Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

CSO bass blog takes a holiday

Since I am leaving for vacation today, this will be the last post here until at least July 4. I’m going to try and stay as far away from the double bass and the internet as possible until then.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Beethoven 9th story

Tonight is my last concert of the 2006-2007 season. Actually, there is another week of concerts – Beethoven 9 – but mercifully I took time off. I have nothing against Herbert Blomstedt. In fact, I would be interested in working with him again after a long absence. It is just that Beethoven 9 isn’t my cup of tea any more for at least two reasons. First, it comes up way too often (I think we ended last season and our former music director’s tenure here with the 9th) and second, it is the source of one of my (at the time) most awful moments on stage, but something which now makes for a good story.

It was ten years ago, maybe more – one of the first concerts after Orchestra Hall was renovated to become Symphony Center. Such a grand occasion of course cried out for another run-through of the Beethoven 9th. As was usual for that era, the final rehearsal ended in a mad scramble and confusion, with time running out and not everything having been rehearsed, including notably the recititative and Ode to Joy theme for cellos and basses. The Maestro’s tempo for the Ode was slow, very slow, probably about half the metronome marking. As we know now, he conducts it in 4 when for years we were used to playing it in 2.

At the very end of the rehearsal one of the cellists interrupted the Maestro in the midst of some philosophical musings about the Ode, calling out a question from somewhere at the back of the section. “Are you doing that in two or four!?” As fate would have it this individual was a noted antagonist of our former music director. So rather than answer the question, the Maestro grew angry. “Two, four, seven! It doesn’t matter!” Rehearsal over. I’m sure most of you can tell what is about to happen next.

That evening we made it through the recitative unscathed, but when the theme was supposed to start the Maestro gave one of his customary ambiguous gestures – extending an arm with no discernable vertical or horizontal motion. Like a litter of kittens dumped out of a box the cello and bass sections scattered in all directions – some in two, some in four, maybe even a few in three – a quiet cacophony ensued, one that seemed to go on forever but only lasted about eight bars before the last stray cat got rounded up. I think of that experience every time the piece comes up, which, as I mentioned earlier is all too often in my opinion.

Friday, June 15, 2007

June 11 - 17

This week’s CSO program

Verdi Requiem

Sondra Radvanovsky soprano
Yvonne Naef mezzo-soprano
Giuseppe Sabbatini tenor
Morris Robinson bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
David Zinman conductor

Monday
off

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

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

Thursday
8 CSO concert

Friday
8 CSO concert

Saturday
8 CSO concert

Sunday
off

The Unibassist

A funny thing happened the other day. I exchanged a few friendly emails with the Angry Bassist after which I am convinced he was not behind the nasty comments (all deleted) and emails directed at this blog. His website, as I should have been able to see all along, was intended as parody. I should have been flattered by the attention. Who was it who said ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ – Dick Cheney? Unfortunately for the both of us the timing turned out to be very bad since I was receiving a minor flood of very offensive communications from somebody else at the same time. My mistake was conflating the two.

Of course the disturbing thing is that there is still at least one very disturbed individual out there sending me the occasional email. I’ve dubbed him the Unibassist.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Look Back at Anger

An interesting offshoot of my guest appearance on Jason Heath’s Contrabass Conversations podcast was Jason’s discovery of an ‘anti blog’ maintained by an anonymous individual calling himself the Angry Bassist. Although this character and his blog were news to Jason, I have been aware of them for a while now. I’m a little curious how Jason managed to overlook any blog with the word ‘bass’ in it for so long, but that is another matter altogether. But since Jason brought up this weird little situation I thought I would shed some light on it.

The most surprising thing about starting my blog was receiving a minor torrent of comments from an anonymous individual who, for reasons known only to himself, became outraged by my fingerings. ?? Weird but true. While I am certainly not above allowing myself to become the butt of somebody’s joke – oftentimes I feel playing bass in the CSO puts me squarely in the punch line of some monstrous, cosmic joke anyhow – I found some of the comments rather offensive, and the fact they were anonymous somewhat cowardly. The last straw came when one of my CSO colleagues became the target of a rather tasteless comment from Mr. Angry and I felt obliged to discontinue anonymous posting. The anti blog sprung up soon thereafter.

