Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Week 07

This week’s CSO program

SIBELIUS Violin Concerto
INTERMISSION
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 4 in E-flat Major (Romantic) (1880 version)
Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor
Arabella Steinbacher, violin

Monday
7:30 MOB concert

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal

Wednesday
10-12:30 1:30-3:30 CSO rehearsals

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
1:30 CSO concert

Saturday
CBE rehearsal TBA
8 CSO concert

Sunday
3 CSO concert
7 CBE rehearsal

I write this on Wednesday October 31, sitting by the front door giving out candy to the 500 or so of the little extortionists we expect to greet this year. So far, rehearsals for the concert this week have resembled long, mildly unpleasant medical procedures rather than preparation for a musical performance. I am happy to report the patient not much worse for wear after three treatments. I even have to grudgingly admit the Maestro’s ‘mechanistic’ approach to the Bruckner produced some good results. Rather than a harmony lesson, we got a look at the nuts and bolts of the piece.

Here is a rehearsal schedule to drive musicians crazy:

Wednesday
10-12:30
Bruckner Symphony No. 4
Sibelius Violin concerto (without soloist)

1:30-3:30
Sibelius (with soloist)
Bruckner

First, I can’t remember the last time we rehearsed any concerto without the soloist. Nobody would expect such treatment for something as familiar as the Sibelius. Next, putting the Bruckner at the beginning of the first rehearsal and the end of the second insures the maximum number of players will sit around waiting to play. As a rule, rehearsals are scheduled according to a sort of ‘Farewell Symphony’ rule, with the smaller pieces coming later so that those who don’t play might go home.

The players suggested the more sensible schedule of
10-12:30 Bruckner

1:30-3:30 Sibelius

but were turned down because the Maestro had to have Bruckner on both rehearsals. Well, wouldn’t you know, on Wednesday, he spent the entire morning picking, poking, prodding, and otherwise dissecting the Bruckner until it became apparent he wouldn’t get to Sibelius after all. Then, as I expected all along, he decided we didn’t need to return to the Bruckner in the second rehearsal either. And, of course, he got to take credit for the magnanimous gesture of letting musicians go home early in what turned out to be sort of a nifty end-around of the musicians who asked for that schedule in the first place.

The only other note this week is that the Sibelius is a piece I always look forward to. It doesn’t seem to matter who is playing violin.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Week 06

October 22-29

This (last) week’s CSO program

MOZART Symphony No. 25
TURNAGE Chicago Remains
INTERMISSION
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2
Bernard Haitink, Conductor
Emanuel Ax, Piano

This (last) week’s MOB Program

MOZART Les Petits Riens
DELALANDE Te Deum
INTERMISSION
CHARPENTIR Te Deum, H. 146
Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin
Jane Glover, conductor
Sarah Gartshore, soprano
Amy Conn, soprano
Karim Sulayman, tenor
Harold Brock, tenor
Douglas Anderson, baritone
Peter Van De Graaff, bass-baritone

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
2-5 MOB rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert (Wagner/Mahler)

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-5:30 CSO rehearsals
7-10 MOB rehearsal

Thursday
10-12:30 CSO rhearsal
8 CSO concert

Friday
1:30 CSO concert
7-10 MOB rehearsal

Saturday
3:30-6:30 MOB rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Sunday
10-12 Chicago Bass Ensemble rehearsal
7:30 MOB concert

Monday
7:30 MOB concert

Due to a busy schedule, I’ve fallen a week behind with the blog. The CSO concerts were enjoyable. Emanuel Ax is always a pleasure. I was off the Mozart (2 basses only), so that was wonderful. The Turnage piece was also a pleasant surprise. Without it sounding derivative, I thought I detected hints of Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez and Zappa – all good influences in my book.

The MOB concerts are a rare diversion from the normal sort of Bach, Handel, Telemann fare. It is funny how in the German Baroque music everything in the parts is just so while a lot of this French stuff is a mess – hard to decipher roadmaps, frequent changes from Inegal to straight, none of which are in the print . But it has been an enjoyable challenge. Thanks to some top-notch soloists, this turned out to be a pretty good concert.

