and the teeth chatter (often used during ‘bass solo’ passages).

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Week 04

October 7-13

This week’s CSO programs
Friday, October 12 and Tuesday, October 16

FAURÉ Sicilienne from Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 80
DEBUSSY Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra
COPLAND Clarinet Concerto
INTERMISSION
ADAMS Harmonielehre
David Robertson, conductor
Branford Marsalis, saxophone

Saturday, October 13 and Sunday, October 14

FAURÉ Sicilienne from Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 80
DEBUSSY Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra
COPLAND Clarinet Concerto
INTERMISSION
DVORÁK Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)
David Robertson, conductor
Branford Marsalis, saxophone

Monday
off

Tuesday
off

Wednesday
off

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

Friday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Saturday
11-1 CSO rehearsal
2 CSO concert (Day of Music)

Sunday
3 CSO concert (run out to East Lansing MI)

The orchestra has a few much-needed days off to get over jet lag and otherwise recover from the tour.

Macy’s Day of Music began life as the Marshall Field’s day of music and originally went for a full twenty four hours. I heard that by about 4 AM the only audience to speak of consisted of some very unsavory characters so the ‘day’ was wisely cut back. Still, it is a great opportunity for the CSO to connect with the people of our city and it is heartening to see the line to get into a classical music concert stretching around the block.

Yes, that is a run out concert on Sunday, a particularly cruel thing to do to an orchestra that spent the last two weeks climbing on and off busses, trains, and airplanes, but there you have it. On top of that, the split programs, requiring a much-hated Saturday rehearsal, insure the entire weekend gets spoiled. Players who might have wanted some weekend time with their families will have to wait another week. One might think that after two weeks away, the city of Chicago might deserve a few CSO concerts, but East Lansing beckons and off we run.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The tour in pictures: London

Royal Festival Hall
The Royal Box as seen from the bass section
Brad Opland warms up
Wardrobe trunks in the men's dressing room

The tour in pictures: Paris

Salle Pleyel
My cheap hotel room
Saint Sulpice
Drawing a lucky card on the train to London

The tour in pictures: Germany

Dusseldorf to Essen by bus
Joe Guastafeste tunes up in Essen
A difference of opinion
I highlighted this curious marking in the Poem of Ecstasy bass part with arrows. They say in police work eyewitness reports are often unreliable as evidence. The same thing happens in orchestras as well: “was that in two or in four?" The last bassists to use this part couldn’t agree on what they saw.

Bass trunks arrive in Munich

A common sight on this tour: waiting for a plane

The tour in pictures: Italy

The first thing I need to say is that I am a crappy photographer. The last camera I owned broke in 1970 and I never bothered to get another until this year when one fell into my lap as a gift. So what you are seeing here is a small sample of my inept efforts to document the working parts of the tour as I saw them in an unvarnished sort of way.

http://www.cso.org/europe2007/ has the official photos taken by Todd Rosenberg, our excellent photographer.

Bass trunks waiting in Torino
My instrument in one pieceBassists Kraemer, Armstrong, DiBello and Opland warm up before the rehearsal in Torino
On the train to Verona: Bassoonist Bill Buchman gets a music lesson from bassist Rob Kassinger Herded towards the hotel in Verona
Jugglers: Bassoonist Lewis Kirk (left) and bassist Dan Armstrong get down to business while waiting for the bus
Something funny going on at the back of the plane to Rome
Bassist Roger Cline under the watchful eyes of the Italian police
Dan Armstrong warms up again in Rome

The orchestra arrives at terminal AA, Rome

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Friday – concert in London, Saturday – concert in London

I spent Friday morning at the British Library searching for some manuscripts of bass solos by Domenico Dragonetti, part of a project for Discordia Music. I was amazed at being able to walk in off the street, get a reader card and locate what I needed in a few hours.

The rest of the day was spent at the British Museum, then in search of a pint (or two). London seems like it has become much more crowded than I remember. Everywhere I go the sidewalks are crammed with hoards of people. The tube is a crush even at midday.

A colleague and I had a little debate over which side of the sidewalk to use here in the UK – his point being that people would probably stay to the left when walking as they do when driving. But that hasn’t been my observation. Trying to stay left has gotten me run into more times than I can count in the last two and a half days. Then again, staying right has ended in the same result. I’ve been in very crowded cities before – Tokyo comes to mind – where even in an absolute mob you barely get brushed. Here in London, pedestrians seem to make their way down the sidewalk in unruly knots, bumping and jostling each other like a host of Orcs fleeing Mordor. I arrived after walking to the concert hall (one orchestra bus ride in London is too many) with a few bruises.

Royal Festival Hall has undergone some kind of renovation. The artists’ entrance isn’t the same and some of the backstage areas seemed unfamiliar. Inside the auditorium I didn’t notice any changes, but my recollection of the place is none too vivid.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed playing there, so maybe I put it out of mind for a reason. The sound seemed dry and unflattering, both for one bass alone on stage and the orchestra as a whole. The last chord of the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky 6 got sucked up and disappeared into thin air with no reverberation whatsoever. Hearing instruments across the stage was difficult at times as well.

Due to my position on stage for the Saturday concert I needed to have two earplugs in (one in each ear) the entire time, so it is difficult to tell what happened.

London is a wonderful city, but I’m happy to be leaving behind the teeming hoards and the outrageous prices for more familiar surroundings. I hear it’s supposed to be 90 degrees in Chicago when we get there.

