Bass Blog

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

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Howling Dog

This week’s CSO program
(now last week since I am behind in my posting)


McPhee Tabuh-tabuhan
Ravel Mother Goose
INTERMISSION
Copland Symphony No. 3
Mary Sauer piano

Patrick Godon piano
Alan Gilbert conductor

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert


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


The Copland 3rd contains some wonderful music. Unfortunately at our performances it is bracketed by some of the most punishing fortissimos I have heard in a long while. Seemingly no punches were pulled in the musical beat-down we gave that poor defenseless symphony.

There is a gentleman (and I’m being generous) who attends Thursday evening concerts (but maybe it’s Friday – I’m trying to put the whole thing behind me). This patron of the arts lets out what sound suspiciously like lusty ‘boos!’ when the brass section gets their bows at the end of the concert. But there is some debate about this. Colleagues maintain it is actually some sort of animalistic noise of approval, but who knows. The sounds are sufficiently ambiguous – besides the almost universal judgment they are weird – one might take them for either praise or excoriation depending on ones predisposition. Since I have not yet managed to identify this loyal subscriber, I have formed two conflicting mental images of how he might appear: either the silver-haired esthete, disgustedly screwing in his monocle and gathering his coat while venting his displeasure at the musical excesses he has endured, or some crew-cut student (of the trombone?) the letters ‘C’ ‘S’ ‘O’ in grease paint across his bare chest, howling his approval of those selfsame excesses.

Since I am off the Ravel (only 6 basses) I am left with only the McPhee to discuss. Admittedly, I was prepared to hate the piece but am finding myself peculiarly disarmed. McPhee has a skimpy article in the Wikipedia, but it gives a tantalizing glimpse of a composer who charted a unique and very interesting course. Perhaps I shall break with longstanding tradition and read the program notes for once. Not having done that, I will leave it to say only that Tabuh-tabuhan seems to be based on Balinese music, which to my ear sounds very much like Okinawan music. Long story, but I have become something of a fan of Okinawan music over the past few years.

Here are a couple of the Indonesian scales I hear in the piece:


Before any ethnomusicologists jump down my throat for inaccuracies in this post, I have to confess that although I went to a college (Cal-Arts) that boasted both Javanese and Balinese Gamelans, I did not devote myself adequately to the study of that music. To my continuing impoverishment, I spent those years practicing the double bass.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Hangover

I don’t know if other orchestras do this, but in certain weeks we play the program from the previous week on Tuesday evening. The official term for these is ‘holdover’, but ‘hangover’ is probably more apt. Sometimes the Tuesday performances are quite good, often they are not. The orchestra has had Sunday and Monday off, then spent Tuesday morning rehearsing the coming week’s program. Sometimes I find myself opening the folder on Tuesday night and wondering - how does this go again?

Someone in CSO management candidly admitted the reason we repeat certain concerts on Tuesday evenings is solely because the maestro is willing to stay in town an extra 3 days after the Saturday show. We were lucky to have Haitink stay around for the extra Bruckner concert. Even if it was not up to the level of the other performances it was a pleasure playing under him, even on a Tuesday. This week is another matter altogether. So far the three concerts have been about half full each, in spite of some truly inspired percussion playing. If my math is correct, we should have played 2 shows for full houses, or at most, three for two thirds full.

Right after replying to Matt Heller that we rarely sight-read I had to sight-read something. Misreading the rotation sheet, I thought I was off the Adams Century Rolls piece. In fact I had been smiling as my colleagues were working out the clumsy passages, thanking my lucky stars I would not be joining them. Well, talk about instant Karma. I had to play the piece after all.

The Adams bass part is mostly counting and plunking away at isolated notes – blips, bleeps, and as we played it, bloops. Our section has a glaring handicap when it comes to things like that, but we soldiered on as best we could.

