Bass Blog

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

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Meet the Gunnelpumpers


A group I have played with for the past seven years, one I can actually name, has a few performances of note coming up. In fact, it seems as if the '09 ' - '10 season might mark the beginning of a 'golden age' for the Gunnelpumpers with more performances than we have done in quite a while.

Brainchild of bassist Doug Johnson, the Gunnelpumers are best described by the subtitle on the band's myspace page: music by accident. Other band members include bassist Mathew Golombisky, percussionists Randy Farr, Douglas Brush and Quin Kirchner, along with Guitarist John Meyer. The group has also included a host of stellar guest artists over the years. One of the most interesting things about the group is seeing who will show up for any given performance. One of the best things is that we almost never rehearse. We might have had one, maybe two over the past seven years. More info about the Gunnelpumpers, including music and photos, may be found here.

The Gunnelpumpers will be playing a live set on WNUR 89.3 FM, Saturday, January 2nd, from 4-5 on the Airplay program. WNUR is out of Evanston Illinois. For those out of signal range, I think the programing is available on the internet. For those still too hung over on January 2nd to tune in, I think they also archive the shows. More info is on their website.

On January 5th, the band will play live at Martyrs' (3855 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago, IL) rounding out a show that begins at 8 PM. Any bass blog readers who happen to be at that show are welcome to say hello. Answering 3 bass blog trivia questions might even earn you a free beer, on me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

From Russia With Love



TCHAIKOVSKY The Storm [L'Orage], Op. 76
TCHAIKOVSKY Selections from The Snow Maiden, Op. 12
Alex Balestrieri, Narrator
----INTERMISSION----
TCHAIKOVSKY Selections from Swan Lake, Op. 20
Alexander Polianichko, Conductor
Redmoon Theater
Frank Maugeri, Artistic Director
Alex Balestrieri, Narrator

All of the concerts I've played since the week of Thanksgiving have been in the dark (sometimes both literally and figuratively) with stand lights and visual aids. I had the week conducted by Nicholas Kramer off, so I have no idea if they had pole dancers and a laser light show for those performances. It certainly seems as if we are resorting to a lot of smoke and mirrors of late. Also, since my night vision really sucks, I find playing in the dark kind of a drag. The stand lights never seem bright enough.

One place I could have done with less light was on the podium. Polianichko pitched a couple of no-hitters in the four performances. I think it was the Selmer Musical Instrument Company that used to provide folders for school bands and orchestras. On the inside of those folders were diagrams of the conductor's beat patterns – reminiscent of the Arthur Murray dance step charts, with the footprints and the dotted lines. I wish somebody would copy those beat patterns and fix them to the mirror in the conductor's dressing room as a kind of refresher, one last thing to look at before going on stage, after fixing hair and making certain trousers are zipped up.

The Redmoon Theater collaboration was interesting, as much of it as I could see, and the Tchaikovsky music certainly appropriate for the season. For a number of years Boulez used to conduct the weeks leading up to Christmas, when we would treat the audience to such holiday favorites as The Miraculous Mandarin, Sacre du Printemps, Notations, Le visage nuptial, Livre pour cordes.

The email sent by a colleague and the Russian music this week had me thinking about the tour to the Soviet Union back in 1990 – the open bottles of vodka at every table for each meal, the emaciated dietician from Jewel, the rat running through Thanksgiving dinner, the black marketeers installed in the Moscow hotel room, the unique and peculiar headache brought on by the Russian champagne, 'Chuck' running through the train with his gun. All sorts of happy memories for the holiday season!

The Gunnelpumpers show at Miskas on Friday night managed to salvage the week.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Never Ending Story

An orchestra member sent me an email regarding the appointment of Yo Yo Ma as some sort of creative consultant with our organization. Originally I was speechless, not necessarily with delight, and thought to let the matter slide until it occurred to me that Bass Blog readers might benefit from this insightful and passionate email. Certain words and initials have been redacted to conform with Bass Blog standards.

With the author's permission:

Hubris

What’s the deal? Is it necessary to believe that you possess godlike power to be appointed {redacted} Music Director? Back in the late 80s, Sir Georg Solti saw a film of Vladimir Horowitz performing back in the disintegrating USSR after a life in exile from his native land. The audience was rapturous, many in tears as they cheered the prodigal native son. It never occurred to Sir Georg that, not being Russian himself, he might not get the same reception. Not at all. “We must go!” he insisted, arranging a hastily planned {redacted} tour to Leningrad and Moscow in 1989, just as his tenure at our helm was ending. He told the orchestra, and I am not making this up, that when the Russian people saw what a great orchestra a free society could produce, they would be inspired to rebuild their nation along the lines of the great western democracies. He would conduct a few Mahler and Bruckner symphonies and magically transform a land that had been suffering under tyrants for all of its history. But I guess Putin didn’t come to any of our concerts.

Our next Music Director, Daniel Barenboim, was very excited when Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. He told the orchestra’s Members’ Committee, on which I served at the time, that if only he could bring the {redacted} to play in Washington, Clinton would understand how transformative the arts are and commit his administration to supporting them in the same way they are funded in France or Germany. Again, I am not making this up. One concert would do the trick, and we duly shoehorned a runout concert to Kennedy Center into our next New York tour. Unfortunately, it turned out President Clinton was occupied with other affairs of state, and was unable to attend our concert. Sadly, then, he missed out on his great epiphany.

Now we have a new Maestro, Ricardo Muti. His rehearsals and concerts have been wonderful thus far, and we have high hopes for his tenure. But here we go again. We have just learned that Yo Yo Ma has been appointed our new Creative Chair. In the language of the press release: “Maestro Muti and Yo-Yo Ma will act as inspirational catalysts for the {redacted} community, advocating for the transformative power that music can have on individuals, regardless of age or socioeconomic background.” Among other things, Muti wants us to perform in prisons, to inspire the denizens therein to turn their lives around. Of course, neither Yo Yo nor Muti have the time to do any of this. They are both globetrotting superstars who will confine their time in {redacted} to at best 10 or so overbooked weeks a year. But hey—Maestro Muti doesn’t need a lot of time. Just like our previous Music Directors, his magical presence all by itself will be transformative.

I have been on the front lines for our two most ambitious outreach initiatives of the past decade or so. I was involved in the creation of the Eloise Martin Center, which was a high tech interactive installation designed by Caroline Kennedy’s husband Edwin Schlossberg. It was up on the second floor of Symphony Center for a year or two, and then the money ran out and it was junked. The big desk in the shape of a bass viol that is used to serve coffee at the Bass Bar before concerts in the rotunda is all that survives of it. Then there was the Armonia project. A string quartet (I was in it) and a brass quintet of {redacted} players each collaborated with a different Latin ensemble. We were paired with an Afro-Caribbean percussion ensemble, and the brass guys with a mariachi group. They spent a ton of money on equipment, commissioned music so we could play together, and we performed maybe ten or fifteen concerts at a few schools and community centers, before the money dried up and the project was abandoned.