Thursday – Travel to London

Today, musicians had the option of staying in Paris for a free day or traveling to London. In part to avoid yet another day of travel and concert, I chose to go to London. Since I did not stay at the orchestra hotel I made my way to the Gare du Nord on foot lugging my suitcase. I was just finishing a cup of coffee when the group arrived en masse. By the time I paid the bill I was the last person in line. When I got to the point where we were being handed our boarding passes the CSO staffer gave me a curious look. To be fair, I don’t know her name either, I but I do know she works for the CSO.

“Uh, are you traveling with the CSO?” she asks.

“Uh, yes, I’m in the orchestra.”

“Hmm, we seem to be out of boarding passes. Are you sure you’re supposed to travel today?”

“Yes, I am,” I respond, pointing to my name in the tour book.

As it turned out, one of my colleagues (God love him) had showed up a day early by accident and had already taken a boarding pass. Eventually another was produced and things went more or less smoothly from there.

I’ve waited years to finally go through the Chunnel. As with most highly anticipated things, the reality of it didn’t live up to expectations – just under half an hour in the dark and it was all over. I know there’s an off-color joke lurking here, but I’ll pass for now.

The bus ride from Waterloo station to the hotel traversed the two miles in just about an hour. After finally checking in, the rest of the day went by pleasantly.

Tuesday – Travel from Munich to Paris, concert in Paris; Wednesday – concert in Paris

A small note on traveling with the orchestra; it may seem obvious, but boarding a plane with a group of people who all know each other has certain drawbacks. Before taking seats old friends, some of whom have lost touch with each other since breakfast, need to exchange warm greetings or catch up on the news while blockading the aisle. Finding enough overhead storage space for all the instruments carried onboard takes extra time as well. And then there are the flagrant violators of the carryon baggage limits…

In spite of the usual minor irritants, the flight to Paris went smoothly, and then it was into the city by train to my separate hotel – anything to avoid getting on another bus is worth it by this point in the tour.

The Salle Pleyel is an unattractive auditorium, at least on the inside. I never did find the front door. Every sound from the smallest cough to the errant mute clanking to the ground seemed amplified. After the staid, almost disinterested German audiences, the French were boisterous in reaction to both our concerts. Bunches of (very wet looking) flowers were lobbed onstage, bonking a few violinists.

After the concerts it was enjoyable taking the Metro across town to my hotel, observing Parisians going about their late-evening business. On Wednesday while waiting for the train, somebody who must have been at our concert did an elaborate and hilarious parody of a conductor’s mannerisms (Muti?) on the platform.

Playing two concerts in the same city seems like a luxury on this tour, where five or six of the nine concerts are preceded by travel. Pity none of the Italian cities could take us for more than one performance.

Monday – travel from Essen to Munich, concert in Munich

This is the time on tour when a few people find themselves going to the wrong room in the hotel, remembering the number from the previous day. In fact, today is something of a cookie-cutter copy of yesterday: Sheraton, bus, airport, bus, Hilton, modern German concert hall, beer, sleep.

Munich has a lot more charm than Essen but we had less time in which to enjoy it. Feeling a bit under the weather, I spent two of the five hours free between travel and concert sleeping and then practiced, which never makes me feel any better. I got my beer drinking in after the concert.

The Philharmonie in Munich is another of the generic modern German type concert hall. The sound seemed warmer and with more nuance than the hall in Essen but with our ‘all bombast all the time program’ it was difficult to make anything out.

Again, the German audience seemed underwhelmed with our antics and there were a noticeable number of empty seats. The last two days have really had the ‘let’s collect our fee and then get the heck out of Germany’ feel to them.

Sunday – Travel from Rome to Essen, concert in Essen

Every once in a while things go smoothly, almost as if by accident. Departure from Rome was mostly without incident. The city bus to train to airport connections went as planned.

At the airport, those of us who did not take the orchestra bus were told to meet the group at ‘Terminal 2’. Unfortunately, terminals at the Rome airport are named, ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, and so on. The TV screen gave us the information our charter flight would leave from terminal ‘A’, with check-in at counter 173. A quick jog through terminal ‘A’ revealed that the counters ended at 172, which posed something of a problem until it was discovered that there was also a terminal ‘AA’; that is where we found the orchestra.

The rest of the day went off as per schedule. The flight from Rome to Dusseldorf and then the bus to Essen were on time.

While sitting in the bus that would take us to the plane a number of us spotted a stray piece of baggage abandoned on the tarmac in Rome – a forlorn looking cardboard box that had fallen off a baggage truck. We all shared a few chuckles as various trucks, buses, and other of the odd sort of vehicles that whiz around airports all passed the box without anyone stopping to pick it up. A few drivers slowed to give it a second glance but there were no takers.

Unknown to us, one of my colleagues sharing in the amusement had a bag winging its way to Sicily instead of Essen at that very moment, probably to share the fate of the little box in Rome, lying unclaimed on a sun-drenched runway in Palermo. Talk about Karma. The bag was still missing last time I checked with him.

Essen is a modern industrial city without a whole lot of charm. There isn’t much to do there, not that we had time anyway, but the weather was so nice it was hard to hate the place.
The Philharmonie Essen is a modern concert hall of the shoebox variety with a bright, clear sound that tended towards becoming harsh. The concert had something of a ‘going through the motions’ feel about it and the German audience showed markedly less enthusiasm for the Muti/CSO juggernaut than the Italians.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Friday – Travel from Verona to Rome, Concert in Rome

It is difficult to know where to begin describing a day like this, perhaps at the beginning.