Here are two interesting passages, about the only times we got to play anything that wasn’t random notes on random beats.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

This week

This week’s CSO program

Adams Tromba lontana
Adams Century Rolls for Piano and Orchestra
INTERMISSION
Takemitsu Requiem
Prokofiev Scythian Suite, Opus 20
Alan Gilbert conductor
Olli Mustonen piano

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert

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

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
1:30 CSO concert

Saturday
8 CSO concert

Sunday
off

Monday, May 14, 2007

More Matt

Matt Heller has a real cliffhanger of an audition story going on at his blog. Strange to say that even though I know how it all ends up.

Anyhow, for those of you who can’t get enough Matt Heller, he has submitted another question in our ‘youthful enthusiasm vs. jaded professionalism’ blog exchange.

Matt writes:

My next question is based on an anecdote that's been passed around for a while, and I can't remember the specifics. A young violinist is auditioning for a title position in a major orchestra, and in the finals she is asked to sight-read. She refuses to do it, saying, "I don't sight-read. I always come fully prepared to every rehearsal." The committee accepts her refusal and offers her the position anyway - she proved herself the strongest player, even without attempting to sight-read.

I'm not sure that the story is true, and I would never have the guts to say such a thing in an audition - even if I did consider myself that well-prepared! Anyhow, I wonder - does that square with the reality of your life in a professional orchestra? Is there a certain threshold of preparation that you strive for, and that you expect everyone else to attain as well? And is sight-reading really so unheard of? At New World they are generally very good about making parts available in advance, and even providing recordings of new and unfamiliar music. But even still, situations do arise - a new composition arriving at the last minute, an encore hastily added to the program - and I think of sight-reading as an essential skill, to prevent embarrassment if not all-out disgrace!

The Calgary Phil has just posted their repertoire for next season on the website (http://www.cpo-live.com/main/event_list.php?is_2007=1) - I'll hopefully be able to get all the parts and start studying them over the summer. Still, I imagine having all those parts on my stand might feel a bit overwhelming. Any advice on how to focus and structure the preparation would be much appreciated!

Matt,

I have never heard the anecdote about the violinist refusing to sight-read so I have no idea if it ever really happened. The only thing I have witnessed remotely similar was at a CSO audition (not for bass, thank god). The candidate struggled through the concerto and one or two excerpts. Clearly the person was unqualified, but as a committee we had agreed to let everyone play three excerpts. Before the third and what for that player would be the final excerpt (I think it was Ein Heldenleben) there was an unusually long pause. Finally the proctor spoke up. “Uh, the candidate declines to play this excerpt.” On the other side of the screen, we exchanged incredulous looks. We asked for and got confirmation. “They don’t want to play that one.” OK. Thank you. Audition over. Needless to say, that person is not working for us.

Sorry for that lengthy aside. Your question has two facets, as I see it. We rarely need to sight read anything. Parts are almost always available weeks in advance and, to tell the truth, after several seasons most of what we play isn’t new anymore. However, the reality is that there is a fair amount of sight-reading going on. Each player has it on their own conscience as to how much they will look at an unfamiliar piece. There is some ‘winging it’, or as I have heard it described, ‘learn as you earn’. It kind of depends on the concert. A newly commissioned worked conducted by the music director will probably get more practice than a pops program.

My own routine is to go to the music library and at least look at the music a week or so in advance if there is something on the program I don’t know well or have the part for in my own collection. The only exception would be pops concerts. If I’m not sitting principal, I never look at the music in advance.

When I got into the CSO I considered myself a pretty good sight-reader only to discover that all of my new colleagues were much better. Sight-reading is a useful skill in that it makes it easier to learn new pieces quickly. One thing I wanted to show in my blog was the amount of repertoire an orchestra covers in a season. That was probably the steepest learning curve for me to get over. Being a quick study is a definite asset in this job.

All of the said however, I do see a place for sight-reading in an audition. Not the kind of sight-reading where a fiendish passage is put on the stand to see how many players fail to play it. That is just plain cruel and yields results that are probably arbitrary.