Yes, that is a bass quartet rehearsal at 10 AM on a Sunday. The CBE is gearing up for our big concert on November 7th, or else I would have been happily sleeping.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Un gorilla dalle 800 libbre

In spite of the fascinating things I’ve been blogging about lately – boring tour travel, uneaten breakfasts, bass boxes, and the like – the astute reader might have noticed the omission of a subject of some importance to the CSO. I am of course referring to the fact that Riccardo Muti conducted us for four weeks this fall. I can assure my readers that I actually looked up once or twice over the past month and took note of who was conducting and how, but I purposefully withheld comment until the feverish excitement had died down.

Muti is undoubtedly one of the names under serious consideration for the music director position here. More than any other conductor on the ‘short list’, a great deal of hype and speculation preceded his arrival. It didn’t hurt that Muti’s appearance coincided with the conclusion of contract negotiations that had our European tour and the preceding week of concerts hanging in the balance. Either fate or very clever design produced a charged atmosphere where his taking the podium became something of an almost operatic denouement.

The perils and pitfalls of going on record about someone who may well end up as my boss are obvious even to me, so I’m not about to provide a blow-by-blow analysis of Muti’s conducting. More interesting to me was the reaction of the orchestra.

With the hype over Muti’s arrival ramping up I observed some different reactions. A number of players were highly skeptical about him for one reason or another. The more the excitement over his arrival grew, the more skeptical they became. Others bought into the myth-in-the-making wholesale.

The one common assumption seemed to be that Muti might be a difficult, perhaps egotistical person. Whether this was cause for skepticism or premature adulation probably depended on each individual musician’s tendency towards Masochism or Sadism.

Anyhow, members of both camps waited eagerly to be proved right when he actually began working with us. I was secretly pleased when Muti turned out to be personable, self effacing (for a conductor anyway) and funny, proving many wrong.

The quick acceptance and even affection for Muti came as a shock to me – something I haven’t seen here before. It was more than slightly strange hearing some of the most wizened, perennial conductor hating players tittering on like schoolgirls. “Do you think he likes us? I really hope he likes us!” The one lesson I learned was that this orchestra has no practice playing hard to get.

But Muti played his part masterfully, cultivating the good will he encountered. He acted like a man given the keys to a pretty nice car, who had the savvy not to look too closely under the hood or swipe his finger across the dashboard while the owner was still watching. Instead, he took us for a pleasant drive around the Italian countryside. I kept waiting for him to throw a wet rag over the whole affair – stop the orchestra to tell us our tremolo sucked, for instance – but thank heavens he had better sense than that.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Week 05

October 15-21

This week’s CSO program

WAGNER Siegfried Idyll
INTERMISSION
MAHLER Symphony No. 6
Bernard Haitink, conductor

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert (FAURÉ, DEBUSSY, COPLAND, ADAMS)

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

Haitink conducting Mahler should make this a high point of the season. Unfortunately the concerts are not sold out. There is something very wrong with that.

Friday, October 12, 2007

This is my box

Sometimes I wonder if we bassists surround ourselves with all sorts of specialized equipment as an antidote to the general dreariness of playing the instrument. Could all of the special chairs, oversized cases, endpin rests, bass bibs, bow quivers, grinding wheels, etc. etc., signify some desperate search for fulfillment? I have no idea, and that isn’t really even the subject of this post.

When a question came in about our ‘bass boxes’, visible in one of the tour photos, I realized my negligence in not bringing them up sooner.

The CSO did a few small east coast tours in the 90s. On one of them we played in Boston and there the bassists were surprised to find little boxes set beside each of our bass stools. Normally we each had a regular chair on which to rest the bass during breaks. The chairs also were a good place to put rosin, the ubiquitous filthy bass rag, watches, wallets, or whatever the player might wish to unencumber himself of before playing. But those chairs took up a lot of room and tended to get in the way. The boxes were a clever solution.