As is often the case, I skipped the hotel breakfast and stayed in my room to write. I’m not much of a breakfast person anyway so I chafe all the more under the provision in our contract whereby a large chunk of the per diem is deducted for the lavish buffets I rarely indulge in. Even more puzzling is the fact musicians would be billed for something most European hotels offer free of charge most of the time. No wonder some of my colleagues line pockets with purloined breakfast items to feed on for the rest of the day.

The bus ride to the airport ends with the bad news that our flight will be delayed. At 10:15 we are told to report back at 11 for an update. What happened to calling the airport before leaving, I wonder? At 11 the news is worse: no flight until 2. We are encouraged to get back onto the buses to be dropped off in Verona for some bonus sightseeing. I wander the streets of Verona for about an hour and get back on the bus at 1 to return to the airport.

Security is painfully slow, and Verona is one of those airports where passengers need to take a bus out to the plane even though it could be plainly seen through the terminal window parked about 200 feet away. The last orchestra members boarded a little after 2 at which point we were informed by a sheepish sounding captain that because of the slow boarding we had missed our slot and would need to wait 90 minutes. To the relief of all we got going almost right away. From then on the flight was more or less normal. We landed a bit after 3 and by 3:30 I was on the train to Rome. Since I chose not to stay at the orchestra hotel I was spared another bus trip. All in all there would be 7 bus rides a colleague pointed out at the intermission of the concert that evening.

I made it to my room by 5 and spent almost an hour trying to figure out how to get to the concert hall by city bus. Rome has hundreds of bus lines that twist and turn throughout the city, making planning a trip a challenge for the novice traveler. A brief nap followed by a slice of pizza on the run had to stand in for what was supposed to be a half-day in Rome. Arrival at the concert hall by bus at 8 PM for a 9 PM concert was largely uneventful.

The concert hall in Rome is part of a giant complex containing several venues. We were warned in our tour book that it was a 7-minute walk from the stage door to the stage – more or less true. Inside, the auditorium looked much like the all too familiar Berlin Philharmonie, with some of the same sound issues as well. At the opening of the Tchaikovsky 6, I thought I was playing but no sound seemed to come from the instrument. Someone said after the concert the basses sounded ‘OK’ in the hall, but under the ear, nada.

The orchestra played well, I thought, considering what a crappy day we had. The atmosphere was more charged than the night before, I guess because it was Rome. Also, the president of Italy was in attendance. I was nearly trampled by paparazzi on my 7-minute walk to get out of there.

Outside, I learned that there ‘might’ be a bus strike in progress, walked halfway back, and then took a taxi, not reaching the room until 12:30. Various revelries kept me up until about 3 AM.

Saturday is a free day, thank heavens.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Thursday – Travel from Torino to Verona, Concert in Verona

No breakfast this morning due to overindulgence last night. A persistent rain kept me in the hotel until it was time to walk to the train station. Fortunately most of the 10 blocks were under arcades running along the tracks.

The orchestra had a chartered train to Verona. We were herded into three first class cars at the front of the train while the other nine remained empty. During the trip, at least one brass player used a vacant car to practice.

Chartered travel arrangements always pose something of a dilemma where the desire to escape from the group runs headlong into the exigencies of getting from one city to the next on time, not to mention saving money. The trick is to surround oneself with colleagues whose presence is enjoyable, with the double function of creating a buffer zone against those whose proximity evokes displeasure. I was fortunate in my seating situation and the ride turned into a jolly time.

The train to Verona took about 3 hours, followed by a superfluous 5-minute bus ride. In the hotel by 3:30. The Leon D’Oro proved less than charming. Baggage delivery became something of a fiasco too. I ran into a few colleagues in the lobby who at 6 PM were still waiting for their luggage before the 8:30 concert.

The persistent drizzle had followed us from Torino. A nap preceded a brief soggy walk around the town swarming with tourists. No dinner before the concert due to continuing ramifications of last night’s overindulgence.

The hall in Verona turned out to be a charming old opera theater, seating only about 1,300. The sound onstage seemed dry but with a good bass response. The mellow sound was a pleasant change after the stridency of the night before. Muti seemed a little less keyed up than the night before as well. Maybe his day had been as dreary as ours.

After the concert, a fifteen minute walk back to the hotel in the rain.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Wednesday – rehearsal and concert in Torino

I’m up and about by 7 AM. The hotel (not one the orchestra is staying in) turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The smallish breakfast buffet would elicit outrage from certain orchestra members who turn noses up at any spread containing less than three different kinds of smoked fish, but it is not bad by any reasonable standard.

The city bus to the hall is slow but gives me a chance to rub elbows (literally) with a bunch of Italians on their way to work. As I find out later, the complex containing the concert hall used to be a Fiat plant. I guess the ‘T’ in Fiat stands for Torino, not Tony as in the timeworn joke.

At a loss to find the musician’s entrance, I wander aimlessly about the huge windswept plaza fronting the building until two different CSO staffers come out and show me the way in.

There is always a moment of anticipation opening the bass trunk after an overseas trip. I decided to use the CSO Testore – the instrument I waited 5 years for repairs on – so I was a little extra concerned this time. As a student I took a bass to Europe once, an instrument unremarkable save for its beautifully carved lions-head scroll. Opening the trunk I ended up catching the head as it tumbled out, having cracked off at the nut. It brought to mind the scene from The Godfather where the guy wakes up looking at the horse head. Anyhow, this time there was no discernable damage.

