Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Evil of Banality

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
GOLIJOV She Was Here
COPLAND Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson
GOLIJOV How Slow The Wind
COPLAND Suite from Appalachian Spring (chamber version)
Robert Spano, Conductor
Jessica Rivera, Soprano

Once while on tour in a German speaking country (well, OK, Germany) we were all invited to a swanky reception, the sort of thing that looked too good to pass up in spite of some nagging doubts on my part. After a circuit of the buffet table, an ordeal in and of itself – I've stopped going to orchestra functions, so I'm not sure if anyone has picked up the torch, but some of those old timers could turn it up a notch or two in the presence of free food – having paid for every moment of hesitation with a friendly blow to the ribs from a member of the violin section, I managed escape with a full plate, grab a drink and secure a seat at an out of the way table. Finally having the chance to examine the bounty I came away with, I discovered everything before me was either creamy, creamed, or cream-colored pablum.

On paper, I'm sure this week's program looked quite interesting and varied, but at least from my seat (and admittedly, not playing the Appalachian Spring) the whole thing came off a bit fiber-less. In spite of the intriguing possibilities offered by the pared-down orchestra, Spano seemed intent on making as few waves as possible with his Schubert Unfinished. Golijov's She Was Here, an arrangement of Schubert songs, came across as some sort of turgid Straussian/John Adams mash-up. True, some of Schubert's harmonies seem to foreshadow late romanticism, and yes, if you turn a half-note into a pulsating series of sixteenths, it sounds like minimalism, but I found myself longing for the simplicity of the originals. The way Schubert did so much with so little makes the long-dead, bespectacled Austrian come off as more the modernist in my ears anyway. As always at these concerts, the wine glass playing was beyond reproach. I wonder what Schubert would have thought about that.

Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson has some classic Coplandesque moments, but otherwise struck me as not his strongest work. It didn't help that I couldn't hear the voice much of the time. Spano seemed almost shy about shushing the orchestra, but I imagine he wants to live to conduct here another day. After the title page, the headers in the bass part to the Copland songs bear the unfortunate abbreviation: Poems of E.D. By then, my mind wandering far from the business at hand, I found myself imagining Bob Dole coming out to do the Lincoln Portrait, getting to the line that often gets a snicker anyway (“when standing erect...”) saying 'ah geez!' and trudging off the stage.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Shameful Truth

My apologies for the dearth of posts recently. For one reason or another. the orchestra hasn't been drawing my interest of late. Last week Charles Dutoit came to town and conducted Shostakovitch 11 (The Year 1905), along with the Rachmaninoff 2nd piano concerto. I generally like what Dutoit does, but something about his antics on the podium bring to mind the lion tamer, or perhaps the matador – something to do with subduing supposedly 'wild' animals anyway. Suffice it to say, we did our beastly best for him.

Some reprehensible offstage antics (nothing to do with Dutoit) evoked 1924 more than 1905 and put a pretty bad spin on the whole week for me.

The rest of this post I imagine will prove interesting only to bassists. The layperson is warned to proceed at the risk of extreme boredom.

* * *
Playing the bass tends to bring to the surface any issues one might have with inferiority. These are often successfully sidestepped at 'bass only' events such as the solo recital or bass ensemble type of concert. On the other hand, in the course of commingling with other musicians the orchestral player gets his or her nose rubbed in it on an almost daily basis.

As mentioned in a previous post, I opted out of the recent orchestra trip to New York to perform with a local chamber group. The Rossini Duetto for violoncello and double bass on that program stands as something of a highpoint in the repertoire of our lowly instrument, the rare case of a brand-name composer going out of his way to feature a musical oddity. Here is an example of the nose rubbing I mentioned earier.

In the opening section of the Rossini Duetto, the cello plays the following bravura passage
answered soon after by the double bass with

The bass part is obviously a simplified version of what the cello played earlier – bravura for dummies I suppose you might call it. Rossini goes out of his way to avoid giving the bass anything in thumb position, something common in orchestral writing of the time, as the dumbing down of the bass part continues throughout the piece. (In case any non bassist has made it to this point the post: 'thumb position' refers to the upper register of the string instruments held vertically, about the place where the neck joins the body of the instrument. The thumb is no longer held behind the neck, but is is brought up onto the strings. Once upon a time some adventurous player must have discovered it was possible to actually use the side of the thumb to depress the string, so it is called thumb position, not thumb-less position.)

One might argue that as the Duetto was written for an amateur player, such simplifications are understandable. More than other instruments, the bass seems to attract the brash, if under-prepared dilettante, the player who, oblivious of his personal shortcomings and those of the instrument he proudly lugs about, ill-advisedly shoulders his way onto the stage as recitalist, ersatz virtuoso, or (horrors) clinician, all while his better trained and justly self-conscious colleagues watch from the wings, cringing. Unfortunately, the amateur for whom the Duetto was written turns out to be the cellist. The bassist, none other than the legendary Dragonetti, was arguably the greatest player of his day, and depending on who you ask, any other day as well.

In fairness to il Drago, his own compositions for the bass are more ambitious. So in that spirit I made my own arrangement of the Duetto, if not fully restoring the dignity of the instrument in the process, at least hoping for some hard-earned respect.

While preparing for the performance, I completely forgot about the tradition of adding a couple of cadenzas to the first movement. The cellist arrived well-prepared, with cadenzas in hand while I had to pull something out of my (uh) hat at the last minute. Here's what I came up with, in the hopes it might prove useful or interesting to anyone finding themselves in a similar predicament.

(N.B. These cadenzas are intended for solo tuning, as is the rest of my arrangement, which is available from Discordia Music.)

between mm. 75 and 76:

between mm. 149 and 150: