Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Egress

is not a female egret

Recently, a reader emailed me with some comments and questions about the number of bike and scooter riders in the orchestra, which got me thinking about the post concert routine. At this time of year my thoughts often turn to the subject of departure anyway, but since a permanent exit is still something of a distant dream, I am forced to contemplate the small pleasures of my nightly exits from the concert hall.

It probably goes without saying that backstage the aftermath of each and every concert is not necessarily a scene of triumph, revelry, or even one of goodwill. At times the post-concert dissipation has the feel of a sandlot baseball game abruptly ended by broken glass. Suddenly a dozen boys head off in all directions, some running, others, hands in pockets, whistle as they toe the dirt and shuffle away with a studied “who, me?” sort of indifference.

A colleague of mine with the gift for finding the perfect way to put things once answered the question of why he declined to have his bio and photograph included in the ‘Meet the Musicians’ section of the program book by saying “Anyone who wants to meet me can wait in the alley [after the concert].” Indeed, the alley is the place to see the most interesting post-concert departures. Those who leave through the lobby tend to either melt into the crowd honorably, or else hold forth before a knot of admirers. The alley is where scooter and bike riders take off, on foot the mad-dashers make their break for freedom, and the habitual illegal parkers sheepishly (one can only hope) settle behind the wheels of un-ticketed cars.

Before the renovation of our hall, when there was not much of a backstage to speak of, one could pass from the stage to the alley in about ten paces. That has all been ‘improved’ with the latest reconstruction. Still, there is something appealing about the abrupt transition one experiences when exiting the concert hall, passing through the loading dock and out into the alley; to be one moment rubbing elbows with the cultural elite, the next, with dumpsters.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Week 14

December 12-23

This week at the world’s gratingest orchestra

DVORÁK Slavonic Dances
MOZART Oboe Concerto
INTERMISSION
BIZET Suite No. 2 from L'Arlésienne
STRAUSS Suite from Der Rosenkavalier
Ludovic Morlot, conductor
Eugene Izotov, oboe


Monday
2-8 Gunnelpumpers recording session

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7:30 concert (Janacek, Kancheli, Rachmaninov)

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

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
1:30 concert

Saturday
8 concert

Sunday
off (vacation begins!)

A six-hour recording session with that other group I play in probably would have culminated in a murder-suicide, but spending the day with the Gunnelpumpers was truly a pleasure. This session should wrap up the recording process for our first CD. I have no idea when it might come out. The myspace page is a bit out of date as I write this, but I’m sure Doug Johnson will put in the latest news soon enough.

Speaking of that other group, Morlot had an interesting take on how to approach the afterbeats in the Waltz sections of the Rosenkavalier suite. Basically, he wanted the fastest tempo strictly in time. In the slower tempos, the second beat placed as if still in the quick tempo. The result is that the second beat comes soonest in the slowest tempo, a bit later in the medium tempo, and in time in the fast tempo; despite the ungainly explanation (mine) a workable solution. Usually, the request for Viennese afterbeats produces as many takes on what that really means as there are players – sometimes more – with the resulting jumble about as Austrian (and full of…well…baloney) as Vienna Beef.

That made for an enlightening 5 minutes of rehearsal time. As for the other 145…. The maestro’s pluck out one eyelash at a time rehearsal technique might not have been the best approach for an orchestra that seems a little tired and is looking forward to vacation right now. That said, the lack of respect shown the present occupant of the podium is out of place. I can only conclude that the punch line to the old joke about the difference between an orchestra and a bull no longer applies.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Unnamed Holiday comes to an Unnamable Orchestra

At a certain time every year the hall is decked with large festive holiday wreaths and other trimmings appropriate to the season. Sometimes the décor and the concert program achieve a wonderful sort of dissonance, as was the case last week when we played Janacek’s Taras Bulba, based on Gogol’s bloody tale in which the protagonists all end up killed in gruesome ways.

For a number of years Pierre Boulez conducted these festive holiday weeks, and it seemed we were always doing something dark and twisted like The Miraculous Mandarin beneath the mistletoe. I thought I’d put that behind me when I stopped playing the Xmas concerts.