So now we are going to redeem the underclass in {redacted}. And to accomplish this modest feat, we are hiring perhaps the most overbooked instrumentalist in classical music today, Yo Yo Ma. Forgive my skepticism, but I think I’ve seen this movie before. And I know how it ends.

***

Programming Hitler's favorite composer in Leningrad (as it was then called) struck me as an odd choice. My first day there, I came across a bomb damaged structure, preserved for going on 50 years, bearing a plaque that read: Monument to Fascist Aggression. I had the feeling our performance of the Bruckner 8th was doomed.

The next music director (what's his name) seemed more concerned with achieving peace in the middle east, a pity when you can almost throw a stone from our concert hall to neighborhoods in our city where kids are afraid to walk the streets to get to schools in a shameful state of decrepitude. A friend of mine who taught music to underprivileged kids at the time told me they were all very excited when our former Maestro was scheduled to visit the school until it was revealed to be little more than a walk-through and they were told, in no uncertain terms, that none of the kids were to play anything for him.

At least Muti and Ma (or their spokespeople) are saying the right things as far as keeping the focus on the people in (the city where we live). But I agree with my colleague that I don't see them getting their hands too dirty. My worry is that in the vacuum created by their absence, scheming minds will come up with ideas similar to the debacles described above. Sometimes our organization goes about things with all the subtlety of trying to comb your hair with a garden rake. I have a vision of us playing Scheherazade for the Guantanamo prisoners supposedly coming to our state, or some other falderal.

The one thing the Bass Blog cannot condone however, is defamation of the Bass Bar (a big violin actually, or three quarters of one anyway). Have you even tried their coffee?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The man who knew too much

December 3 - 6

MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto
----INTERMISSION----
MAHLER Symphony No. 4
Markus Stenz, Conductor
Viviane Hagner, Violin
Nicole Cabell, Soprano
Gerard McBurney, Narrator
William Brown, Actor
Laura T. Fisher, Actress
Elizabeth Buccheri, Piano

The Friday and Sunday matinees are Beyond the Score performances devoted to the Mahler. I have to confess to finding these concerts uncomfortable to play. Sitting in the dark listening to lengthy dialog tends to make the mind wander, and then, before you know it, you are called upon to play some touchy little snippet taken out of context. Some further editing might help. The BTS presentation goes on for over an hour while its subject, the symphony, is more concise at about 55 minutes. On the other hand, if I saw this on PBS (or some late night cable outlet) I would probably keep my hands off the remote for a few minutes at least. I'm in no position to judge if this all works as a live performance. To me, the most interesting things are the piano rolls of Mahler playing. Probably some historic recordings would make for quite an interesting documentary, leaving the live performers to do what they do best, perform.

I'm really ambivalent about BTS. I don't buy the argument that BTS is somehow anti music – the 'if Mahler had meant his piece to be talked about he would have written a novel instead of a symphony' sort of argument. I'm all for educating an audience. Not wanting listeners to be well informed about what we are presenting seems akin to wanting to keep your wife barefoot and pregnant. However, there are lots of things to do with your wife that don't entail yakking her head off for an hour at a time. At any rate, these BTS shows always get me thinking about something or other. This past week I found myself remembering an incident from years ago.

In college I suffered through an 8 AM functional harmony course. Adding to my irritability at the unholy hour and insuring each and every school day began in an ill humor was a certain 'foreign' student, a young lady hiding total ignorance of functional harmony (and in my opinion a general lack of intelligence) behind an alluring physicality and a supposedly beguiling french accent. This young lady sat in the front row and played perfectly the part of teacher's pet, irritating us denizens of the back row. One day the instructor called upon her to identify something glaringly simple written on the chalk board, much to dismay of the stoners leaning their chairs against the back wall, chagrined at seeing another softball lobbed to this annoying poseur. When increasingly futile attempts to tease the correct answer out of her began to draw titters and schoolboy guffaws from behind, she rose to address her fellow classmates as well as our instructor. “You know,” she whined, “this is difficult for me because I have to translate everything from a foreign language,” flapping arms no less shapely for their utter helplessness.

And then something unexpected happened. Our instructor, that cold automaton of the 8 AM roll-call, the soul crusher, proud of his ability to reduce any Bach chorale to a series of roman numerals, a man not above shrugging off the most sublime moment in Debussy as an answer on a pop quiz (c. pentatonic scale), like the Grinch, that man's heart seemed to grow three sizes that day.

Perhaps our laughter embarrassed him, exposing cracks in his intellectual rigor, awakening a last frozen shard of a forgotten humanity. Whatever the reason, rather than directing an angry rebuke at the rest of the class as we all expected, he glared back at the hapless young lady. “Well, so do I,” he snapped, knuckles rapping the blackboard covered with chord symbols, brackets and dotted lines. “This all starts out as music!”

A gale of laughter followed, accompanied by foot stamping, knee slapping, and a minor storm of shredded papers (among them, my useless notes) tossed in the air from the back of the class. From then on I dedicated myself to becoming a better student. It is hard to enumerate the number of times the things I learned in that functional harmony class have helped me in my career as a professional musician, mainly because that number has remained stuck on zero for the past thirty years. But I'm still ready and waiting.

Friday, December 04, 2009

If I were a rich man

November 27-29

ADDINSELL Prelude from Blithe Spirit'
ARNOLD Excerpts from The Bridge on the River Kwai'
JARRE Excerpts from A Passage to India
BAX Three Pieces from Oliver Twist
JARRE Excerpts from Dr. Zhivago
JARRE Excerpts from Lawrence of Arabia
----INTERMISSION----
WILLIAMS The Magic of Harry Potter
Holland Taylor, Narrator
WILLIAMS Flying Theme from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (encore)
WILLIAMS Marion's Theme from Raiders Of The Lost Ark (encore)
WILLIAMS Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) from The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars Episode V) (encore)
WILLIAMS Wide Receiver , (Theme from NBC Football) (encore)
John Williams, Conductor
Michael York, Narrator
Holland Taylor, Narrator