The auditorium, three floors below ground level, has attractive wood finishes all round. The sound of one bass alone on the stage is clear, if somewhat brittle. After a few peaceful minutes alone I am swamped as the rest of the orchestra trickles in and find out it can become quite loud. Instruments close by – trombones for instance – can be heard with painful clarity while those across the stage are difficult to make out.

Muti leads a relaxed rehearsal, giving the orchestra a chance to find its feet without too much meddling, certainly a different atmosphere from the way things have been done at the CSO in the past.

Afterwards, a chance encounter on the street leads to a pleasant lunch with a colleague. The rest of the afternoon is spent avoiding the dreary weather – napping at the hotel, writing.

For the 9 PM concert, I try and arrive early for some practice. Again, after a few minutes alone I’m drowned out but churn through about an hour of scales and Sevcik anyway.

From my position onstage it is difficult to give an objective assessment of the concert. There were some moments of less than perfect ensemble, perhaps attributable to the difficulty hearing across the stage. The louds seemed overly loud as well – nothing new there.

Muti was well received by the Italian audience, returning for many curtain calls at the end of the first half which lead to an awkward moment when the orchestra, eager to start its break, began to exit en masse just as the Maestro emerged for yet one more bow, resulting in a confusion of sitting and standing musicians, some halfway to the doors, nobody sure what to do next.

After the concert, a lively dinner with two colleagues and one critic. Back to the hotel by 2 AM.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tuesday – Arrival in Torino

The flight landed more or less on time at about 10:15 PM. Torino airport’s gleaming modern terminals and baggage hall lead to a rather shabby waiting area. At that hour there were no more trains, only a bus at 10:45.

A slight drizzle at the beginning of the trip abruptly became a downpour. The bus to the Porta Nuova train station for some reason pulled up a block short leaving passengers to fend for themselves. Rather than a bustling hub of activity as in other European cities, the station in Torino looked gloomy, deserted save for a few people huddling under cover like half drowned rats. Construction barricades forced hapless pedestrians from under the covered archways into the rain. It took two crossings of the street in ankle deep water to find the taxi stand.

The first cab waiting held two ladies arguing (?) loudly in Italian, something about the airport. Another soon pulled up behind but the passenger who got out proceeded to carefully examine and question each and every coin the driver returned to him in change. The rain was falling in sheets.

Ten minutes and E. 10 later, arrival at the hotel. It is now midnight. At the desk the man in line before me gets into a long, involved discussion with the manager about Internet access. In the room by 12:10 AM.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A final gasp of fresh air

Tuesday, September 25

The previous post contains a glaring mistake I should correct right away. And since, miracle of miracles, I have free Internet access at least for the moment I can set things to rights.

The schedule for the first four days of the tour should read:

Sunday
Depart Chicago

Monday
Arrive Torino

Tuesday
Off

Wednesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
9 CSO concert (A)

How can somebody not know when they are leaving for Europe, you ask?

The answer is simple, and even spawns the subject for a new post. What appears above is the ‘official’ tour schedule for the orchestra. I left a day early (Saturday) and went someplace else. So I’m not paying much attention to what the orchestra as a group is up to until we all convene for the rehearsal on Wednesday morning.

One of the things about touring I have come to appreciate more and more over the years is that besides rehearsals and concerts an orchestra member is free to come and go as he or she pleases. In fact, making separate arrangements becomes almost an imperative for maintaining sanity.

Of course I love all of my colleagues dearly, but I have found being in an orchestra becomes like a cross-country bus trip with about a hundred of your closest friends. The thing funny yesterday becomes today’s grating annoyance. Eventually everyone needs to get up to use the toilet and the whole thing starts to take on a certain funk. Touring tends to exacerbate those conditions. No matter how nice the scenery, it is often preferable to take a different bus.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

CSO tour September 23 – October 7

Tour programs
A:
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 3
INTERMISSION
FALLA The Three-Cornered Hat: Suite No. 2
RAVEL Rapsodie espagnole
RAVEL Boléro
(VERDI Overture to La forza del destino)

B:
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique)
INTERMISSION
HINDEMITH Nobilissima visione
SCRIABIN Poem of Ecstasy
(VERDI Overture to La forza del destino)

Saturday
Depart Chicago

Sunday
Arrive Torino

Monday
Off

Tuesday
Off

Wednesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
9 CSO concert (A)

Thursday
Travel to Verona
8:30 CSO concert (B)

Friday

Travel to Rome
9 CSO concert (B)

Saturday
Off

Sunday

Travel to Essen
8 CSO Concert (A)

Monday
Travel to Munich
8 CSO Concert (A)

Tuesday
Travel to Paris
8 CSO concert (B)

Wednesday

8 CSO concert (A)

Thursday
Off (or travel to London)

Friday

Travel to London
7:30 CSO concert (B)

Saturday
7:30 CSO concert (A)

Sunday
Return to Chicago

This tour has too many travel and concert days. Four or five hours travel time plus packing and then unpacking again all in one day before playing a concert is taxing for the orchestra. Both programs are strenuous. We will see how it goes.

I intend to keep a journal of the tour and post it whenever I can, which may not happen until I get back.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Lathe of Heaven

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.–Chuang Tzu

Some time near the beginning of the season is the appropriate time to mention what is still my favorite perk as a member of the CSO. It isn’t our salary, printed in the newspapers again this week as it is after every contract settlement, our concert hall, or even getting to share the stage with our brass section. No, my needs are much more modest, my pleasures far simpler. I’m talking about the grinding wheel.