Not to be outdone, our stagehands built their own version and presented them to us later in the season. The boxes have gone through a couple of redesigns over the years – better handles, Velcro latch, more durable padding – so that now I would venture to say they are darn near perfect.

Here is a photo showing the boxes. (Sorry for the railing in the foreground)

This is the latest design, showing the carpet-material padding. (Box courtesy of Rob Kassinger)


This is my box. I certainly hope the six-inch deep compartment is the untidiest one in the section. It is stuffed with: grimy bass rags, rosin, pencils, cough drops, earplugs, the empty wrappers from the previous two items, practice mute, tuner, Prince CD (don’t ask), CD titled ‘Welcome Sir Simon’ presented to CSO musicians by the Berlin Philharmonic (never opened), various memos to CSO musicians, Japanese phrase book, long ‘E’ string (to be used as a garotte for unruly stand partners), serrated red dowel (used in some modern piece and never returned), cow moo-er (one of those cylindrical things you flip over that make a cow mooing sound – indispensable for late Mahler symphonies with cowbells), and a green glow-in-the-dark skull on a handle with a little trigger that makes the eyes roll and the teeth chatter (often used during ‘bass solo’ passages).

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Week 04

October 7-13

This week’s CSO programs
Friday, October 12 and Tuesday, October 16

FAURÉ Sicilienne from Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 80
DEBUSSY Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra
COPLAND Clarinet Concerto
INTERMISSION
ADAMS Harmonielehre
David Robertson, conductor
Branford Marsalis, saxophone

Saturday, October 13 and Sunday, October 14

FAURÉ Sicilienne from Pelleas and Melisande, Op. 80
DEBUSSY Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra
COPLAND Clarinet Concerto
INTERMISSION
DVORÁK Symphony No. 9 (From the New World)
David Robertson, conductor
Branford Marsalis, saxophone

Monday
off

Tuesday
off

Wednesday
off

Thursday
10-12:30 1:30-3:30 CSO rehearsals

Friday
10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

Saturday
11-1 CSO rehearsal
2 CSO concert (Day of Music)

Sunday
3 CSO concert (run out to East Lansing MI)

The orchestra has a few much-needed days off to get over jet lag and otherwise recover from the tour.

Macy’s Day of Music began life as the Marshall Field’s day of music and originally went for a full twenty four hours. I heard that by about 4 AM the only audience to speak of consisted of some very unsavory characters so the ‘day’ was wisely cut back. Still, it is a great opportunity for the CSO to connect with the people of our city and it is heartening to see the line to get into a classical music concert stretching around the block.

Yes, that is a run out concert on Sunday, a particularly cruel thing to do to an orchestra that spent the last two weeks climbing on and off busses, trains, and airplanes, but there you have it. On top of that, the split programs, requiring a much-hated Saturday rehearsal, insure the entire weekend gets spoiled. Players who might have wanted some weekend time with their families will have to wait another week. One might think that after two weeks away, the city of Chicago might deserve a few CSO concerts, but East Lansing beckons and off we run.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The tour in pictures: London

Royal Festival Hall
The Royal Box as seen from the bass section
Brad Opland warms up
Wardrobe trunks in the men's dressing room

The tour in pictures: Paris

Salle Pleyel
My cheap hotel room
Saint Sulpice
Drawing a lucky card on the train to London

The tour in pictures: Germany

Dusseldorf to Essen by bus
Joe Guastafeste tunes up in Essen
A difference of opinion
I highlighted this curious marking in the Poem of Ecstasy bass part with arrows. They say in police work eyewitness reports are often unreliable as evidence. The same thing happens in orchestras as well: “was that in two or in four?" The last bassists to use this part couldn’t agree on what they saw.

Bass trunks arrive in Munich

A common sight on this tour: waiting for a plane

The tour in pictures: Italy

The first thing I need to say is that I am a crappy photographer. The last camera I owned broke in 1970 and I never bothered to get another until this year when one fell into my lap as a gift. So what you are seeing here is a small sample of my inept efforts to document the working parts of the tour as I saw them in an unvarnished sort of way.

http://www.cso.org/europe2007/ has the official photos taken by Todd Rosenberg, our excellent photographer.