Well, we went from an unflinchingly rude conductor to an unfailingly polite one. The orchestra always seems a bit cowed by John Williams and he responds with the utmost cordiality. You might chalk it up to to celebrity, but I think a large part of it has to do with his net worth – inside every orchestra musician is a petit bourgeois struggling to get out. If these concerts had been conducted by a lowly assistant conductor from somewhere, the usual sort of sacrificial lamb brought in to lead a pops show, after four rehearsals things might have turned quite ugly. As it was, we never strayed far from appearing to be in a mutual love-fest with our conductor of the week. I'm not sure it is possible to convey how unusual that is. The autograph seekers waiting in the alley after the show added to oddity of the whole thing, as was having the audience immediately recognize (and enjoy) the music we played for them.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Marathon Man

November 19 - 22

BARTÓK Divertimento for String Orchestra
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 12
----INTERMISSION----
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 2
Christoph von Dohnányi, Conductor
Paul Lewis, Piano

A visit to the dentist sometimes turns into a painful ordeal. Acknowledgment that this is for our own good mollifies us enough to submit to the uncomfortable procedure. Perhaps just as crucial in overcoming the natural reluctance to place ourselves at the mercy of a potentially pain-wielding professional is the belief our dentist is doing his best to minimize our suffering, and that furthermore, he derives no secret sadistic pleasure from all the painful picking, prodding and poking.

A conductor actually has a few ways to positively affect an orchestra in rehearsals, although more often than not the opportunities to employ them are bungled or misused. In brief, one of those is didactic, embodied in the maestro who comes to town with a number of interesting musical ideas which, if not presented in an insufferable manner, are available for the entertainment and maybe even enlightenment of all whose ears are not yet permanently calloused over. Another approach is the corrective – the maestro who performs the necessary and laudable services of scraping away at the orchestral tartar, filling the musical cavities, reigning in the rhythmical overbite, and maybe even addressing chronic institutional halitosis. This conductor has the chance of leaving the orchestra in better shape than when he found it.

Obviously, the lure of sadism sometimes proves too much, and what begins as constructive turns cruel and capricious. Cleaning the gums turns into a relentless pricking an poking, looking for blood, then gleefully pointing it out, holding a mirror up before the hapless, chair-bound orchestra. “You see! We have a problem here, such a pity. Let me get another pick. Nurse! No, the longer, more cruelly formed one please...”

To stipulate a need for the old-school type Great Maestro, one might argue that the ends justify the means (in our modern era, so long as they conform to the union contract). However, the end aimed at by barking “Watch it!” a split second before someone makes an entrance remains obscure to me, among a number of other things. Sadly, the performances this week had a somewhat flabby, dull, and uncomfortable aspect to them, a kind of Middle-European precision goosestep performed in stocking feet.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

09/22-25



London


Nice to be in truly world class city. On past trips the driest place to be in London has been onstage at Royal Festival Hall, but this time around the weather cooperates. After Paris, the city looks beautifully clean.

The two concerts here (Mozart/Brahms, Haydn/Bruckner) were well received, although as in the other cities much of the adulation was directed towards Haitink. Musically, this has to be one of the most satisfying tours I can recall – consistently high levels of performance from the orchestra, no histrionics from the podium, full houses. I wonder this is our last trip with Haitink since we have a new boss coming in next year. If so, it's a somewhat bittersweet moment, for me anyway.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

09/19-21



Paris

At around 6 AM the train from Hütteldorf arrived in Munich where groups of Oktoberfest revelers were carousing in the station (a very nice one, BTW). These fresh-faced youths, toting impossibly large beer bottles, were either getting an early start on the day's drinking or, possessed of superhuman stamina, were still up from the night before. When two opposing teams decided to start some sort of demolition derby with the luggage carts it was time to hit the streets until my onward connection.

In Paris the Shostakovich/Mozart program became the Brahms 1/Mozart 41 program. Haitink sure does a nice Brahms 1, the leaner sort of interpretation where you can see the bones, rather than flopping a bloated, hulking carcass onto the stage. Of course, any conductor who realizes the second movement is marked Andante Sostenuto rather than Largo Lugubriouso goes a long way to winning me over. After leaving the German speaking world, audience enthusiasm for the Bruckner 7 dropped noticeably. A colleague pointed out a gentleman who had his hands firmly clamped over his ears.

Salle Pleyel – the Avery Fisher Hall of Europe – had an interesting effect on us. I heard a few people remark “You know, the sound in here isn't that bad!”

Paris supposedly has many sights to see, but since the city also has a major dog-doo problem I spent the entire time watching where I stepped and so saw little besides my shoe tops. After two days I finally did notice a gentleman picking up after his dog. I squelched the urge to congratulate him when it occurred to me that throwing my arms around a complete stranger holding a bag of poop might be ripe for misinterpretation.

Monday, September 28, 2009

09/15-19


Vienna

Travel from Luzern to Vienna, uneventful. The Musikverein is the same old place, which is what is nice about it. Some of the end pin holes in the stage look like they might be a hundred and fifty years old, the kind of tradition you can put your foot on. The hall has a fantastic resonance that, if we aren't careful, we can fill with a fantastic jumble of sound. At rehearsals Haitink asked us repeatedly not to (surprise) overplay. Performing Bruckner in the Musikverein feels very appropriate somehow, although I can't say I came away from the concert liking Bruckner or understanding what he was up to any better. But if you put a pig in mud I suppose he's happy even if he can't tell you why.

There is a story floating around that Bruckner, a shy and possibly troubled man, asked that the bare breasted caryatids in the Musikverein be covered. I have no idea if this actually occurred (the request and/or the covering) but I think of it whenever I play there.

We performed both programs (Mozart/Shostakovich, Haydn/Bruckner) in Vienna with a day off in between which I used to pay homage to another reviled, discredited, and dare I say misunderstood, historical figure. I spent a few pleasant hours at the all but deserted Arnold Schoenberg Institute – well worth the € 5 price of admission IMHO.

The dingy blockhouse that is Vienna's Hütteldorf train station left a lot to be desired. The decrepit waiting room reminded me of places I'd seen in the old Soviet Union – uncomfortable seats, peeling paint, bright, crackling fluorescent lights. All in all not the kind of place to spend the time between concert and midnight train. At the last minute the track for our train changed and we all lurched and jostled our way through a grimy, fetid passageway before emerging onto the correct platform – like a scene out of Dr. Zhivago, perhaps 1984, I thought. Wondering if the little dis-utopian scene I found myself caught in, the nightmare vision of a Europe that might have been, could possibly be some sort of penance for my foolish beliefs, I promised to make no more visits to Marx Engels statue. Just then the station loudspeakers began playing Pierrot Lunaire.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

09/12-14



Luzern

Getting to Luzern turned out to be one of those magnificent ordeals arising from an almost obsessive desire to travel separately from my colleagues. At midnight, the view of Berlin from the elevated train platform was magical. The train arriving half an hour late and falling 45 minutes behind before reaching Dortmund, not so magical considering the scheduled connection time of 47 minutes.