Photo showing the Holiday Wreath crate impeding access to the bass storage room. (Photo redacted to protect the identity of the orchestra and the deity)



View from my seat. (Note the poor attendance for these concerts…)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pledge of Allegiance

A brief note on the flag appearing on the right-hand side of this page is in order. In answer to a few inquiries, it is decidedly not the Hammer and Sickle of the old Soviet Union. Rather, I have chosen the flag of Animal Farm, Orwell’s satirical novel, in a design realized by Marc Pasquin. The somewhat poignant (to me, at least ) description of the flag from the novel has been added as a caption.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Week 13


December 10-15

This week’s program of ‘the orchestra that dare not speak its name’
--------------------------------------------------------------------
JANÁCEK Jealousy
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 4
INTERMISSION
KANCHELI ...à la Duduki
JANÁCEK Taras Bulba
Mark Elder, conductor
Stephen Hough, piano
-----------------------
Monday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7-10 CBE reheasal

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7:30 concert (Delius, Sibelius, Webern, Brahms)

Wednesday
12-2:30 rehearsal

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
8 concert

Saturday
10 CBE performance
8 concert

Sunday
off

Monday orchestra rehearsals make me about as depressed as anything I can think of. To make matters worse, the reason we lose a day off is so Welcome Yule can have a dress rehearsal on Wednesday evening. Thank heaven that has gone back to being a members-of (optional) program this year. Needles to say, I’m not playing.

Yes, Mark Elder is conducting us for another week. Somebody upstairs must really like him. I mean that literally; somebody upstairs (in our management) seems to like him a heck of a lot. Maybe God does as well, but that isn’t my affair.

Someone in our management sent orchestra members an email the other day informing us this coming Friday is “blah, blah, blah Symphony Day” (he used the real name) at the nearby Chipotle Mexican restaurant. Anyone with an orchestra ID gets a free burrito. It is a generous offer, as the burritos there are pretty good. I’m waiting for some zealot to jump up and challenge the use of the orchestra name, but I’m not holding my breath. Nothing messes with scruples like a little free food. I’m curious to see how many musicians take advantage of the offer. With the possibility of a stage full of burrito-stuffed musicians, the Friday matinee concert might be one to approach with caution.

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.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Week 12

December 3 – 9

This week’s program of the ‘orchestra which must not be named’

DELIUS A Song of Summer
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 6
INTERMISSION
WEBERN Five Pieces for Orchestra
BRAHMS Double Concerto
Mark Elder, conductor
Robert Chen, violin
Jan Vogler, cello

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal
7:30 concert (Ravel, Shostakovich)

Wednesday
12-2:30 3:30-6 rehearsals
7 CBE rehearsal

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
8 concert

Saturday
10 CBE rehearsal
8 concert

Sunday
10 CBE rehearsal

CBE is, of course, the Chicago Bass Ensemble. Last time I checked, it was OK to use the name here. We are taking part in the International Society for Improvised Music, second annual conference. If you think I’m making that up, check out their web site although at the time of this writing the link to the conference program wasn’t working properly. The CBE has a brief blurb about our performance here. That’s all I know about it.

As for that other group, I’m really looking forward to hearing Robert Chen play the Brahms. I've heard some reputable violinists come to grief over that piece, but everything I’ve heard Robert do has been stellar, so it should be a good performance. Sorry to say, I don’t know anything about the cellist.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Week 11

November 26 – December 2

This week’s program of the orchestra in which I play

RAVEL Piano Concerto in G Major
INTERMISSION
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad)
Semyon Bychkov, conductor
Yundi Li, piano

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal

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

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
8 concert

Saturday
8 concert

Sunday
off

There is no way that standing atop a pyramid and looking out over an endless jungle one day, and the next, riding a bicycle into a chilly wind along Lake (…) to go rehearse Shostakovich 7 isn’t a letdown of sorts. Still, this week has had its enjoyable moments.

Although he looks like someone you wouldn’t want to meet in a darkened alley, Semyon Bychkov is a pretty personable conductor. There is a fair amount of grumbling over his (too quick) tempos, but I’m happy the piece doesn’t go on a second longer than it has to. I thought he made a pretty good case for what he is trying to do.

Thanks for the many supportive emails about the name change.