Bass trunks waiting in Torino
My instrument in one pieceBassists Kraemer, Armstrong, DiBello and Opland warm up before the rehearsal in Torino
On the train to Verona: Bassoonist Bill Buchman gets a music lesson from bassist Rob Kassinger Herded towards the hotel in Verona
Jugglers: Bassoonist Lewis Kirk (left) and bassist Dan Armstrong get down to business while waiting for the bus
Something funny going on at the back of the plane to Rome
Bassist Roger Cline under the watchful eyes of the Italian police
Dan Armstrong warms up again in Rome

The orchestra arrives at terminal AA, Rome

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Friday – concert in London, Saturday – concert in London

I spent Friday morning at the British Library searching for some manuscripts of bass solos by Domenico Dragonetti, part of a project for Discordia Music. I was amazed at being able to walk in off the street, get a reader card and locate what I needed in a few hours.

The rest of the day was spent at the British Museum, then in search of a pint (or two). London seems like it has become much more crowded than I remember. Everywhere I go the sidewalks are crammed with hoards of people. The tube is a crush even at midday.

A colleague and I had a little debate over which side of the sidewalk to use here in the UK – his point being that people would probably stay to the left when walking as they do when driving. But that hasn’t been my observation. Trying to stay left has gotten me run into more times than I can count in the last two and a half days. Then again, staying right has ended in the same result. I’ve been in very crowded cities before – Tokyo comes to mind – where even in an absolute mob you barely get brushed. Here in London, pedestrians seem to make their way down the sidewalk in unruly knots, bumping and jostling each other like a host of Orcs fleeing Mordor. I arrived after walking to the concert hall (one orchestra bus ride in London is too many) with a few bruises.

Royal Festival Hall has undergone some kind of renovation. The artists’ entrance isn’t the same and some of the backstage areas seemed unfamiliar. Inside the auditorium I didn’t notice any changes, but my recollection of the place is none too vivid.

Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed playing there, so maybe I put it out of mind for a reason. The sound seemed dry and unflattering, both for one bass alone on stage and the orchestra as a whole. The last chord of the 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky 6 got sucked up and disappeared into thin air with no reverberation whatsoever. Hearing instruments across the stage was difficult at times as well.

Due to my position on stage for the Saturday concert I needed to have two earplugs in (one in each ear) the entire time, so it is difficult to tell what happened.

London is a wonderful city, but I’m happy to be leaving behind the teeming hoards and the outrageous prices for more familiar surroundings. I hear it’s supposed to be 90 degrees in Chicago when we get there.

Thursday – Travel to London

Today, musicians had the option of staying in Paris for a free day or traveling to London. In part to avoid yet another day of travel and concert, I chose to go to London. Since I did not stay at the orchestra hotel I made my way to the Gare du Nord on foot lugging my suitcase. I was just finishing a cup of coffee when the group arrived en masse. By the time I paid the bill I was the last person in line. When I got to the point where we were being handed our boarding passes the CSO staffer gave me a curious look. To be fair, I don’t know her name either, I but I do know she works for the CSO.

“Uh, are you traveling with the CSO?” she asks.

“Uh, yes, I’m in the orchestra.”

“Hmm, we seem to be out of boarding passes. Are you sure you’re supposed to travel today?”

“Yes, I am,” I respond, pointing to my name in the tour book.

As it turned out, one of my colleagues (God love him) had showed up a day early by accident and had already taken a boarding pass. Eventually another was produced and things went more or less smoothly from there.

I’ve waited years to finally go through the Chunnel. As with most highly anticipated things, the reality of it didn’t live up to expectations – just under half an hour in the dark and it was all over. I know there’s an off-color joke lurking here, but I’ll pass for now.

The bus ride from Waterloo station to the hotel traversed the two miles in just about an hour. After finally checking in, the rest of the day went by pleasantly.

