Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Food for Thought

Sometimes, if you choose the right right concerts for a leave of absence they come with a bonanza of time off. Such was the case for me in January when I took a leave for the two concerts in New York and ended up with three weeks off. Months ago a local chamber group invited me to play with them and I jumped at the chance to be a big fish in Highland Park Illinois rather than just another krill in New York. Of course I ended up missing out on much of the hoopla, ceremony and pageantry surrounding the eighty-fifth birthday of Maestro Boulez, which was too bad, because I really am fond of him. I'll do my best to stick around for his hundred and seventieth, which might be the year I finally qualify for a full pension anyway.

So instead of touring to New York, I stayed home and played some bass music, including the Rossini Duetto for cello and double bass, a silly but charming piece of fluff, if there ever was one – in the double bass repertoire there are plenty, by the way. For me, there is link burned into my brain between Boulez and silly bass music anyway and I found myself recalling it as my own personal tribute to the great Maestro.

Once upon a time there used to be a telethon to support the symphony. It might have even been called a 'symphony-thon'. I'm not sure if that still goes on or not. Orchestra players used to be welcome to sign up for slots to perform live on the radio during this event but I think after a while somebody wised up and decided to keep actual musicians as far away from the microphones as possible. However, while it was still in vogue, I signed up to play a piece by the legendary bassists/composer Giovanni Bottesini, whose operatic, showy salon music has to be about as un-Boulezian as you can get.

When the 'on-air' light went on and I put bow to string I was dismayed to hear the pitch of my instrument had dropped about an octave and a half – the wheel of my bridge adjuster had stripped on one side and collapsed. Fortunately, the president of our organization at the time was an old radio man and he provided a nice ad lib as I screwed the thing back up to pitch, but with no assurance it was going to hold. As I played Bottesini's Sonnabula Fantasy I was really sweating bullets, wondering if my bridge was going to blow out again in the middle of the performance. I kept my eye firmly planted on it, as if that would stave off disaster. With a great sense of relief I made it through to the final flourish, not once having taken my eyes off the faulty bridge foot and so completely unaware that during my performance of that very silly piece, Maestro Boulez had arrived to do an interview and was standing about three feet away. I have no idea how long he had to suffer through what I was playing, but from the look on his face I could tell it was longer than he had wished. He looked like a man who had just been ceremoniously handed a dead fish, a polite man trying to maintain a veneer of graciousness over a deep inner revulsion. From that moment onward my affection for him has not wavered.

[To learn more about Bottesini, I urge all readers to visit this site: http://bottesini.com/alife/ ]

9 comments:

max said...

No doubt, in Pierre's teleological Whig overview of music history, Bottesini is beneath contempt. Of course if you could somehow quantify the pleasure the music of Boulez has given listeners vs. that the music of Bottesini has given, the 19th century Italian bass virtuoso would win in a rout. But giving pleasure...teleological Whig "modernists" like Boulez don't care about that stuff.

Steven said...

Don't be too sure, Max. As the recent CSO and MusicNow concerts have shown, many of us get great pleasure from Boulez the composer and Boulez the conductor. The recent Firebird was sensational even with non-pleasurable horn and out of tune viola solos. I really get no pleasure from hearing things that are solely "pleasurable," although it is probably easier doing things one understands.

davidroyko said...

The WFMT Symphonython (or Radiothon or Raise-cash-othon) still happens, but 2008 was the last year the orchestra issued a "From the Archives" set of CDs. That's a big loss, IMO. (I've indexed the complete contents of the 22-volume run on my website -- not sure if this comments section allows weblinks, so just google my name and Chicago Symphony if you want to take a look). I liked the From the Archives sets because I always liked the sound WFMT produced for the broadcasts. The new producers (from NPR) have come up with great sound, maybe fuller than what WFMT got, but what the orchestra actually sounds like in the hall is what I hear on the WFMT-produced broadcasts. And having been in the hall countless times, that's what I like to hear. David Royko

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks for the info.

Marc said...

Actually, NPR does not have any producers involved in the music portion of the broadcasts, but they handle the spoken aspects of them. Chris Willis engineers and produces the orchestral performances for the CSO/WFMT, and the "great sound" of the broadcasts Royko mentions is entirely his doing.

davidroyko said...

Was he engineering the broadcasts prior to the recent (NPR-involved) years? It wouldn't be the first time my aural memory has deceived me, but the recent broadcasts seem to have a different character than the pre-2000 productions. Could also be the same crew with a different "mission." The same engineer will (or can) come up with different sound for different bosses (ie Rudy van Gelder's recordings for Blue Note as opposed to Prestige, Riverside, etc.).

tlr989 said...

I know with European orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic bridge adjusters aren't used at all with the players instruments. What are your thoughts about just not using bridge adjusters?

Michael Hovnanian said...

I always thought the benefits far outweighed the small difference in sound. Someone did a study once upon a time, and I believe they found the adjusters were not a big deal.

Michael Hovnanian said...
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