First, a little history of my experience with the wheel. Before the latest renovation of orchestra hall an inconspicuous door beside the musician mailboxes opened into a small ‘utility room’, a dingy little space crammed with odds and ends – tools, wires, a furnace, if I recall. In that room, bolted to a greasy workbench stood a small grinding wheel, perfect for sharpening endpins.

I’m not sure who introduced me to the wheel. During the summer months, the stage at orchestra hall is often refinished, resulting in a hard, slick surface. At the first few rehearsals of the season endpins tend to slip, making a nice sharp spike desirable. I’m sure one of my colleagues noticed my slipping and sliding and introduced me to the wheel. Strange that I don’t remember the details.

There was something of a ritual about removing the endpin and solemnly taking it down to the dark little room where the wheel resided, the hellish shower of sparks like the devil’s own workshop, the smell of sulfur.

After renovation, the little room had vanished. I believe it became part of a musicians’ lounge and for several years we were without access to a wheel until the bass section took up a collection and a new one was purchased. One of my colleagues, handy with tools, built a small pedestal for it, and the shiny new wheel sits in a corner of the bass locker room.

I used it again today in preparation for the tour. You never know what kind of stages you might come across and it is best to be prepared with a diamond-sharp point. Even stripped of its ritual, the wheel is still about my favorite part of being in the CSO.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Week 01

September 17 – 23

This week’s CSO program

Riccardo Muti, conductor
Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique)
Hindemith - Nobilissima visione
Scriabin - The Poem of Ecstasy

Monday
7:30 MOB concert

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

Wednesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
6:30 CSO concert (Afterwork Masterworks, Hindemith, Tchaikovsky only)

Thursday
11-1:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
1:30 CSO concert

Saturday
CSO European tour until October 7

CSO players and management settled our contract negotiations on Saturday. After spending countless hours in meetings over the summer I’m not inclined to spend too much energy thinking or writing about our new contract at the moment. Anyone interested in details should look for them elsewhere. The one thing I will say now is that I am particularly proud of our committee for maintaining scale for substitute and extra musicians. A number of so-called ‘major’ orchestras have cut deals where subs and extras are paid less than regular members. This shameful practice runs counter to unionism and has the unsavory aspect of players with secure incomes screwing local freelancers and lining their pockets with the spoils.

I’m not sure how much blogging will go on during the tour. I’ll post the tour schedule before leaving Chicago and see what happens. I have a thing against paying for expensive Internet access at hotels.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Week 53 (?) at the CSO

September 10 - 17

This week’s CSO programs
Friday and Sunday

Riccardo Muti, conductor

Prokofiev - Symphony No. 3
Falla - Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat
Ravel - Rapsodie espagnole
Ravel - Boléro

Saturday
Opening Night Gala

Riccardo Muti, conductor
Barbara Frittoli, soprano

Verdi - Overture to La forza del destino
Verdi - Tacea la notte placida from Il trovatore
Puccini - Vissi d'arte from Tosca
Cilea - Io son l'umile ancella from Adriana Lecouvreur
Falla - Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat
Ravel - Rapsodie espagnole Ravel – Boléro

This week’s Music of the Baroque program
Sunday and Monday

Music of the Baroque chorus and Orchestra
Jane Glover, conductor
Arianna Zukerman, soprano
Shawn Mathey, tenor
Nathan Berg, bass-baritone

Haydn
Die Jahreszeiten


Monday
oops!

Tuesday
10-12 1-3 CSO rehearsals

Wednesday
10-12 1-3 CSO rehearsals

Thursday
off

Friday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
2-5 MOB rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Saturday
10:30-1 2-5 MOB rehearsals
7 CSO concert

Sunday
3 CSO concert
7:30 MOB concert

Monday
7:30 MOB concert

A few eplanatory noters are in order. The 53rd week is a necessity to adjust the start date of the season, sort of a ‘leap week’. Also, our contract expires at the end of week 53, midnight on Sunday.

This past Monday, due to a misunderstanding, I missed the first MOB rehearsal. At some point it had been recheduled from Tuesday and I never got the information. So on Friday I will need to approach the conductor with the utmost humility and apologize while adroitly shrugging off responisbilty for my absence.

The loathesome Bolero once again finds its way onto a CSO program...

Monday, September 10, 2007

King Kong v Godzilla

Sorry to say, I’ve been a bit busy with negotiations lately so this is all I could come up with.

The passing of Luciano Pavarotti one day after the 10th anniversary of Sir Georg Solti’s death brought back memories of when the two of them teamed up here in Chicago for Verdi’s Othello in 1990. The brick-like CD box set of the live recording molders unopened on a shelf somewhere in my house. I think it was probably a decent performance but I’ve never had the heart to listen to it. What I remember more vividly are all of the extra curricular activities surrounding the rehearsals and performances.

I recall the Solti/Pavarotti Othello as an epic, often amusing clash of titans who shrieked and stamped their way across the musical landscape like a miniature Tokyo film set.

Solti appeared pretty put off by Pavarotti, his entourage, late arrival for rehearsals, and other hijinx. I remember one passionate exchange, all in Italian and I wondered what earthshaking musical issue they might have been arguing over until a colleague made a rough translation.

Solti: (stopping the orchestra) Luciano, why do you talk so much? You are always talking!

Pavarotti: Every time you stop the orchestra, you start talking. You’re talking all the time. I have as much right to talk as you do.

Solti: It’s my orchestra; I can talk whenever I want.

etc. etc.

