Bass Blog

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

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

35 Minutes over Miami

Last week, February 12 – 18, the CSO went on tour to Florida. As the weather in Chicago turned out it was a great time to be gone. The orchestra took two programs on tour.

Program A

Gollijov Last Round
Elgar Violin Concerto
INTEMISSION
Schuman Symphony no. 2
David Zinman conductor
Gil Shaham violin

Program B

Gollijov Last Round
Elgar Violin Concerto
INTEMISSION
Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra
David Zinman conductor
Gil Shaham violin


Since my involvement in the tour was minimal, anyone interested in what a fabulous experience the whole thing turned out to be can visit the CSO website Florida Tour page to see the schedule and a photo journal.

About a month ago, word came down from on high that David Zinman had decided to use reduced strings (6 basses) for the Gollijov, Elgar and Schumann. Looking at the tour schedule, somebody noticed that the entire tour could be done with 6 basses except for Zarathustra which was only on one concert. To save some money, players were to be excluded from the tour or sent home after the Miami concert. Naturally there was much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands. Nobody wanted to miss out on a week in Florida. Once all that died down, the negotiations began, ending with two of us graciously (if I may say so) accepting the tour concerts off for some minor considerations. So my duties were limited to one half of one concert – less really, since the second ‘half’ didn’t begin until about 9:40, ending at 10:15. After that, I went off and had my own private tour of Florida.

Fortunately, the one concert I played was at the Carnival Center in Miami, a beautiful and much talked about new concert hall. Architecturally, the place didn’t disappoint except possibly for the lack of backstage restrooms. The sound on the other hand left some things to be desired. My perspective was from the stage only, where I found it hard to hear the bass section or much of any low-end. Colleagues in the audience at the rehearsal confirmed the lack of bass response. The acoustic was clear, if a little dry. I heard a few woodwind parts in the Strauss I had never noticed before and when the conductor spoke from the podium at the rehearsal, unlike at Orchestra Hall, I could actually make out the individual words he was saying. There were some other complaints about the sound being ‘pale’ or ‘flat’ which I could agree with.

Another complaint was with the risers. It is almost a guarantee that they won’t be deep enough which was true again at this hall. The lack of bass sound might have had something to do with the construction of the risers. One of my colleagues who is very interested in such things had a look underneath and said the supports were aluminum and rather flimsy. There is a big debate in the orchestra as a whole and in the bass section about risers. While there are some benefits to having the bass section elevated, some sound gets absorbed by the risers. The best results seem to come when the firmness of the risers approaches that of the floor.

To top that off, the concert hall management asked that the cellos and basses not put endpins into the stage floor. It must be painful to see a brand new wood floor get endpin holes in it, but that’s what stages are for. One of my colleagues remarked that trying to keep a stage floor pristine was like ‘eating without getting your mouth dirty.’ I remember something like this once before on a tour. Manchester or Birmingham, whichever had a new hall when we played there, provided those wooden ‘T’ shaped boards, designed mainly for cellist I think, since they were way too thin and impossible to use with our bass stools. Anyhow, the Carnival Center had nothing of the sort. Instead, our stagehands had brought along these silly little black squares of ¼ inch plywood – looking for all the world like mortarboards, minus the tassel. Of course as soon as an endpin went into one of those, it slipped so a stagehand would have to tape it to the floor with a concert-black duct tape. The problem with this was that when somebody wanted to move more than a couple inches, the thing had to be ripped up and re-taped. Rebellion against the silly squares grew until they were being audibly ripped up and tossed aside during the rehearsal.

The high point of my one-day ‘tour’ had to be visiting the New World Symphony in Miami Beach and listening to a number of very fine young bass players. I enjoyed seeing a couple of former students. One of them, Matt Heller, is featured prominently in a New York Times article in the February 18 Sunday Arts section.

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