Tuesday – Travel from Munich to Paris, concert in Paris; Wednesday – concert in Paris

A small note on traveling with the orchestra; it may seem obvious, but boarding a plane with a group of people who all know each other has certain drawbacks. Before taking seats old friends, some of whom have lost touch with each other since breakfast, need to exchange warm greetings or catch up on the news while blockading the aisle. Finding enough overhead storage space for all the instruments carried onboard takes extra time as well. And then there are the flagrant violators of the carryon baggage limits…

In spite of the usual minor irritants, the flight to Paris went smoothly, and then it was into the city by train to my separate hotel – anything to avoid getting on another bus is worth it by this point in the tour.

The Salle Pleyel is an unattractive auditorium, at least on the inside. I never did find the front door. Every sound from the smallest cough to the errant mute clanking to the ground seemed amplified. After the staid, almost disinterested German audiences, the French were boisterous in reaction to both our concerts. Bunches of (very wet looking) flowers were lobbed onstage, bonking a few violinists.

After the concerts it was enjoyable taking the Metro across town to my hotel, observing Parisians going about their late-evening business. On Wednesday while waiting for the train, somebody who must have been at our concert did an elaborate and hilarious parody of a conductor’s mannerisms (Muti?) on the platform.

Playing two concerts in the same city seems like a luxury on this tour, where five or six of the nine concerts are preceded by travel. Pity none of the Italian cities could take us for more than one performance.

Monday – travel from Essen to Munich, concert in Munich

This is the time on tour when a few people find themselves going to the wrong room in the hotel, remembering the number from the previous day. In fact, today is something of a cookie-cutter copy of yesterday: Sheraton, bus, airport, bus, Hilton, modern German concert hall, beer, sleep.

Munich has a lot more charm than Essen but we had less time in which to enjoy it. Feeling a bit under the weather, I spent two of the five hours free between travel and concert sleeping and then practiced, which never makes me feel any better. I got my beer drinking in after the concert.

The Philharmonie in Munich is another of the generic modern German type concert hall. The sound seemed warmer and with more nuance than the hall in Essen but with our ‘all bombast all the time program’ it was difficult to make anything out.

Again, the German audience seemed underwhelmed with our antics and there were a noticeable number of empty seats. The last two days have really had the ‘let’s collect our fee and then get the heck out of Germany’ feel to them.

Sunday – Travel from Rome to Essen, concert in Essen

Every once in a while things go smoothly, almost as if by accident. Departure from Rome was mostly without incident. The city bus to train to airport connections went as planned.

At the airport, those of us who did not take the orchestra bus were told to meet the group at ‘Terminal 2’. Unfortunately, terminals at the Rome airport are named, ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, and so on. The TV screen gave us the information our charter flight would leave from terminal ‘A’, with check-in at counter 173. A quick jog through terminal ‘A’ revealed that the counters ended at 172, which posed something of a problem until it was discovered that there was also a terminal ‘AA’; that is where we found the orchestra.

The rest of the day went off as per schedule. The flight from Rome to Dusseldorf and then the bus to Essen were on time.

While sitting in the bus that would take us to the plane a number of us spotted a stray piece of baggage abandoned on the tarmac in Rome – a forlorn looking cardboard box that had fallen off a baggage truck. We all shared a few chuckles as various trucks, buses, and other of the odd sort of vehicles that whiz around airports all passed the box without anyone stopping to pick it up. A few drivers slowed to give it a second glance but there were no takers.

Unknown to us, one of my colleagues sharing in the amusement had a bag winging its way to Sicily instead of Essen at that very moment, probably to share the fate of the little box in Rome, lying unclaimed on a sun-drenched runway in Palermo. Talk about Karma. The bag was still missing last time I checked with him.

Essen is a modern industrial city without a whole lot of charm. There isn’t much to do there, not that we had time anyway, but the weather was so nice it was hard to hate the place.
The Philharmonie Essen is a modern concert hall of the shoebox variety with a bright, clear sound that tended towards becoming harsh. The concert had something of a ‘going through the motions’ feel about it and the German audience showed markedly less enthusiasm for the Muti/CSO juggernaut than the Italians.