A city on a large lake in need of a new concert hall sounds oddly familiar. Only Luzern did something modern, and in my opinion, quite spectacular. Not all my colleagues like the acoustics of the concert hall as much as I do, but everyone is entitled to be wrong, I suppose. We played two programs, Mozart/Shostakovich repeated from Berlin, and then and Haydn 101 paired with (yes, again) Bruckner 7.

Sunday morning, I set out to climb nearby Mount Pilatus whose summit was, as usual, hidden in clouds. I don't know the mileage of the hike – the sign says '4 hours' – but the elevation gain is about 5,200 feet. A few times the clouds parted to offer views of the scenery below, but for the most part, I trudged through dense fog. After about three hours I entered a series of steep switchbacks crossing a rockfall. The summit could not be far above me, but where? My feet were sore, my spirits flagging until, from still high above, came the plaintive melody of a single alp-horn. The lone voice, at length joined, became a chorus. I stopped to listen, briefly disoriented that the sound of a horn could produce in me something quite strange, a feeling I can only describe as the absence negativity. Rallying, I stumbled upward.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

09/10-12



Berlin

Speaking of Hindenburg, for once the German capitol city is warm and sunny. We used to have a conductor (name escapes me) who dragged us to Berlin every Easter where it seemed perpetually rainy, cold and gloomy. And that was before leaving the concert hall.

Haitink is “Mr. Sunshine” in more ways than one, I guess. He seems to be back to form after suffering some sort of leg or back ailment that had him using a cane last time we saw him. The orchestra came out of vacation sounding understandably ragged at the opening rehearsal but more or less pulled together to put on a fine concert (Mozart 'Jupiter', Shostakovitch 15) at the Philharmonie, thanks in large part to the Maestro's steady hand.

The Philharmonie has been underwhelming me the last few times we played there. Not sure why – the sound is clear and certainly more resonant than what we are used to, but I can't help feeling there is something a bit flat about it. The backstage canteen continues its fine tradition of offering cheap eats and drinks – about € 4 for a sandwich and a beer. Honestly, the availability of beer within 20 or so paces of the stage makes up for any number of shortcomings.

I devoted a free afternoon to my usual pilgrimage to Marx Engels Platz for a glance at the statue. Hardly a thing a beauty – the huge clunky figures would not find themselves out of place in one of the Planet of the Apes films – nevertheless, whenever I am in town I am drawn to the sad spectacle of those two somber figures forced to watch their dream is slowly, inexorably crushed as the Unter den Linden becomes just another shopping street. Perhaps as a classical musician I have a degree of empathy for those who, in spite of their best efforts, wind up on the 'wrong side of history', become ossified, caricatures of their former selves, forced to watch the march of so-called progress heading off in the wrong direction. Whatever. My visits to the statue began soon after the wall came down. Several times I discovered someone had left flowers at the feet of the great socialists – sometime an old bouquet, wilted weeks ago, lying in the rain – but that hasn't happened in years now. Clasping hands with Engels, Marx rises stiffly, shedding a few rust-colored flakes as he takes a first, faltering step. Bronze shoes thudding on stone, I watch the two giants stride off down the Unter den Linden in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate. Engels shrugs, 'accidentally' taking out a Starbucks sign with his shoulder. Marx, lost in conversation, gestures idly with his free arm, swiping away a pair of golden arches. My shoes slide on broken glass as I run to catch up to the great thinkers disappearing down the street. “Wait for me,” I call out, weakly.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

09/09/09

An inauspicious beginning

Usually the tour starts when the plane wheels hit the ground, that little bump signaling the end of one chapter, in this case, vacation , and the beginning of another, the tour. This time is a little different, however. First, there is the business of cleaning up the past, making a few excuses so as to move on with if not a clear, at least a whitewashed conscience. The stolen violin and some other hijinks during the summer disrupted my Haiku-a-day plan, which was probably over ambitious to begin with anyway. But, in case nobody noticed, the Bass Blog has turned out to be more or less an account of failure – the large, ongoing type, as well as a series of smaller episodic shortcomings that seem to dog my every day. Think of that well known film clip, the Hindenburg disaster, played continuously in slow motion. So in those terms, failing to write a few Haiku is hardly anything to get upset about, is it? But it is time to rewind the filmstrip and begin the process once again.

The day before my flight to Berlin, acting on a premonition, I took the (for me) unusual step of telephoning the airline (named after a large German city) to confirm my flight only to discover my reservation had been canceled weeks ago with me none the wiser. Re-booking a ticket on short notice turned my intended thrifty gesture into one of extravagant financial excess. Not a great way to begin.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thursday, July 23

10-12:30 Rehearsal
Eschenbach
BERNSTEIN
DVORÁK


the rehearsal stops
for no apparent reason
eschenbach is back

Wednesday, July 22

off


lang lang and barto
one of them more than enough
poor peter serkin

Tuesday, July 21

off


thirty years old now
not one thing works as it should
my old bicycle

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Ravinia 03

concerts this week
(OK, that week: I'm hopelessly behind)

A
Time For Three
Bernstein - Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Higdon - Concerto 4-3 (Chicago premiere)
Gershwin - Concerto in F
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Tzimon Barto, piano

B
Brahms - Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Dvořák - Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95
Christoph Eschenbach, Conductor
Peter Serkin, Piano

C
Prokofiev - Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Berlioz - Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

Monday
off

soft sound – still water
early bass pizzicato
you throw in a rock

Sunday, July 19

12:30-3 Rehearsal
Ravinia C
Conlon
MAHLER

5 Concert
Ravinia C
Conlon
MAHLER

farewell symphony
mahler gave the final word
to the violas

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saturday, July 18

1:30-4 Rehearsal
Program B - Gala
Conlon, Norman, Wall, O'Connor, Griffey,
Robinson, *** Symphony Chorus
BEETHOVEN
COPLAND
COPLAND

7 Concert
Program B - Gala
Conlon, Norman, Wall, O'Connor, Griffey,
Robinson, *** Symphony Chorus
SMITH
COPLAND
COPLAND
BEETHOVEN

I'm off this concert!