The kind of meticulous preparation that goes into preparing an audition can be antithetical to real live music making. I have always felt that ‘audition playing’ occupies a sort of no man’s land between orchestral and solo playing. The only time to play that way is at the audition. I am curious if this will be your experience as well, but after winning a job I couldn’t play the way I played at the audition and fit in – not even close. The purpose I would see in having sight-reading at an audition would be to try and get a sense of the player minus some of that meticulous preparation. In other words, more like how they will play from day to day. To that end, I think the most useful ‘sight-reading’ might be something any player would be expected to know already – so not truly sight-reading – or if something obscure, then a selection not so difficult as to merely reward the players who might stumble through it unscathed, but something simple enough that the performer might have a chance to make music out of it.

Once I read an article about an expert in the field of art forgery. He explained his technique for spotting a forged painting was not to focus on the central part of the painting or where the original artist had spent the most time. Instead he would study little, seemingly insignificant details in the background, things the original artist would have dashed off with less conscious effort. Those that tended to reveal the unconscious mind of the creator were hardest to reproduce by the forger. I would look at sight-reading in such a light – to see the performer not so much as they wish to be seen, but as they are.

At the risk of going one analogy too far, I would say taking the audition is like climbing a pinnacle and having the job is like walking along a plateau. In my case I think the plateau is actually higher than the pinnacle I reached when I won the job. That is probably true for a lot of players. Being part of a good section tends to lift everyone’s playing, not to mention the fact that standards are always going up. Nowadays I don’t spend so much time practicing the parts as I used to, but to keep the plateau from sinking below sea level I tend to isolate some facet of my playing and work on that in the abstract.

Obviously as a new player, you might need to spend more time learning notes, but my advice (since you asked) would be to focus on some general things in your playing. And that dovetails very nicely into what is my first question back to you. Winning an audition is an affirmation. It is easy to make too much of it. But you seem to be taking the responsibility seriously and not resting on that affirmation. So I want to turn that around and ask what about your playing do you want to improve most, and how do you intend to go about it?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mr Sunshine

About an hour into the first rehearsal of the Bruckner 7th under Bernard Haitink I had a disquieting thought. The Bruckner symphonies were a staple of our former music director so I have spent many hours rehearsing them, hours I will unfortunately never get back. After finishing the first movement I realized I had been holding myself in a kind of cringe that was just beginning to relax. Where was the browbeating? Where were the condescending lectures? What happened to the tedium? And yet the orchestra sounded fabulous, better than we have in a while. How was that possible?

For years around here ‘artistry’ has been so firmly linked to negativity that it is almost impossible for any conductor to clear away the poisoned atmosphere. Somehow Haitink managed to do it this week. He is a quiet, self-effacing conductor, and the orchestra really seems to admire and respect him. Rehearsals were eerily quiet when he stopped us to make minor corrections here and there. His remarks were consistently both tactful and effective.

As everyone knows, orchestra musicians are feckless and lazy. Naturally we would prefer any conductor who treated us nicely over one who might attempt to lead us to a higher level of artistry. That in mind, I tried to keep a critical ear on Haitink’s concerts to see if my sense of contentment vanished during the performance or the musical standards had slipped in any way. The concert is after all the time when all conductors are equal in the sense that the lecturers have to shut up and conduct while the nice guys have to show they have enough backbone to actually lead the orchestra.

Bruckner’s symphonies are like massive cathedrals built from thousands of notes. Conductors can become so enamored with superficial features, pausing to admire every gargoyle and arabesque, that they lose sight of the thing as a whole. Haitink’s approach to the 7th was a success I thought because he focused on the structure rather than every single (or arbitrarily selected) bricks. The music actually flowed along – even at about 70 minutes the symphony seemed refreshingly brief.

Finally, another conductor mistake is fall victim to the episodic nature of Bruckner’s writing and build every climax to maximum dynamic, pummeling the audience (and orchestra) with bruising fortissimos when the composer has actually carefully structured the dynamics. Haitink was somewhat successful at getting the orchestra to observe the dynamics and restored some sense of balance to the sound.

