Bass Blog

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

Feel free to email your comments.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Week 32

Aversion to talk is something orchestra musicians have inherited from manual laborers.
-Theodor Adorno

WAGNER Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde
CHIN Rocaná
INTERMISSION
BERLIOZ Symphonie fantastique
Kent Nagano, conductor

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 rehearsal

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

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
8 concert

Saturday
8 concert

Sunday
1 Trout Quintet
7 CBE rehearsal

OK, I’m a week behind again. I think the quote from Adorno has something to do with anti intellectualism among musicians, which is apparent enough, but there is also another way to apply it.

Nothing wrings a groan from an orchestra with more predictability than when someone emerges from the wings holding a microphone. It makes little difference if it is a manager, trustee, politician, or representative of some women’s auxiliary; all microphone wielders seem to elicit a similar response. The reaction often has little to do with the quality of the remarks on offer as onstage talks fall into depressingly predictable categories depending on the speaker’s title or position. I think it has more to do with the nature of the concert experience. The lighting changes, orchestra and audience fall silent; the sense of hushed anticipation is palpable. Players still capable of excitement about or interest in what is about to happen might, along with members of the audience, feel an increase of adrenaline. And then, instead of music comes talk.

The talking conductor usually evokes the greatest dismay. Again, not necessarily because of the quality of the remarks – some conductors are engaging speakers – but because there is a feeling a sacred trust is being violated. Musicians who have listened to the maestro speak during rehearsals all week, sometimes at great length, nevertheless hold out hope for the concert, the time when talk must cease for once and for all and music-making at last win the day. It is understandable then that the appearance of the microphone is seen as a betrayal of that trust.

A study of conductor mannerisms (something orchestra musicians do more for sport than necessity) reveals many of them are aware of the transgression. Just observe where they hold the microphone when they take the stage. They hide it. Even the most mannered podium poseur, the Maestro who normally enters with baton held mincingly betwixt thumb and index finger, chest high, will hold a microphone like a shameful talisman, head down, concealed alongside a dark trouser leg, to be produced swiftly, like a magic wand with the power to deaden even the most charged concert hall atmosphere.

All this is merely to say Kent Nagano talked a lot – at rehearsals, and then, saggingly, at the concerts as well. I happen to like Nagano, I think more than many of my colleagues, so it was a bit sad to see his stock among musicians going even lower when he addressed the audience.

Nagano’s Symhonie Fantastique was highly stylized, and I can certainly see how it was not for all tastes. Nevertheless, I didn’t find anything he did outside the scope of the sort of excesses not so long ago passed off here as the product of ‘genius’.

The Unsuk Chin composition, Rocaná I found inscrutable mainly due to poorly notated parts. It didn’t seem to be such a bad piece but suffered doubly from a lack of craft as well as being the subject of Nagano’s onstage remarks.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The shortest post ever?



A while ago, in the middle of the night, I woke in a cold sweat to the realization that in more than twenty years as a professional musician I have yet to play a single work by my favorite composer, Iannis Xenakis. What the heck is up with that?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Turn it down!

Once again, the European Union law restricting the amount of musician exposure to ‘noise’ made the news. This time the front page of the Sunday New York Times featured the article, No Fortissimo? Symphony Told to Keep It Down.

You’ve got to hand it to those Europeans for getting on top of the issue. I’m not holding my breath for anything like that to ever make its way to this side of the Atlantic though.

The most curious thing about the article for me came at the end of the second paragraph where it stated the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra deemed playing more softly ‘unworkable’. It struck me that in all my years I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a conductor who tried turning down the volume of the whole orchestra. Conductors often balance this or that, telling some instruments they are too loud or others they are not loud enough, but I’m wracking my brain to remember a conductor stopping a fortissimo passage and telling everyone to play more softly. They do it all the time on the quiet end of the spectrum.

We did have a crotchety guest conductor years ago who, instead of thanking the orchestra or at least wishing us well at the end of the final rehearsal for a Bruckner Symphony, said something to the effect of “The entire thing is too loud for my taste.” Needless to say that was the last time he conducted here.

Maybe it is unworkable after all.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Week 31

why is this week different from all other weeks?

BERIO Ritirata Notturna di Madrid
SALONEN Piano Concerto
INTERMISSION
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano

Monday
off

Tuesday
10-12:30 1:3-4 rehearsals

Wednesday
10-12:30 rehearsal
6:30 concert

Thursday
8 concert

Friday
1:30 concert

Saturday

off

Sunday
off


All in all, an enjoyable week in the house of notes. Of course the answer to the question posed above, and no small part of the allure of the week has to be because we get Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings off.