speeches and music
my oil and water cocktail
good day to stay home

Friday, July 17

off

no concert today
bike leaning in the garage
legs and ears weary

Thursday, July 16

11-1:30 Rehearsal
Ravinia C
Conlon
MAHLER

2:30-5 Rehearsal
Conlon
MAHLER
BEETHOVEN

final symphony
the composer says goodbye
rehearsal endless

Monday, July 20, 2009

Wednesday, July 15

2:30-5 Rehearsal
Ravinia A
Conlon, Ohlsson
SCHUMANN
PROKOFIEV
WAGNER

8 Concert
Ravinia A
Conlon, Ohlsson
WAGNER
SCHUMANN
INTERMISSION
PROKOFIEV

serge prokofiev
sometimes the thing of beauty
is hard to endure

and here's a better one from my friend Max

Prokofiev Fifth
wonderful woodblock writing
viola, less so

Tuesday, July 14

off

Ravinia stage
the acoustical science
theater of pain

Ravinia, week 02

Concerts this (last )week

A Wednesday, July 15
Wagner - “Siegfried’s Funeral March” from Götterdämmerung
Schumann -Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
Prokofiev - Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
James Conlon, conductor
Garrick Ohlsson, piano

B Saturday, July 18
Copland - Fanfare for the Common Man
Copland - Lincoln Portrait
Beethoven - Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125 ( Choral)
James Conlon, conductor
*** Symphony Chorus
Erin Wall, soprano
Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano
Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor
Morris Robinson, bass
Jessye Norman, narrator

C Sunday, July 19
Mahler - Symphony No. 9 in D Major
James Conlon, conductor

Monday, July 13
off

fall behind again
Haiku – Bruckner melodies
fleeting in the mind

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sunday, July 12

12:30-3 Rehearsal
Ravinia C
Conlon, Fried
TCHAIKOVSKY
TCHAIKOVSKY
TCHAIKOVSKY

5 Concert
Please note: live cannons during 1812
Overture
Ravinia C
Conlon, Fried
TCHAIKOVSKY
INTERMISSION
TCHAIKOVSKY
TCHAIKOVSKY


the year that was

famous overture
battle scarred – mighty number
bad time for my ears

Saturday, July 11

off


screens beside the stage
heads turned see only the thing
right in front of them

Monday, July 13, 2009

Friday, July 10

2:30-5 Rehearsal
Ravinia B
Conlon, DeYoung, Skelton
MENDELSSOHN
MAHLER

8 Concert
Ravinia B
Conlon, DeYoung, Skelton
MENDELSSOHN
INTERMISSION
MAHLER


the beat elusive
hopeful glance at podium
gone before I played

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thursday, July 9

10-12:30 Rehearsal
Ravinia B
Conlon, DeYoung, Skelton
MAHLER


bird above the stage
singing with the orchestra
this year - still not deaf

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Wednesday, July 8

day off



lengthy Adagio
right on time – the train whistle
never so welcome

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tuesday, July 7

2:30-5 Rehearsal
Ravinia A
Conlon, Bronfman
MENDELSSOHN
BRAHMS

8:00 Concert
Ravinia A
Conlon, Bronfman
SMITH
MENDELSSOHN
INTERMISSION
BRAHMS

parking lot soliloquy

slow people walking
right in front of my bumper
what if I nudge them?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Welcome Back

Ravinia week 1

Concerts this week

A Tuesday July 7, 8 PM
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11
Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
James Conlon, conductor
Yefim Bronfman, piano

B Friday July 10, 8 PM
Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 ("Italian")
Mahler - Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth")
James Conlon, conductor
Michelle DeYoung,mezzo-soprano
Stuart Skelton,tenor

C Sunday, July 12, 5 PM
Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Tchaikovsky - Nutcracker Suite No. 1
Tchaikovsky - “1812” Festival Overture, Op. 49 (with live cannons)
James Conlon, conductor
Miriam Fried,violin


Monday, July 6
2-4:30 Rehearsal
Ravinia A
MENDELSSOHN
BRAHMS

I'm off concert A. Also, since I'm quite busy these days with non bass blog activities, I'm going to have to limit the amount of writing I do. With that in mind, all posts about this season at Ravinia will be in Haiku form.


first day

thrumming cicadas
heat waves on asphalt – the guard
wary of my bike

Thursday, June 04, 2009

In the beginning...



Bernard Labadie, conductor
Benedetto Lupo, piano
Haydn - Symphony No. 94 (Surprise)
Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 18
Mozart - Chaconne from Idomeneo
Mozart - Symphony No. 39

Wordy conductors arrive at our concert hall carrying their verbiage like the penitent's burden. Already looking at an uphill trek to Golgotha, the early music specialist ascending our podium might fair better lightening his load a bit. While it may be possible to teach an old dog new tricks, it is probably wise not to talk to him about about it.

Bernard Labadie brought with him some good ideas and a different viewpoint than we are accustomed to. Less vibrato, more open strings, holding off on the sostenuto, among other things, are IMO valid suggestions. I have no problem with trying to play something differently. In fact I think playing it the same old way causes me more heartburn these days. Unfortunately, the preponderance of instructions, suggestions, reminders, admonishments, notifications, rejoinders, talking points, etc. etc. began turning the music into a bit of a minefield.

The Kapellmeister more adept with the word than the baton is a phenomenon I've come across a number of times, especially in the early music realm. There, I have no problems with it. Most of that music is not conductor dependent anyway (possibly why I enjoy it so much), predating the rise of the stick waving, tyrannosaurical conductor of the modern era. The period instrument players also, not subjugated by constant baton beating, have a different approach to holding an ensemble together.

The Mozart/Haydn concerts began showing a few cracks in the ensemble which only grew more serious with repetition, as if the fragmented assembly in rehearsals came unglued under the pressures of performance.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Unknown



As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

Donald Rumsfeld
—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Ellington - Three Black Kings
Intermission
Turnage & Scofield - Scorched for Jazz Trio and Orchestra

(Redacted) Symphony Orchestra
Steven Sloane, conductor
John Scofield, guitar
John Patitucci, bass
Peter Erskine, drums
Donald Harrison, alto saxophone
Willie Pickens, piano


Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies
(Redacted) Symphony Orchestra
Emil de Cou, conductor


A fine week to begin blogging again. A lot of interesting things have gone on. The most interesting unfortunately, if I value my metaphorical kneecaps, figuratively speaking, I better not mention.

The Ellington/Turnage&Scofield show brought a stellar group of musicians to the front of our stage. These 'fusion', 'crossover', (or whatever you want to call them) type of concerts often leave me less than satisfied, sometimes embarrassed. The featured group usually knows the piece well and has performed it several, if not many times, while we (the orchestra) are sight reading (OK, I confess). They are comfortable with the idiom – we are decidedly not. The tag-team nature of a lot of these things often highlights how painfully square we are in contrast to our guests.