The thing that amazed me and inspired this post was that he was able to do it all in a professional and respectful way. And the orchestra responded with (so far) three very fine performances. The whole thing reminded me of a story probably every school-aged child learns at some point – although I wonder if that was the case with our former music director.

The sun and a storm cloud were debating who had the greater power. When they saw a man walking below they decided to test their strength by seeing which of them could get the man’s jacket off his back. First the storm cloud huffed and puffed, blowing cold winds at the man and pelting him with rain. But the man only pulled his coat more tightly about him. But when the sun came out from behind the cloud the man freely removed his coat and continued on his way.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

This week

This week’s CSO program

Beethoven Coriolan Overture
Lutoslawski Chain 2
INTERMISSION
Bruckner Symphony No. 7
Bernard Haitink conductor
Robert Chen violin

Bach Week in Evanston
Bach St. John Passion

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert


Wednesday
11:30-2 3-5 CSO rehearsals

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
2-5 Bach Week in Evanston rehearsal
8 CSO concert


Friday
2-5 Bach Week in Evanston rehearsal
8 CSO


Saturday
10-1 Bach Week in Evanston rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Sunday
3 Bach Week in Evanston concert

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Rihmed

The CSO concerts this week have an interesting programming idea from conductor Kent Nagano. Rihm’s Das Lesen der Schrift was apparently commissioned by Nagano as a sort of companion piece to the Brahms requiem. In fact the four movements of Das Lesen are meant to be played after movements 2,3,5, and 6 of the requiem.

The idea, as described by Nagano, was to provide an opportunity for listeners to reflect on the masterpiece during the new interludes because through repetition the Brahms had become ordinary, lost some of its impact, or has become taken for granted. Those are my paraphrases of his explanations.

Combining a beloved piece like the requiem with something modern provoked the expected firestorm of protest and condemnation from the players. I feel a bit sorry for Nagano. He is very earnest about his ideas which are being almost universally reviled. If not for the Rihm, I think the orchestra’s opinion of him would be quite favorable, based on his fine job on the requiem.
As a modern music supporter I am enjoying the Rihm, although I’m not convinced the Brahms benefits from its presence. Anyhow, this is a new take on the shit sandwich. (see the post of 2/11/07 for a discussion of the s.s. http://csobassblog.blogspot.com/2007_02_01_archive.html) Maybe we can call it the shit club sandwich, although it is more like grinding up a pill and stirring it into your dog’s food so he’ll swallow it without realizing.

Friday, May 04, 2007

This week

This week’s CSO program

Zimmermann Stillness and Return
Sch├╝tz Psalm 100: Jauchzet dem Herren, SWV 36
INTERMSION
Rihm Das Lesen der Schrift
Brahms A German Requiem
Kent Nagano conductor
Celena Shafer soprano
Christian Gerhaher baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus

This week’s Ars Viva program

Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Easter Overture
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2
TCHAIKOVSKY Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty
Igor Stravinsky Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss
Alan Heatherington, conductor
Andrew Mariano piano (winner of the Steinway Concerto Competition)

Monday
off

Tuesday
1:30-3:30 4:30-7 CSO rehearsals

Wednesday
1:30-3:30 4:30-7 CSO rehearsals

Thursday
2-5 Ars Viva rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
8 CSO concert (run out to Madison WI)

Saturday
2-5 Ars Viva rehearsal

8 CSO concert

Sunday
12-3 Ars Viva rehearsal
4 Ars Viva concert


Monday
7:30 Ars Viva concert

Run out concerts are generally a drag – most of a day wasted. I’ve all but given up traveling with the orchestra on tours and run outs. Although I generally love all my colleagues, finding myself trapped with them on a bus or airplane sometimes severely tests those feelings. Run out concerts are an opportunity to take a road trip with my good friend and colleague Max Raimi. We each bring a few CDs for the trip and it’s a nice time. Most of my life takes place in the narrow strip of land along the Chicago lakefront between my house and orchestra hall, so taking a drive is a nice change of pace.

Some of that Ars Viva repertoire looks suspiciously like what the CSO performed two weeks ago…