Salonen is not a very excitable conductor. If you ask me, that’s a big asset when it comes to the Beethoven 7th, which all to easily crosses the line into bacchanalia in the wrong hands. I’m a big fan of period instrument performances anyhow. That aside, I sometimes get the feeling as a modern orchestra, bulked up on Bruckner, Strauss, and Mahler, it is all too easy to go overboard on these late classical/early romantic symphonies, like a prizefighter pummeling his hapless undersized opponent trapped on the ropes. I’m referring mostly to the string playing, BTW. When you find wood chips and sawdust on the floor after the performance, you’ve probably been playing too vigorously. Fortunately, the demeanor of the guy on the podium can sometimes have a calming influence, as was the case this week.

Salonen’s piano concerto was one of the more interesting and well-written new works we’ve played. I hope his retirement from the LA Philharmonic leads to more composing, and more guest appearances here.

The Ritirata Notturna di Madrid proved an inoffensive bit of fluff – as Salonen said, his mother’s favorite Berio piece – remarkable mainly for the outstanding percussion playing stage-left.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Week 30

deus ex machina

DEBUSSY Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto No. 1
INTERMISSION
STRAVINSKY The Firebird
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Vadim Repin, violin


Fry - To Dream Again
Elgar - Feasting I watch
Brahms - Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang
Willan - An Apostrophe to the Heavenly Hosts
Bach - Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden
Vaughan Williams - O Clap Your Hands
INTERMISSION
Handel - Zadok the Priest
Vaughan Williams - Serenade to Music
Verdi - Te Deum
Bruckner - Psalm 150
The [orchestra name redacted] Chorus
Duain Wolfe, conductor



Monday
7:30 Ars Viva concert (Sibelius, Hanson)

Tuesday
4:30-7 rehearsal

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

Thursday
10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
1:30 concert

Saturday
8 concert

Sunday
6 CBE rehearsal

Week 30 was last week (April 7-13). I’m way behind again.

As it turned out, week 30 was a bad one for my low ‘C’ extension. For those non-bassists who might stumble upon this blog, I’ve included a picture below.




The extension, or ‘machine’ extends the range of a four stringed double bass down to the ‘C’ one octave below the lowest string on the cello. An entire book could probably be written about this device and its shortcomings; the Marquis de Sade comes to mind as a candidate for such a project.

It is probably prudent to omit the name of the model I play on, although many of its particular flaws are attributable more to age than poor design or construction. Extensions by this manufacturer have, or at least used to have a number stamped on them. For example, the extension I had put on an instrument twenty years ago was number six hundred and something. The dinosaur I was playing on last week (or trying to anyway) is number sixteen and probably belongs in a museum of torture, right beside the Rack and the Iron Maiden.

The contraption was brought low (so to speak) by the opening of the Firebird, which is very soft and very low, and for the first stand of basses, pizzicato. Suffice it to say, every note had a different sort noise associated with it. The ‘E’ naturals (‘F’ flats, really), a loud metallic rattle; the ‘E’ flats, a thunk! as the string slipped into its little rubber groove; the 'D' naturals, a bbbrrrrr! as the string vibrated against the E flat pad which was stuck halfway down; and so on and so forth. When I took the string off to make some adjustments to the little nut at the top, it crumbled into three or four pieces that rolled away and I didn’t have the heart to go crawling after.

Fortunately, I had a five string bass in my locker.

In spite of all that, the Firebird with Gergiev was quite enjoyable. He certainly knows how to whip things into a frenzy. Due to his busy schedule the program was only given three rehearsals and two performances. The Saturday evening 50th anniversary celebration concert for the chorus got one more rehearsal than it needed, including a much-despised Saturday morning.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Week 29

It was the best of times…

BERLIOZ Romeo and Juliet
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Isabel Leonard, soprano
Michael Schade, tenor
Laurent Naouri, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus

HERRMANN Psycho
HERRMANN The Trouble With Harry
HERRMANN Vertigo
HERRMANN Citizen Kane
INTERMISSION
HERRMANN Fahrenheit 451
HERRMANN Taxi Driver
HERRMANN North by Northwest
Joel McNeely, conductor
David New, narrator
Rebecca Davis, vocalist
Greg Cohen Quintet
Robert Burger, piano
Erik Charlston, percussion
Greg Cohen, bass
Marty Ehrlich, saxophone
Bill Frisell, guitar
Danny Kapilian, producer