Pavarotti sat on a specially built throne while the other soloists made due with normal chairs. The seat consisted of a BarcaLounger type recliner tipped forward at an angle to propel the tenor into a standing position with only the smallest shift in weight. I recently heard rumor that the chair might have had some sort of spring loaded feature as well but I have no direct knowledge of that. The arms of the chair were widened by the addition of wood and duct tape. I know this so well in part due to the indelible impression the throne made on me, but also because the contraption spent the next few years cluttering up a corridor in Orchestra Hall.

Beside the throne sat a small table, amply stocked with food – apple slices, maybe a few chocolates – along with drinks. The great tenor snacked constantly through rehearsals and, much to my astonishment, during the concerts as well. At the first performance, I was surprised to see Pavarotti drinking out of a large purple and gold ‘LA Lakers’ plastic cup, the kind you get those bladder busting 32 oz. drinks in at gas stations or a 7-11.

Another interesting thing I discovered during intermission while sneaking up for a closer look at the throne, the Lakers cup, and the snacks, was the ‘music’ Pavarotti read off of. His ‘score’ consisted of the words only, printed in block capital letters about an inch high. Adding to the mystery, certain words were in red.

If all that wasn’t enough, we arrived at rehearsal one day to find a small plywood structure constructed in haste by the stagehands in the midst of the orchestra, wherein crouched a shadowy figure – the great tenor’s personal prompter, I guess. As the soloists were positioned behind the orchestra, I never got to see what sort of hand signals or other exhortations emanated from that small, uncomfortable looking enclosure.

The whole circus was performed in Chicago then carted to New York for a repeat performance at Carnegie Hall.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

This week

This should have been posted on Labor Day. The CSO players and managers still have not reached an agreement in our on-going contract talks. Negotiations ended back on August 10 and start up again at the end of this week. The first orchestra services are this weekend, a ‘members of’ concert at Millennium Park on Sunday, September 9, which I was only too happy to turn down. I need every bit of my vacation, and then some. The ‘regular’ season begins with rehearsals on Tuesday, September 11.

Since I am on the negotiating team, I can probably reveal even less about the state of affairs than anyone else in the orchestra. All I can say about it is that negotiating is kind of like waiting for a bus – one that never arrives. But as our current contract expires in about ten days, maybe somebody will finally step on the gas.

Here is the program for the (free!) Millennium Park Concert:

Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Edwin Outwater, conductor
Savion Glover, tap dancer

Mozart - Overture to The Magic Flute
Ellington - Selections from The River *
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)
* Featuring Savion Glover

Friday, August 31, 2007

WTF

On Wednesday my annual preseason string order arrived. It is always good to start off with a fresh set of strings and a renewed sense of optimism. Unfortunately only the strings endure for any length of time.

As usual, I discovered the package dropped surreptitiously on the porch by our local FedEx person, someone I have never once managed to catch in the act of delivery. In contrast, his counterpart from UPS seems like an old friend.

Part of my order is the usual Pirastro flat-chromsteel set. I’ve tried different strings over the years but always seem to come back to these. My consternation isn’t with the strings; it’s the package that annoys me

The front of the flat-chrom package has a classy design – arabesque border, the crossed tuning forks inside the little octagon a nice touch, with just a splash of color. I’m happy the Pirastro strings I use – Flat-chromsteel, Eudoxa (Queen of strings! they call them.) and Oliv (The noble sound…?) – all have maintained the traditional front cover design. Sadly, the venerable Flexocor has gone to cartoonish color drawing. (Since when did strings need cover art anyway?)

But, what really gets me is the flip side, where

I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Playing!

is scrawled in cursive script. The first time I noticed that I thought somebody had sold me used strings or was playing a prank.

Sorry to say, I’m not so happy to see such exuberance whenever I get a new set of strings. Why this annoys me so much, I have no idea, but it really irks me every time. Maybe it is because I was ‘put in my place’ early on in my career.

The CSO was putting on a semi-staged opera with a very hefty, fairly famous soprano. I came bounding up the stairs during a rehearsal break and literally ran into her as she descended.

“Is break over already!” she wailed, still grunting and sweating her way down to her dressing room.

“No,” I answered, trying to be clever, “I’m so full of enthusiasm, I can’t wait to get back onstage!”

“Well,” she barked, “get over it!”

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Shock of the Old

Here's a very interesting post I found on Jason's Blog:

I was ready to tear what's left of my hair out because a certain musician who had turned up on both of these gigs drives me insane with his playing. It is difficult to describe to civilians, but you musicians will know what I mean when I tell you what this man does to frustrate me: he plays way too loud, doesn't listen and, worst of all, rushes like a mo'fo' constantly. There is nothing I can do to make the music feel good because this guy is always phrasing way out in front of the beat. There were excellent drummers on both these gigs but there's only so much commiseration we can share via stolen looks and musical telepathy. We basically have to tune this guy out. Oh, by the way, he's a rhythm section player (I don't want to get too specific here).

As a consequence, I have to try to NOT listen to this musician, which is antithetical to the nature of playing music, especially in a small group. Adding to the maddening level of non-musicality is the unfortunate fact that I happen to like this man very much personally. If I didn't like him so much it would somehow be easier to loathe trying to create a groove on the same bandstand with him.

Read the entire post by Bill Harrison on Jason Heath’s blog here.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

From the Inbox Archive

More good questions I left unanswered due to general slothfulness.

1) How does the orchestra react to doing an Orchestra premiere of a work only one time and after such a small amount of rehearsal?

