Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Resistance is futile

This week marked the return of our former Ravinia music director. Comments about him often run something like, “he’s a wonderful musician, but…” with the aposiopesis standing in for any number of conductorly shortcomings.

Wednesday’s performance went surprisingly well, with the Maestro showing more restraint than I expected in the Bruckner 7th. The Mahler songs had some rough edges in the orchestra due to many of us not knowing when to play in a few passages, but Thomas Hampson carried the day, making for a successful performance in spite of what went on behind him.

On Friday, things took a turn for the worse – ‘just like old times!’ somebody remarked. I was mercifully spared having to play the inevitable Eschenbach/Barto concerto smack down. The rehearsal for the Ravel pieces flirted with becoming a full-fledged Eschen-bacchanal as time ran out and the ensemble still in serious disarray. There was genuine concern whether or not we were going to make it through these very familiar pieces or have a train wreck at the performance.

Topping that off, the scheduling left many musicians scratching their heads. The normal practice at Ravinia is to rehearse pieces together on the one or two rehearsals allotted for each concert. However, the Maestro had stuck the Strauss songs from Saturday’s concert at the end of the Friday rehearsal. A number of players who were off on Friday had to show up and sit through the entire rehearsal only to rush onstage at the very end to spend the last 10 minutes on the Strauss before heading home again. Now I realize we are paid a salary and all, but scheduling like that is a major inconvenience on the one hand, and on the other, it demonstrates a serious lack of foresight. Musicians tend not to respond well when they suspect their leaders aren’t really thinking about what they are doing, whether it is planning a concise and efficient rehearsal schedule or conducing the orchestra.

The concert went off more or less without incident. The orchestra has an amazing ‘autopilot’ function that takes over when things look dicey. The thing with an autopilot is that you have to keep your hands off for it to work. That wasn’t really the case with La Valse. There was one particularly interesting moment when the entire orchestra seemed to flinch at an indecipherable gesture – I’m still trying figure out what I was seeing – where only the crashing entrance of the bass drum saved us.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ravinia week 04 (July 23-29)

This week’s CSO Programs

Wednesday
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Thomas Hampson, Baritone
Mahler:Leider eines Fahrenden Gesellen ("Songs of a Wayfarer")
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E Major

Friday
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Tzimon Barto, Piano
Dalbavie: Music for Piano and Strings (Chicago premiere)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 22
Ravel:
La Valse
Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2
Boléro

Saturday
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Nikolai Schukoff, Tenor
J. Strauss, Jr.:
Tritsch-Tratsch-Polka, Op. 214 ("Chit-Chat Polka")
Overture to Die Fledermaus
An der schönen, blauen Donau, Waltzer Op. 314 ("On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Waltz")
Unter Donnen und Blitz, Polka Schnell Op.324 ("Under Thunder and Lightning, Quick Polka")Kaiser-Walzer Op. 437 ("Emperor Waltz")
R. Strauss:
Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27, No. 3
Ich trage meine Minne, Op. 32, No. 1
Ständchen, Op. 17, No. 2
Morgen, Op. 27, No. 4
Allerseelen, Op. 10, No. 8Zueignung, Op. 10, No. 1 (arranged by R. Heger)

Monday
off

Tuesday
11-1:30 CSO rehearsal

Wednesday
2:30-5 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Thursday
off

Friday
2:30-5 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Saturday
off

Sunday
off

I was originally slated to play the Saturday J./R. Strauss concert. Now it appears as if only 6 bassists will be needed so I get the day off. I think the orchestra is also playing Don Juan that night. Funny it doesn’t appear on the Ravinia website.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Better late

Back in January I posted some finger exercises and promised to give the rest of the set later. In between then and now my computer crashed, among other things, so I had to start the project over. In the course of doing so I greatly expanded its scope. Now I think I have a book on my hands I will publish soon. What I am posting here will make up one chapter.






Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ravinia week 03 (July 16-22)

This week’s CSO Programs

Tuesday
Long Yu, Conductor
Lang Lang, Piano

Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Orchestra (sic) in B Minor
Mozart: Piano Concerto in G Major, No. 17, K. 453
Yuankai: China Air Suite (selections)
Various: The Yellow River Piano Concerto

The typo in the title of the Tchaikovsky is from the Ravinia Festival website.

Saturday
Andrew Litton, Conductor
Lynn Harrell, Cello
Steve Alltop, Organ

Boccherini/Grutzmacher: Concerto No. 9 in B-flat Major, G. 482
Bloch: Schelomo, Hebrew Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 ("Organ" Symphony)

Sunday
Andrew Litton, Conductor
Sir James Galway, Flute
Lady Jeanne Galway, Flute

Dukas: L'Apprenti Sorcier ("The Sorcerer’s Apprentice")
Ibert: Concerto for Flute and Orchestra
Overton: The Magic Flutes (Movements I, III and IV)
Debussy: La Mer