Ars Viva
Sibelius Swan of Tuonela
SibeliusViolin Concerto (original version)
Hanson Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”)
Alan Heatherington, conductor
Yang Liu, violin

Monday
7:30 MOB concert (St Matthew Passion)

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

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

Thursday
9-12 Ars Viva rehearsal
8 concert

Friday
12-3 rehearsal
8 concert (Film Night)

Saturday
10:30-1:30 Ars Viva rehearsal
8 concert

Sunday
2-5 Ars Viva rehearsal
7:30 Ars Viva concert

This week started in the heavens and ended in the sewer. I only wish I was being metaphoric.

The week began on a high note with the second performance of the St Matthew Passion by MOB at the Harris Theater.

At the other orchestra I work for Gergiev gave an impassioned rendition of the Berlioz, right on the edge of (and sometimes over into) chaos, but capturing the spirit of the piece quite well IMO. He did not conduct with a toothpick this time, only his ‘magic’ fingers flapping and wiggling like Montgomery Burns holding his hands up to a blow dryer. I really am quite fond of Gergiev and wish we would see more of him. Although in town for two weeks he is only conducting four concerts. Next week the Saturday concert is dedicated to the 50th anniversary of our chorus. This past Friday, Berlioz made way for Film Night. Both of those evenings Gergiev is back in New York conducting opera at the Met.

Film Night should probably be renamed Still Picture Night after this week’s performance. The Bernard Herrmann scores are some good (perhaps very good) movie music, the Greg Cohen Quintet made some intriguing things happen, but the visuals didn’t seem up to snuff. Perhaps an inability to obtain rights to use clips (or even stills) from the Hitchcock and Welles films made the presentation rely heavily on drawings of movie scenes and characters or photos of the composer shaking hands with directors. Admittedly, I was busy playing some of the time, but I recall glancing at the screen during one number and seeing a photo of Herrmann and Hitchcock standing together. A few minutes later, when I looked again, the same image was still there. North by Northwest, after what appeared to be stock images of Mt Rushmore, was represented by a series of scribbled pencil drawings. To top that off, the program seemed horribly out of balance. The first half dragged on for an interminable eighty minutes and did not end until twenty past nine. (I’m sure my opera-playing comrades are laughing, but I get very antsy when something goes on for more than an hour.) We took the stage again at 9:40 to begin the second half. Obviously fearing a sizeable overtime payment (per contract, an orchestral concert is considered overtime after two hours, fifteen minutes) the backstage bean counters made an artistic decision and cut some of the Jazz quintet material so the second half clocked in at thirty-six minutes.

Sorry to say, I don’t often read reviews, so I have no idea if critics attend these film night shows or if there is any oversight whatsoever for that matter. This program had a lot of musicians wondering what the heck we were doing. I’m curious to know if any audience members have opinions about these ‘concerts’.

Ars Viva had some problems booking rehearsal space this time around. Rehearsing the Hanson “Romantic” Symphony and Sibelius Swan of Tuonela at 9 AM (!) all but insures somnolence. On Saturday, let’s just say The North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie has a serious plumbing issue in the vicinity of their basement rehearsal room. As if twisting the knife, fate had us spending three hours of the first warm sunny day in months down there.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Beyond the call

A colleague all but begged me to write more about Beyond the Score. I suspect this not so much because I have anything of merit to say on the subject as his desire get in some ‘batting practice’ on my softball observations, so here goes…

It occurred to me that while the BTS presentations certainly do inform and enlighten our audience, getting the public interested in a work like The Planets is kind of like getting horses interested in oats (or whatever horses normally eat). You might entertain the herd with a lengthy and engaging description of the molecular structure of oats and why this makes them tasty and nutritious, but the horses leave the barn essentially the same way they came in; they like oats.

Why not take one of those reviled compositions by Schoenberg, Boulez, or Carter – composers this organization has ostensibly championed over the last few decades – and devote a presentation to one of them? Schoenberg’s serial techniques, probably only vaguely understood by audiences who, fearing what they do not know, must regard them as some kind of foul sorcery or witchcraft capable of transforming a warm and comfortable concert hall into a chamber of musical horrors, would make for a compelling graphic visual presentation. His paintings, numerology and triskaidekaphobia all could be woven into a fascinating subplot. Who knows, we might even convince a few people (maybe even musicians) to listen to something with a fresh set of ears.