2) Does the small ratio of new works/composers entering the repertoire (or canon) compared to number of new works premiered make it more discouraging to premiere a new work? How often do you get the sense of "We could end up playing this work 5 of the next 20 years."

It seemed (at the Saturday concert) that the Ambush From Ten Sides Silk Road work was extremely popular with the audience, but the orchestra looked like they wished people would stop clapping so they could start their break.

3) Is there a difference in what works or interpretations can be presented at a summer festival versus what you do in Orchestra Hall? It seems like Breaking the Silence would be good in Orchestra Hall, but not necessarily what someone would want while sitting outside on a summer night?

Sometimes once is more than enough. But seriously, at times it seems like a waste to learn a new piece and only play it once. At Ravinia, rehearsal time is indeed tight which puts pressure on the orchestra to give a good performance. Some conductors are better at pulling that sort of thing off than others, but more often than not, the results are not entirely satisfactory.

The orchestra reaction to almost anything new or unfamiliar tends towards the negative, no matter what. It is worse at Ravinia, but the reasons may be more valid. Summer audiences are possibly even less receptive to new things than those who come to concerts downtown – completely understandable, considering the venue – so musicians often wonder why we are force-feeding difficult material to an unwilling or indifferent public while so much ‘standard’ repertoire goes unplayed. Additionally, we possibly squander an opportunity to reach out to people only marginally interested in classical music, or those who have never heard it before, and maybe even chase some of them away with the programming.

The other side of that coin is the disappointment musicians feel when we pander to an audience, or present something that isn’t representative of what we do. Summer performances – Ravinia or Millennium Park – can be an excellent opportunity to reach out to a new audience, people who might not feel comfortable coming to Symphony Center to hear a concert. The tragedy is that often, rather than bringing a bit of what we do best to those people and selling them on it, we ‘tailor’ the programming to fit the audience, presenting them with popsy shows, or concerts where the orchestra is backing up some other kind of act. Usually we are playing music we don’t know, don’t care about, or have difficulty playing well in front of our largest audiences, which is a real letdown.

With new music, such as the Silk Road repertoire, there is not a clear line between what is ‘pop’ and what is ‘serious’ music. Your perceptive observation of orchestra members’ body language probably tells you as much as you need to know about what certain musicians thought about it.

The fact that very few new works we premier ever get played again is a disappointment for a number of reasons. For the majority of players who don’t want to play new music in the first place, there is a feeling we have wasted time and money putting on something that is going to simply gather dust on a library shelf somewhere. For those who support at least the idea of new music, it also seems a waste not to give some of these works a few hearings before declaring them duds or masterpieces. Accepting or rejecting a new work out of hand after one performance (or series) isn’t really giving that music its due, in my opinion. In fact, I think it might have the effect of forcing works to opposite ends of a spectrum – the immediately accessible versus the difficult and complex – with some composers actively courting instant public acceptance and others studiously avoiding it.

Friday, August 17, 2007

More Clearing of the Inbox

Here’s a question that has been languishing in Hotmail for many months now. Huge topic, but I try and take a futile stab at it.

In your 2/11 post you referred to "distasteful modern" pieces. I would be so curious to hear more from your insider's perspective as a player about what makes some modern pieces distasteful. Is it gratuitous dissonance, technical demands on the performers, what? Don't feel like you have to name names of specific composers or pieces (unless you're not averse to doing so in which case I would love to know), but I would like to know how often you feel that you as a CSO member are asked to present modern music that strikes you as good material for a s.s. And are those pieces most typically 20th century works or are they just as likely to be something written in the last few years? I direct an organization that specializes in commissioning new music, particularly for the choral/orchestral repertoire so I would be curious to hear your thoughts on it if/when you have time. A future post perhaps?

There are so many ways players hate modern music it is impossible to discuss them all. As an aside, one of the most surprising things to me entering this profession was the discovery that orchestra musicians might be even more conservative than their audience when it comes to new music. The s.s. designation (shit sandwich) can apply to any concert with a 20th or 21st century work. Chances are somebody is going to hate the filling.

The most easily dismissed musician complaints are those levied against anything unfamiliar, or any piece that doesn’t live up to the reputations of the ‘old masters’. For many players and audience members alike, the concert hall has become a mausoleum where only the most esteemed corpses are allowed to rest.

Beyond that, atonality is probably the most criticized element of modern works, whether or not they are familiar. Schoenberg’s music gets the most derision from players even though a number of his pieces entered our repertoire under our former music director. When it comes to Schoenberg, familiarity definitely breeds contempt, or worse. There are those who claim the second Viennese school was a cabal formed to kill western music. Go figure.

Moving on to what I would consider more nuanced critiques of new music, the foremost would be simply lack of craft. Ungainly or unplayable instrumental parts are sure to raise musician hackles. Poor orchestration is another but related complaint. Dense, muddy, over-scored orchestrations seem to be the norm for a lot of the newly commissioned works we see.

Works that utilize musicians like robots are especially distasteful (although this critique can just as easily be applied to composers like Bruckner and Wagner, IMO). Often, it seems as if a new work was written on a synthesizer and might be best also played by one. A more subtle variation of that would be the feeling by some players that they can’t use their music training or instincts, the musical language is somehow unintelligible, leaving them bewildered, clueless and demoralized when facing a new work.