Monday
off

Tuesday
off

Wednesday
off

Thursday
off

Friday
off

Saturday
2-4:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert

Sunday
12:30-3 CSO rehearsal
5 CSO concert

I know the above schedule makes it look as if I am doing nothing at all most of the time. However, there are a few things I have not put into my schedule. One is the Northwestern High School Summer Music Institute, NHSMI (pronounced NISH-mee), which has to be one of the most unfortunate acronyms ever devised; nevertheless, I have three talented students there this summer. My duties include lessons and master classes so I am on campus two or three days a week. Additionally, I am serving on the CSO player’s committee negotiating team. I really can’t say any more about it other than our current three-year contract is up on September 17. Meetings between the Union and Management sides (including legal counsel) are held at a swanky law office downtown and, at present, involve lots of sitting around – my first taste of collective bargaining.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Long Winded

Once again I am honored to appear as an interviewee on Jason Heath’s Contrabass Conversations podcast. This episode (#29) is a continuation of the interview that began in episode #24. I guess I blabbed on so long that Jason is breaking it up into three parts.

I should add the pianist on the Brahms clip from episode 24 and the Beethoven this time is Shirley Trissell.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

No such thing

Ravinia management committed something of a major blunder this week in scheduling a meeting with CSO musicians, Welz Kauffman and James Conlon between two 3-hour rehearsals (spent mostly with Zemlinsky) on what turned out to be a brutal humid, ninety-degree day. It was hard to tell which was more sour, the orchestra’s mood or the free lunches left wilting on the side tables.

Perhaps sensing this, neither Kauffman nor Conlon seemed in any hurry to get the meeting underway. Finally Conlon made a few perfunctory remarks before yielding to Kauffman who had nothing at all to say and so opened the floor to questions. Immediately one of my colleague bass players (!) launched into a lengthy and eloquent statement leading to the pointed question of why the CSO chorus is not used at Ravinia whenever choral works are performed. A petition had been circulated in the orchestra several weeks earlier and signed (I believe) by every single musician – thanks to the tireless efforts of our colleague – asking that the decision not to use our CSO chorus be reversed. Kauffman had already responded to the musicians in writing, citing (surprise) budgetary considerations as the reason a less expensive chorus is engaged. Put on the defensive at the meeting he did little more than restate his points. Following came a few more pointed questions about the diminishing role of the CSO and classical music at Ravinia along with a passionate but largely unintelligible rambling statement from one particular musician, a staple at these kinds of events.

Conlon became the next target of musician ire with several players griping about programming, particularly the Zemlinsky piece we had just spent the last 3 hours literally sweating over. Conlon acquitted himself quite well in my opinion with his statement (in short) that he believed in the music he programmed (his Breaking the Silence series) and was willing to take responsibility for it.

These sorts of musician complaints usually ring pretty hollow in my ears anyway. Players had just finished chastising Kauffman for emphasizing ‘popular’ over classical music when they turned to Conlon and accused him of chasing away our audience with ‘unpopular’ repertoire. To me, everything the CSO plays is unpopular in the grand scheme of things anyway. Unless it rains or something, The Steve Miller Band will probably play to more people in two nights than we would all summer, whatever we played. I’m not sure we want to compete with that. I’ll take something with integrity any day.

Ravinia week 02 (July 9-15)

This week’s CSO programs

Wednesday
James Conlon, Conductor
Misha Dichter, Piano
Christine Brewer, Soprano
Anthony Dean Griffey, Tenor
James Johnson, Baritone

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Zemlinsky: A Florentine Tragedy(with supertitles)

Thursday
James Conlon, Conductor
Olga Kern, Piano

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
Rimsky-Korsakov: Sheherazade, Op. 35

Sunday
James Conlon, Conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, Piano

Mozart:
Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major, K. 450
Piano Concerto No. 16 in D Major, K. 451
Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537 ("Coronation")

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-1 2-5 CSO rehearsals

Wednesday
2-5 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Thursday
2:30-5 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
off

Saturday
off

Sunday
12-3 CSO rehearsal
5 CSO concert

Why does the mighty CSO sit idle on Friday and Saturday evenings, you ask? Because the even mightier Steve Miller Band has two sold out shows. More evidence classical music is getting shoved into the corners to make way for money making acts.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Ravinia week 01 (July 2 - 8)

This week’s CSO programs

Friday
James Conlon, Conductor
Pinchas Zukerman, Violin
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor

Saturday
James Conlon, Conductor
Beaux Arts Trio
Christine Brewer, Soprano
Bo Skovhus, Baritone
Beethoven: Concerto in C Major For Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 56 ("Triple Concerto")Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony, Op.18 (with supertitles)

Sunday
James Conlon, Conductor
Jonathan Biss, Piano
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat Major, K. 456
Piano Concerto No. 19 in F Major, K. 459
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466


Monday
off

Tuesday
off

Wednesday
off

Thursday
11-1:30 CSO rehearsal

Friday
2:30-5 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Saturday
off

Sunday
off

After my somewhat boastful post a few days ago about how hard we work during the summer season at Ravinia I am almost ashamed to admit having two of the first three concerts off. In my defense, I only requested the concert of Saturday, July 7 off since one of the rehearsals was stuck most inconveniently on July 3, while I was still away. The concert of Sunday, July 8 only uses two basses, so I had nothing to do with that.