I'm not sure how they do it – the technical means must have come about in the last few years,since that is when these type of concerts began to appear on our schedule – but the movie night concert where we play along live with the vocal tracks from old movies is becoming more common. I'm not sure what the point is, since the spontaneity of live performance is here reduced to a series of minor emergencies when the conductor can't keep in sync with the film. Something like arriving at the honeymoon suite only to don a straight jacket. I confess to deriving much of my enjoyment of these concerts observing the amount of discomfort on the podium – the usually dictatorial conductor reduced to marionette dancing and jumping at the pull of invisible strings.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Boulez times Deux

Stravinsky - Symphony in Three Movements
Stravinsky - Four Studies for Orchestra
Carter - Réflexions
Varèse - Ionisation
Varèse - Amériques

Janácek - Sinfonietta
Szymanowski - Violin Concerto No. 1
Stravinsky - Pulcinella
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Roxana Constantinescu, mezzo-soprano
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone

Boulez came to town with a heap of ‘modern’ music. Maybe that should be amended to ‘scary’ modern music seeing how the concerts were so poorly attended, both here and in that somewhat larger city to the east. Too bad really, since I’m quite fond of Ameriques – the savagery of the piece is right in our wheelhouse!

The Stravinsky pieces were all recorded for our (Grammy winning!) in-house label [Redacted] Resound. (That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) Sometimes Boulez’s nonchalance and understated approach has had a very positive, calming effect, the perfect antidote to Solti or that other guy who followed him. But now that we have two elderly uncles as caretaker music directors, both of whose podium personae tend towards the soporific, I’m not quite so sold on the effectiveness of the mere flip of the wrist and the shrug. We seem to require a bit more to play together nowadays. The Stravinsky pieces felt pretty loose, to the point of mushiness. I will be curious to see what sort of recording they got from those concerts, although I’m not sure I’ll ever have the heart to listen to them.

The highlight of the two weeks had to be the backstage announcement by our personnel manager that took an unintended turn towards the sci-fi when he requested “All musicians on stage for ionization!

About a week after my last blog post poking fun at our (hopefully) interim junior senator, I ended up finding myself in a strangely parallel situation – complete with all the backstabbing and other niceties of the political world that seem to find a welcome home in the concert hall. Talk about karma!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This is what he meant to say….

Lincoln Bicentennial Tribute
Root - The Battle Cry of Freedom
Payne & Bishop - Home, Sweet Home
Harris - Symphony No. 6 (Gettysburg)
Bennett - Selections from Abraham Lincoln (A Likeness in Symphony Form)
Copland - Lincoln Portrait
Beethoven - Symphony No. 5

James Gaffigan, conductor
James Earl Jones, narrator
Kevin Gudahl, speaker
Gerard McBurney, speaker


I think the last time our orchestra performed the Lincoln Portrait the junior senator from our state did the narration. Since he went on to bigger and better things James Earl Jones stepped in and schooled everybody in the meaning of star power. Still, having the current junior senator do the honors might have made for an entertaining evening. Program notes or a post-concert press conference could have clarified and revised the senator’s narration. Besides, we might have been able to boast hosting one of his final public appearances.

Not sure what Beethoven 5 was doing on this concert – Lincoln’s favorite piece? Fate knocking at the door? Music that brings on a headache?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Blog of the tour – part seven

The Forbidden Concert Hall

Friday, February 13
Beijing

We may have finally found a venue on this tour to match the massive inhuman scale of our repertoire. While exploring Tianamen square I kept bumping into the ghost of Anton Bruckner. Out for a stroll, hands clasped behind his back, the venerable composer nodded in silent approval, dreaming of ways to subjugate another string section beneath his musical fist of iron. It seems as if regular-old socialists and their ‘national’ brethren share some taste in architecture.

The scheduled 2-hour morning rehearsal was converted to one of the 45-minute pre concert warm-ups so I did not arrive in the vicinity of the ‘Egg’ (National Center for the Performing Arts) until about 4 in the afternoon. I enjoy arriving at a new concert hall alone, not with the group, in part to see how these architectural marvels yield up their secrets to a more or less ordinary person encountering them with the modest goal of entering, perhaps finding a bathroom, my instrument, and finally the stage. The ‘Egg’ proved a tough nut to crack, if I can scramble up a tasty hash of metaphors.

Most concert halls have stage doors or performers’ entrances at the back, or the side. Being round and surrounded by a defensive moat, the ‘Egg’ did not present an obvious point of entry for a footsore double bassist. A preliminary circumnavigation revealed two subterranean entrances 180 degrees apart. Looking decidedly more ghetto, one of them seemed the obvious choice.

Approaching the guard on duty, I produced my orchestra photo ID card and said (Blah, Blah) Symphony Orchestra, musician. I made the universal symbol – playing air violin and tapping my chest – but the guard shook his head and smiled sheepishly at my antics before summoning over a gentleman in a suit who had been chatting loudly on a cell phone a few feet away. This fellow seemed genuinely put off at having to end his call. When I presented my card he made a face as if I had just waved something extremely foul smelling under his nose. He shook his head violently and said in English, no, No, NO! and then something in Chinese that sounded like ‘getthehellouttahere!’ (but in all fairness could have been anything) while waving me off in the direction of the other entrance.

At the other side I was able to penetrate two sets of doors before arriving in what seemed to be a lobby for audience members. The guard at the roped off entryway was already shaking his head before I had my ID out, but I repeated my air violin performance for him anyway. Noticing a large photo of Bernhard Haitink hanging above his head I added what I hoped would be clarification (but probably only made me look irredeemably silly) by pointing to the photo, making motions of shaking the Maestro’s hand, and him warmly reciprocating by patting me on the back. (Incidentally, there is a photo of this very spot in the New York Times of February 16, page C3, where you can see the guard in ominous silhouette, the photo of Haitink in the distance.)

Beside the guard sat an officious looking lady at a small desk. When asked if she spoke English, she responded ‘a little bit’ and so I repeated my attempt at self-identification, downplaying the visuals somewhat. She gave a look of what I mistakenly took to be understanding until she led me to what appeared for all the world to be the ticket counter and left me there. Again, I repeated the charade for a group of bemused young ladies who had no idea what I was about. After I rejected the ticket they pushing in my direction, three of them huddled in conversation for a long time before one of them turned back to me, beaming. You, she said, finger pointing to the ceiling, are an actor! Her smile froze. Apparently that was the end of the line as far as she was concerned.