The whole notion that players and audience members need to ‘get’ a modern piece of music is something that could merit a lengthy book – by someone other than myself. To touch on it, Boulez’s music is often held up as an example of the hyper-intellectual and unintelligible. But in my opinion it is possible to have an emotional response to his music (beyond anger) with a little bit of open-mindedness. Unfortunately, that is in short supply at times.

My own feelings, which put me squarely in the minority, are that it is unfair to compare a recent work, especially one getting its first performance, to any of the over fed war-horses contentedly munching away in the orchestral stables these past 200 years. The idea of holding every new thing up to the standard of ‘masterpiece’ or simply the ‘familiar’ probably does more to stifle music than any sinister machinations of the atonalists.

Monday, August 13, 2007

CSO Bass Blog Soldiers On

When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

And so it went with the CSO portion of the Ravinia Festival this year. At six weeks it seemed all too fleeting. On the other hand there were times (the slow movement of Bruckner 7th comes to mind) it seemed interminable. Unfortunately, six weeks (or less) might become the norm for the CSO at Ravinia considering the priorities of the leadership there and the plans they appear to have for the festival. I understand Ravinia has stated they would love to offer the CSO an 8-week residency (like in the old days, say five years ago…) so long as it begins after July 4 and concludes by mid-August. Logic like that, I don’t think even Einstein could wrap his brain around. We’re clearly dealing with an irrational lack of exuberance on Ravinia’s part.

But the CSO Bass Blog will persevere, even through vacation. I plan to continue answering some of the questions I have let pile up over the past few months. Indeed, if there are any (politely worded) reader questions out there, this might be a good time to submit them with the reasonable expectation of a timely response. There are also a few other topics on my mind I will have more time to delve into now that the pesky business of playing is for the moment behind me.

Right now, the main news about the CSO is that there is no news. Contract negotiations are suspended until early September. As I have mentioned before, the last day of our contract is September 16. The convergence of the negotiations, the start of our season, the arrival of Ricardo Muti, and our European tour two weeks later should make for an exciting time.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ravinia week 06 (August 6 - 12)

This week’s CSO Programs

Saturday
Apollo Chorus of Chicago
James Conlon, Conductor
Patricia Racette, Soprano
James Valenti, Tenor
Fred Burchinal, Baritone
Ning Liang, Mezzo-soprano

Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Sunday
James Conlon, Conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau ("The Mermaid")

Monday
off

Tuesday
11-1:30 CSO rehearsal

Wednesday
11-1:30 2:30-5 CSO rehearsals

Thursday
11-1:30 2:30-5 CSO rehearsals

Friday
off

Saturday
7:30 CSO concert

Sunday
12:30-3 CSO rehearsal
5 CSO concert

And that does it for the 2006-2007 season of the CSO.

The first rehearsal for the 2007-2008 season is on Tuesday, September 11. As of this posting, the players and management have not agreed on a new contract. However, the week of September 10-16 is part of the current contract, so there is no danger the opening week of rehearsals and concerts would be affected if an agreement is not reached by that time.

Beyond that, we will have to wait and see.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Clearing the Inbox

Since starting this blog I have received a number of questions and made vague promises to answer them at some point.

A bigwig from the International Bottesini Society recently contacted me with a series of interesting questions. I agreed to answer them in my blog if they would wave my 25 years of unpaid membership dues, so here goes.

1. Describe an experience that made you glad you play bass.

Once upon a time I played in the ‘Junior Symphony’, which I guess is the farm team for the Seattle Youth Symphony. I must have been about twelve when this happened. We were playing (or trying to play) the last movement of Tchaikovsky 4. The conductor threw a fit at the general lack of preparation in the strings and decided to go round the orchestra, stand by stand, to hear the theme.


There were only three of us in the bass section, and although I can only speak for myself, I can safely say none of us had any idea how to play those notes. First violins, seconds, violas, and cellos each went through their public humiliation before all eyes turned to the basses. Now as any bass player knows, the basses don’t play the complete passage at the beginning of the movement. Without saying anything to each other, the three of us all instinctively chose the same survival mechanism. When the conductor gave the downbeat, together, we played exactly four notes and stopped.


The conductor found it impossible to maintain his wrath in the face of such brazen incompetence and let the matter drop. At that moment I was very glad I played the bass.

On a more positive note, one passage that makes me happy I took up the bass is the opening pizzicato section of Mahler 4, 3rd movement. On those rare occasions when, due to a fortuitous leave of absence, illness, or by sheer luck, the bass section pizzicatos are together, this is one of the most satisfying things to play. In this business you often have to settle for very simple pleasures.



2. Describe an experience that made you wish you played something else -- or perhaps weren't a musician at all.

One word: Bolero.

3. What, in your opinion, is the worst moment in the standard orchestral repertoire for bassists?

I have to answer this a little carefully.

In my experience, the worst moment in the standard repertoire for the basses has to be the ‘bass solo’ passage in the Mahler 1st symphony. I’m not talking about having to play it myself though.

I imagine the questioner intended something else. There are really so many candidates for the worst moment. What comes to mind is the so-called ‘storm scene’ from Beethoven 6. I’m talking about the loud passages where the notes are largely inaudible but give the visual impression the bass section is engaged in some sort of communal act of autoeroticism.



I played Beethoven 6 in another orchestra before I got to Chicago. After playing through the ‘storm’ movement, the conductor stopped and addressed the bass section.

“Should we rehearse that?” he asked, foolishly.

Of course we all shook our heads, ‘no’.

“You know,” the Maestro went on. “When you get to heaven, you are going to have to face Beethoven!”

The principal shot back, “Well, he’s going to have to face me!”