I think I only get three concerts off this summer, so it galls me to squander two of them so early on. Time off is much sweeter late in a season, be it the fleeting 6 weeks of Ravinia or the 40-week ‘long march’ downtown. Years ago I came up with a rather crude analogy relating to strategizing time off I really cannot commit to print here. Suffice it to say it appeals to the prurient interest and has something to do with delaying one’s concerts off as long as possible, but once they are imminent, enjoying them thoroughly.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Bad Dog!

I left my shoes out on the porch last night when I got home from the concert.

The CSO Ravinia season opened Friday evening with Pinchas Zuckerman playing Mozart violin concert no. 5 followed by the CSO slogging through Mahler 5. (I guess the programming thread for that concert was – 5!) Since I was off the Mozart (2 basses) I can only comment on the Mahler. All I can say is that from where I was sitting – on the second stand, safely ensconced behind the stage-left pillar – the performance made me feel as if the orchestra marched confidently, even triumphantly onto the stage after intermission only to step right into something unpleasant.

Right off the bat I should say that I am basically a supporter of James Colon who led the performance. He is sincere, friendly, and his approach to the late romantic staples of our repertoire (OK, warhorses) like the Mahler 5 strips away some of the hyper-emotional excesses that tend to cling to those pieces like, well, you know…

The problem is that there are times when the orchestra can’t or won’t play together under his baton, which basically moves way ahead of the beat. There are other conductors who do the same sort of thing to better results so it is hard to put my finger on what is going on. It is my suspicion that there is a little bit of willful musical misbehavior coming from the orchestra and Conlon, trying to be the nice guy, is letting things get a little too loose. However, when a conductor needs to stop and explain what he is trying to do with his baton it is usually a bad sign.

When I started with the CSO the ensemble playing astonished me. (I should quickly add that there are various ways to become astonished.) What made a big impression on me was how the various sections of the orchestra could stay absolutely together even while drifting ever so slightly apart from each other. It was weird to be sitting (for instance) at the edge of the bass and viola sections, hearing the basses edging slightly ahead (surprise, surprise) of the brave, stolid violas, with neither section falling apart. There used to be a very strong tradition here of playing together at all costs that has turned into something else. The ‘all eyes glued on the conductor’ approach tends to enslave us to whatever is going on at the podium and seems to have degraded our ability to listen and play together when things get rough. The mad ‘every man for himself’ stampede that almost derailed the scherzo last night was fairly embarrassing to be part of, and something that no self-respecting group of musicians should have let happen, whoever was on the podium and whatever they were doing.

Maybe Conlon should trade his baton for a rolled up newspaper.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Not so endless summer

I started playing with the CSO in the summer of 1989. Somebody recommended starting during the summer because things were ‘more relaxed’. I’m not sure who provided this advice since I didn’t know anybody in the orchestra when I got the job. (At the rate they keep hiring new players, by the time I retire I won’t know anybody in the orchestra either, but that is another story.) Anyway, the atmosphere at Ravinia is more relaxed, but the workload can be daunting for someone who doesn’t know a lot of the music.

Ravinia seasons used to be 8 weeks. Recently they have been shorter due in part, or maybe completely, to the fact that the current leadership there seems intent on squeezing us out. There has been all sort of talk about the 17 year cicadas and other excuses why the CSO is playing less and less at Ravinia, but it basically boils down to an acrimonious relationship between the two organizations.

So this summer we play 6 weeks – 18 concerts. Below is most of what we are playing, minus the repertoire for the Gala concert – opera arias, I think – and a popsy Night in Vienna show – Strauss waltzes.

Beethoven
Leonore Overture no. 3
Piano Concerto no. 4
Symphony no. 5
Triple Concerto

Bloch
Schelomo
Boccherini
Cello Concerto in B flat
Bruckner
Symphony no. 7
Chopin
Piano Concerto no. 2
Dalbavie
Music for Piano and Strings
Debussy
La Mer
Dukas
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Ibert
Flute Concerto
Mahler
Songs of a Wayfarer
Symphony no. 5
Symphony no. 6

Mozart
Piano Concerto no. 15
Piano Concerto no. 16
Piano Concerto no. 17
Piano Concerto no. 18
Piano Concerto no. 19
Piano Concerto no. 20
Piano Concerto no. 26
Violin Concerto no. 5

Overton
The Magic Flutes
Puccini
Madama Butterfly
Rachmaninoff
Piano Concerto no. 2
Ravel
La Valse
Daphnis and Chloe suite no. 2

Rimsky-Korsakov
Scheherazade
Saint-Saens
Piano Concerto no. 2
Symphony no. 3

Strauss
Don Juan
Tchaikovsky
Piano concerto no. 1
Xinghai
The Yellow River Piano Concerto
Yuankai
China Air Suite
Zemlinsky
A Florentine Tragedy
Lyric Symphony
Die Seejungfrau