Bass Blog

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

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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.

17 comments:

Gottagopractice said...

Excellent title. I had no idea the bass section has such issues. And I don't know about the domestication thing, but love the analogy.

Friar Tuck said...

As a former trumpet player this may be my new favourite posting.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks. I'm posting all the good stuff at year-end in hopes of an Oscar nod.

Adriel said...

Two questions:

Do the guest conductors typically give you guys advance notice when they do these seating switcheroos, or do you find out at the first rehearsal?

Also, how do you decide who's inside/outside on occasions where they put the basses on risers in a straight line at the back? Just mimic what occurs on the first stand?

Michael Hovnanian said...

Usually we find out at the first rehearsal, although we know what certain conductors like from past experience. The stagehands have to know in advance, so I'm sure there is a way to find out. I've never bothered.

In the straight line set up, the principal is usually on one end, so it is easy to alternate inside outside. Once, the first stand was in the center. All the other stands mimiced the first in that case.

Sam said...

One time for a Mozart symphony the conductor wanted one stand of basses on each side of the stage. The Principal and asst were on stage right, player 3 and 4 stage left. The principal, very perturbed, refused to sit on the outside of the stand, so the asst turned pages from the outside stage right. Player 3 wanted to mirror this set up on our side of the stage, so as player 4 I was made to turn pages from outside stage left!! I should have refused.

Michael Hovnanian said...

That should never happen...

Jesus Apodaca said...

Ha. I've thought about the "telephone" analogy many times during orchestra rehearsals. However, not being in the inner circle has its advantages...

Mike Jolkovski said...

Wonderful writing -- gorgeously inside-baseball. Thanks for this.

max said...

I thought that the former conductor whom Mike can't recall (middle eastern fellow, as I remember him...from Qatar maybe?) actually solved a lot of problems by moving the basses over to the violin side. At least at that time, (less so now due to some personnel attrition) the first violins tended to play very much at the back of the beat in the CSO, not late exactly, but right at the edge of on time. The basses tended to be a bit to the front, not early exactly, but definitely ahead of the firsts. Those of us in the middle tended to be torn between the extremes; there was no place to put our parts that really worked. When this Jordanian fellow (or was he Kurdish...who can remember?) forced the basses and first fiddles into such close physical proximity, they actually listened to each other on occasion, and ensemble improved somewhat. My life became a bit easier.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Agreed. Good points as always, Max. Still there were some downsides. Although it was nice to get out from in front of the low brass, our ensemble and intonation with them suffered when they could no longer hear us. In the late romantic, early 20th century stuff we play, the basses are as much brass as strings.

Now what the heck was that guy's name?

Chantal said...

This post was great---lots of laughs, and always nice to hear about the goings on in the CSO bass section. Good luck with page turning and whatnot!

Michael Hovnanian said...

Please do not use those 3 letters (to descibe the orchestra). The thought police a watching my every move.

Juni said...

When you sit behind the first violin, I feel that the low-tone connection with lower winds and brass, which is one of the specific charactors of your orchestra, is missing.
So, as a long-time listener of the orchestra, I prefer the seating of Solti's era.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks for your input. I hope somebody up there is listening.

eric said...

I've seen this problem before, but not at your level. What happened was that anarchy ensued, and each bassist decided to take their own music stand and start their own island. That continued for approximately 4 weeks until grand intervention was done by the Mitigator of All, the Maestro.

Do you get paid extra for turning your own page if there is no stand partner to be had? If so, you should take your cue from the short tale above and go off on your own tangent. Heck, you could probably even bring in your own plastic music stand too!

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