The blog is really more smarmy than offensive, although of late Mr. Angry seems to be scraping the bottom of his jar of smarmalade, posting more about the comic strip The Phantom than the CSO bass blog, but there is no telling when his unhinged mind might swing in my direction again.

I happen to know Mr. Angry’s identity. He is a self-professed ‘amateur’ bassist, although his company bio lists him as a ‘former classical musician’ (? maybe he plays only baroque now, who knows). At the moment I am waiting for the right dramatic timing to unmask him – I’m curious if any of his fellow 9-5ers know about his other identity or if it is a Clark Kent sort of thing.

Anyone wishing to have contact information for the person behind the Angry Bassist mask or his ‘legit’ blog address should feel free to email me, or in true comic book cliffhanger style:

Stay Tuned to this Blog!!!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Brush with greatness

I am honored to appear as a guest on Jason Heath’s podcast this week. There is a lot of me talking, a little of me playing and even a photograph to go along with it. [Note to students: do not emulate the hand position as seen in that photo – truly shameful. I think I was trying to give somebody off camera the finger.] Anyhow, for a partial account of my misspent student days, check out the podcast.

Many thanks to Jason for including me in the pantheon of interviewees.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The myopic view

The last chair bassist of a major orchestra fancied himself something of an amateur conductor. One day the Maestro fell ill and with no conductor on call the orchestra manager approached the bassist to fill in. So the bassist led rehearsals and concerts, receiving accolades from both the public and the critics for his performances. The following week the Maestro returned to the podium. When the bassist took his usual seat at the back of the section his stand partner turned to him and asked, “Where the hell were you last week?”

Sorry to repeat an old joke probably every orchestra musician knows. Of course I originally heard this as a viola joke but for the purpose of this blog I took the liberty of modifying it. The point being that although the posts concerning conductors or artistic issues tend to generate a lot of interest, most of what goes into playing double bass in an orchestra is much less glamorous, concerning little more than trying to play the notes right in front of one’s nose.

To that end, here are a few passages from the Brahms 1st. Movement 1, letter ‘E’ is probably the most frequently requested excerpt from this symphony at orchestra auditions. Chung’s parts had the hooked bowings shown here in the first 8 bars to force us to play sostenuto. I think it is possible to play sustained notes with separate bows and also get a little more sound, but this bowing keeps anyone from getting lazy about the sustain.

The next two excerpts probably wouldn’t show up at the top of any audition list, but they can be tricky just the same.


Here is a nifty fingering for 5 bars after ‘L’.


In my audition experiences this passage – beginning 8 after ‘B’ in the second movement – was the next most frequently requested excerpt from this symphony. I have kind of an irrational attachment to the seemingly odd cross-string fingering at the end of the second line.
I have included the 8vb (octave transpositions) we used for the concerts last week. These are fairly standard, although the low ‘B’ in the first movement isn’t requested too often. The whole question of when to use the transpositions in Brahms is probably worthy of a blog all its own, or somebody’s doctoral dissertation.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

June 4 - 10

This week’s CSO program

PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo and Juliet
----INTERMISSION----
MESSIAEN L'ascension
RAVEL Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloe
Myung-Whun Chung Conductor

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal

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

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Showdown at the CSOK corral

a tragic comedy in one mercifully short act

[Scene: An old Midwestern Orchestra, parched without the reign of a music director going on a full year now. Every now and again in these desperate times a local bully might step up and try and take the musical law into his own hands.]

The grizzled old principal dragged his eyes from the crossword bedeviling him the past three rehearsals. “Maestro,” he drawled.

Eyes rolled in the orchestra and a kind of ‘here we go again’ sigh started up, just what a weary old-time saloonkeeper might do when he knows his place is about to get busted up and there isn’t darn thing he can do about it.