Heading back towards the guard and the lady at the desk, I noticed one of my colleagues, who appeared to be taking the first steps down the same rode I had started off on, now some forty minutes ago. The presence of two babbling foreigners in the lobby was enough to spur somebody to action. We were eventually taken to a room where my colleague spoke to somebody on the phone and I handed over my passport (?), which was returned along with a pink slip of paper. Whatever was written on the paper proved to be pure gold, because the formerly recalcitrant guard waved us through without another look. All that remained was the metal detector, a frisking, and a couple more locked doors that could only be opened by the person whose job it was to open them, but we were on our way!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part six

Shanghaied...

If someone on the street in Shanghai offers to take you to a tea ceremony or an art gallery, my advice would be to respectfully decline, that is if you value the contents of your pocket book. Unfortunately, anybody who wants to ‘practice English’ is probably up to no good. Having made a brutally honest assessment of my appeal to members of either sex, I have to conclude the countless offers for more personal sorts of attention attracted while walking alone were nefarious as well.

Another depressing fact: the 300 kph (!) train ride from the airport is more than 10x faster than the creaky, lurching transit system in my hometown.

Tuesday, February 10

Breakfast: thank heaven for the in-room coffee maker! Another rehearsal this morning, devoted to Bruckner and Haydn. Graciously acknowledging the presence of many Shanghai musicians and students, Haitink changed his usual rehearsal routine and offered up a read-through of the Bruckner 7 Finale before hitting the same old spots again.

Wednesday, February 11

More free in-room coffee to start the day! Freedom until the short pre-concert rehearsal of Mahler 6.

Drivers in Shanghai are pretty well insane as far as I can tell. Two-wheeled vehicles, motorized or not, seem to be exempt from obeying traffic signals altogether. To a four-wheeler, a red light is merely a suggestion that may be nullified by sounding the horn and flooring it. Pedestrians, like ninepins, are best knocked over in groups. In fact, watching people cross the street proved enlightening.

From a huddled mass of pedestrians waiting to cross a street somebody begins by making a leap of faith and steps bravely, maybe foolishly, in front of oncoming traffic. It could be anybody, and not always the one you would expect to grasp the mantle of leader – the little old lady who just about spat on my shoe a moment earlier, the twenty-something guy on his cell phone who doesn’t seem to be paying attention to anything at all. The important thing is that somebody gets their foot out in front of the onrushing cars first, then safety in numbers takes over and everybody else seizes the moment by piling across. Even if a few are crushed, the odds of any one person making it are increased. The similarity to playing in a string section is truly uncanny.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part five

Cursed!


Friday, February 6

Hong Kong. Breakfast of fruit in my room, compliments of the hotel. Afterwards, another rehearsal 11 – 1 devoted to Mozart and Strauss. Same passages covered as at previous rehearsal in Tokyo. On my way out the door after finishing, I glance at my watch. It’s 11:23. There were some warnings about the acoustics at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. It’s sort of a smallish place and the sound was not too clear, although I’m not convinced we did our best to adjust our playing to the room. There is no backstage there to speak of, so much of our stuff had to be stored at the hotel, which was a bit of a drag.

After the brief rehearsal, while soaking up some of the nice warm sunny weather, a man in a turban approached me, introduced himself as a ‘Yogi from India’ and began telling me I had a lucky face, along with a number of other insightful observations about my personality – all of them way, way off. This shifty-eyed gentleman was impossible to get rid of, and I waited for the moment he would try and pick my pocket while he read my palm, where he failed to notice I have unusual markings that get most palm readers attention right away. Next, he gave me a small folded up piece of paper to hold in my fist while he asked me for a number between 1 and 5 along with the name of a flower. I’m still kicking myself for picking the obvious – 3 and Rose – but was still pretty impressed when I unfolded the paper and, sure enough, it hade 3/Rose scribbled on it. He then asked for 300 Hong Kong dollars (about 40 US) and warned it might be unlucky for me if I didn’t pay up. Not noticing any accomplice around, I felt confident in giving him only 10 HKD (about 1.20 US), already kicking myself for making such obvious choices but acknowledging a nice magic trick on his part. At that point the mood turned a bit ugly and he demanded more money. When I refused, he cursed me (literally: “I curse you!”) and walked off muttering probably much worse in Hindi.

Saturday, February 7

Breakfast of coffee at Starbuck’s. (They have them here too!) Nothing scheduled until the evening when we had a 45 minute rehearsal, 90 minutes before a 90-minute performance of Mahler 6.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part four

Breakfast of Champions

Tuesday, February 3

Today, the titular breakfast – diet coke and a handful of aspirin before heading off to rehearsal, already the fifth one of the tour. Haitink certainly love to rehearse! Today the task at hand was the Bruckner 7th, which for me is kind of like a trip to the dentist – in the wrong hands truly painful, and even with the most skilled practitioner avoiding discomfort becomes an end in itself. Kudos to Haitink for scraping off some of the tartar.

Wednesday, February 4

Breakfast at Starbuck’s again and another one of those, creamy, dreamy sandwiches. Today I ate in Shibuya, at the famous Starbuck’s overlooking the intersection where every time the light changes about ten thousand people swarm across.

In the evening, another one of those little rehearsals, 5:30 - 6:15 before a 7 PM concert of Mozart 41 and Heldenleben. There’s a pattern forming to the way we rehearse Heldenleben – start at the beginning, then jump to (oops, forgot the number, 15?) the cackling woodwind passage, then check the offstage trumpets (flawless again!) and end with, well, the end. For those not playing Mozart, enough time for a nap before the performance.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part three

Coffee and Fish

Sunday, February 1

Breakfast at Starbuck’s again today, coffee and a sandwich with a deliciously creamy but unidentifiable filling – tasted vaguely like tuna, which is hardly reassuring.

Rehearsal and concert of Mahler 6 today at Suntory Hall, mercifully in walking distance from the hotel. I found the experience of playing Suntory much better than Minato Mirai – easier to hear the inner voices and not at all muddy. Rehearsal was scheduled from 11- 1:30, but Haitink wisely called an audible and let us out early, so there was time for a quick lunch and a quick nap before the concert at 4.


Monday, February 2

Due to excessive sake tasting Sunday night, I’m in no mood for breakfast today. Technically, if breakfast is the first thing I ate, I have to include the large quantity of kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi eaten at about 2 PM. The rest of the day was ‘off’ in every sense of the word.

(Internet service is getting more and more expensive so I am growing more creative trying to find free wireless. This post courtesy of Mr Default, resident of Hong Kong.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part two

Saturday, January 31

The first post veered way off topic, I’m afraid. I’ll try and stick to the subject matter at hand – a group of Americans flying g to Japan and China to play German and Austrian music under a conductor from the Netherlands.