Biting his ‘T’s and spitting them out as if they were rancid bits of chaw, he went on.

“That’s…not…together! You’d be better off conducting the rhythm right there instead of the melody.”

A few hisses went up from the orchestra, some nervous laughter. This was a ticklish spot right here, to be sure.

As it had all week, Chung’s face remained an enigma. Now, for the first time anybody could recall, all eyes were on the conductor. He shot a quick glance skyward, as if checking out one last detail. And then he did the unexpected. He smiled.

“Perhaps what I should do is let you take over for those two bars,” he said quietly.

There was sustained laughter, much bow tapping on the stands, even a little applause. In one deft stroke he had applied boot to the seat of pants and sent the bully sprawling through the double doors out into the street.

But the grizzled veteran wasn’t going down quite so easy. He was on his feet again, trying to get back in.

“Well, then you’re going to have to come back here and play the ___,” he said, lamely.

Chung shook his head and gave his world-weary smile.

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t know how to play the ___, but I’m willing to learn at least one passage in order to give you your opportunity.”

More laughter, but quieter this time, the whole thing blowing away like a tumbleweed bouncing down a dusty street.

***


My apologies for the preceding bit of silliness, although the dialog is pretty close to what was actually said. The lack of respect for Chung troubles me. Ever since he conducted here (I believe for the first time) a number of years ago, there has been constant grumbling from some quarters about his ‘bad attitude’ or some variation of that complaint. I don’t see it. He appears to be a complex individual, to be sure, but his treatment of the orchestra has always been professional even when it hasn’t been reciprocated.

The other big complaint seems to be he is aloof. Indeed, Chung often conducts either with eyes closed, or not fixed on anyone in particular. For years around here every musical gesture had to come at the behest of the music director with a knowing look, a wink or a nod from the podium. Chung doesn’t work that way, so the people most bothered appear to be some of the wind soloists who are used to being coddled. “He didn’t even look at me before my solo!” I heard one of them whining during rehearsal break. Meanwhile string players, for whom eye contact with the maestro is more akin to being caught in the prison guard-tower spotlight – a rare occurrence and one that almost always foretells something ominous – seem less bothered by Chung’s mannerisms.

Chung conducts – big surprise here – with his hands, not his face. The hands are where to look for the expression, but the expressions are subtle. We aren’t used to that style of conducting, hence the misunderstandings, I imagine.

For the most part, I am enjoying his Brahms 1st. I think he is somewhat fatalistic in the face of our ‘fuck you’ attitude and some of his ideas, particularly concerning the dynamic range, are a bit watered down. His tempo for the 3rd movement is the fastest I have encountered, but he makes a pretty good case for it. In the middle section he wants to go even faster. The orchestra really isn’t used to playing that movement with the agility he is asking for. At the rehearsal I got the image of somebody trying to negotiate an equestrian course while riding a rhinoceros. We crashed through every gate and ploughed through every hedge. In fact, it was in this section the little scene I dramatized above took place. I am happy to report now it came together a bit more at the first two concerts and so far everybody has been all smiles.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Writing wrongs

This week’s CSO program

Brahms Symphony No. 1
INTERMISSION
Brahms Violin Concerto

You’re kidding, right?

Yes, we’re kidding.

Brahms Violin Concerto
INTERMISSION
Brahms Symphony No. 1
Vadim Repin violin
Myung-Whun Chung conductor

Due to a ‘miscommunication’ (which usually means nobody in our management remembered to communicate) Chung arrived at the first rehearsal before being informed of the inverted program order. Christoph von Dohnáyi was originally slated to conduct this week. I’m not sure what happened to him, but his program would have been Brahms 3 followed by the violin concerto. I guess when symphony and conductor were changed nobody considered that Brahms 1 really ought to end the concert…

Monday
off

Tuesday
7:30 CSO concert

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-6 CSO rehearsals

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert


Friday
1:30 CSO concert

Saturday
8 CSO concert

Sunday
7 Ars Viva concert