Breakfast today – Grande Latte at Starbucks. Returning to the Hotel, I stopped in the lobby to glance at the bulletin board set up for orchestra members and noted about half of the space was dedicated to breakfast in one way or another. I wonder if any Japanese folks curious about what is going on have had a peek at our board (it’s hard to avoid if you come in the front door, actually) and wondered if the Culinary Society of Ohio might be in town, with the primary mission of tasting the breakfast options available and an auxiliary function of putting on a few concerts.

Haitink is pretty adamant about wanting a lot of rehearsals on tour – more than we are used to. Today we had one of these ‘acoustic’ (or sound-check, or warm-up) rehearsals from 4:30 – 5:15 before the 6 PM concert in Yokohama. I’m not convinced we needed to do that since we spent the day before rehearsing there. For those playing the entire program (Mozart 41, Strauss Ein Heldenleben) 45 minutes seemed too short to get a square meal in a strange land, and those of us only playing Heldenleben had two hours to wander aimlessly around the Minato Mirai complex. Despite those minor annoyances, the concert was a smashing success.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Blog of the tour – part one

Order of Lenin, hold the Mayo

The last time the orchestra came to Japan I flew with the group and found myself assigned to a uncomfortable center seat beside two of my more talkative colleagues. About eight hours into a thirteen hour flight, when my interest in the shoes sizes of offspring, what was eaten for lunch on certain day, the cost of various consumer items and so on and so forth reached its nadir, I began hatching a bold plan about what to do should I ever be called upon to return to the land of the rising sun. Hardly worth mentioning now, at the time it seemed entirely reasonable to chart an overland journey across Canadian provinces, the frozen tundra of Alaska, fording the Bering Strait, before island hoping my way down out of Siberia, eventually arriving comfortably by bullet train at Tokyo station, twenty two months late. Eventually it struck me that what I ought to do is simply book myself on a different flight, so that’s what I did.

There are a few ‘jetlag days’ at the beginning of a tour, free of rehearsals or concerts, sorely needed to get over the time change. Things really began on Friday, January 29.

Breakfast came in two installments today. 7:30 AM, coffee at the Dotour coffee shop in the Shibuya train station. Later, the ‘Breakfast Set’ at Cafe de Crié in the Minato Mirai complex, consisting of coffee, toast, and some of the strangest scrambled eggs encountered to date – at least I hope they were eggs – served with lettuce tomato and a large blob of mayonnaise (!). After such an auspicious start, the two rehearsals at Minato Mirai Hall could not but go swimmingly. The acoustic, like most places, is more resonant than we are accustomed to, so ther was some sorting out to do. Haitink mentioned the jet lag and gave the orchestra a compliment – something to the effect that we could probably wake up in the middle of the night in Siberia and still play well – and I thought, to be honest, we’ve already done that. Back in 1990 (or was it ’91?) when we toured the Soviet Union, we made a recording of the Bruckner eighth symphony in (then) Leningrad the day after arriving. I recall waking up during the slow (actually in that symphony, the slowest) movement, realizing I had been playing in my sleep for an undetermined length of time. I have no idea if that is a good recording or not. If so, everybody involved should probably be awarded the Order of Lenin.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The passage of our most dread Sovereign

A good week to think about new and better leadership.

Riccardo Muti taking the podium the week after Dudamel gave audience and orchestra a good chance to compare and see if ours is greater than theirs, so to speak. They were both quite good, actually.

Muti stayed on focus through all the hoopla surrounding his brief 3-concert run here. As a result, the Verdi Requiem hasn’t sounded better, at least not in this zip code. In the wrong hands the piece all to easily turns into a lurid sort of Opera buffa for the dearly departed. Perhaps disappointing a few, Muti took some of the John Philip Sousa out of the Requiem and restored a much-needed degree of sobriety. He had our long-suffering chorus in fine form as well.

As before, the Maestro proved capable of making his mark in a gracious and even entertaining manner. In rehearsal, anecdotes, jokes, and various other remarks can easily bore or infuriate an orchestra when handled ineptly. In this case they mostly served to focus attention on the task at hand rather than distract. Throughout the week Muti seemed aware that in addition to putting together an excellent performance of the Verdi, it might be in his interest to develop a good working relationship with the orchestra. As obvious as that sounds, not all Maestros tend to proceed in such a way.

All in all, a good start for a new era.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dudamel

Last week Gustavo Dudamel made his 2nd, 3rd or 4th appearance here. I’m a bit foggy on the number because before last week I’ve managed to be off every time he came to town.

Some conductors are better in theory than in practice but Dudamel mostly delivered the goods and managed to live up to the hype preceding his arrival. Sold-out houses, in spite of some horrible weather, were also very encouraging to see.

Dudamel accomplished the unlikely feat of attracting the rapt attention of both audience and orchestra alike, with only a few of the usual exceptions among the latter. There was some debate as to whether his long drawn-out pose at the end of the Barber Adagio might have been over the top, but not all conductors have sufficient cachet with the audience to prevent the loutish, premature applause that so often mars the endings of quiet pieces. If you’ve got it flaunt it, I guess. And considering how often in this business greatness and self-indulgence find each other locked in an unbreakable embrace, I consider a little of it entirely forgivable.

We used to have another conductor around here from South America – name escapes me – and there were a few times during the week when Dudamel reminded me strongly of that other Maestro. Dudamel’s Brahms was not always to my taste, however he proved very capable of getting what he wanted from the orchestra and it was quite enjoyable doing things a little differently – even getting what you want all the time can become disagreeable. His manner and the resulting fine performances he got out of the orchestra made a strong case for the argument that putting forth ideas in an agreeable manner might be a more efficient way of doing things.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

More of the Same for 2009?

Well, not entirely. First, a couple New Year’s resolutions.

This year, I will try and be more responsive to emailed questions. I get a fair number of those and although I have read them all, chuckled or gnashed my teeth where appropriate, I acknowledge being pretty lousy about answering them. I will try and respond to comments posted on the blog as well. However, if you have a question you really want answered by me – for what that is worth – better to email it. I may even paste it into the blog and use it for a post – god knows I’m running short on material. Let me know if you don’t want that to happen. Speaking of the deity, please don’t send me quotes from the Bible, or any other religious tome for that matter, I have no idea what to do with those. I will also try and post more regularly. A few readers commented on the boring posts listing rehearsal times, etc. – and those were for the most part people who didn’t even have to attend the boring rehearsals in question – so I don’t think I will be returning to that format. However, I will try and keep fans of the world’s 5th greatest orchestra abreast of what is going on here.