Bass Blog

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

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Friday, April 23, 2010

A Random Post


Pleasant conductors are all alike; Every insufferable conductor is insufferable in his own way.

My apologies to Tolstoy, but that is certainly how it seems when I'm sitting through an interminable rehearsal under an insufferable maestro. As time rolls along, I find myself more often preoccupied with the bad and not noticing the good, especially when dealing with conductors, where it has gotten so that the maestro who can avoid irritating me one way or another is like the thumb-tack I didn't step on – completely unremarkable. It sure feels as if I've been pulling a lot of tacks out of my toes lately.

What I really wanted to write about is obliquely related and amounts to little more than a few random thoughts I wish someone better equipped than I would expand upon.

Several weeks ago now we played concerts with Mitsuko Uchida, who led two Mozart piano concertos from the keyboard. Also on the program was the Mozart Divertimento in F major for strings, which we played sans conductor. The piece is such a part of the gigging musicians' repertoire – weddings, receptions, etc. - I'm not sure I ever played it fully sober before.

Playing without a conductor is kind of like taking the training wheels off your bike. At one point in time it seems a dangerous impossibility. Later, with the training wheels rusting in the corner of the garage you realize they have gone from an object of shame to the subject of a harmless and wistful nostalgia. The history of the orchestra is something like that, only in reverse.

The really interesting experience was not performing, but rehearsing without conductor. Many of us string players are so conditioned to our place in the chain of command that when the shackles finally come off, it feels very odd indeed. I imagine any group situation where the normally rigid structure is suddenly removed ends up with the same set of issues. The majority, having strongly conditioned inhibitions, take no action. A few brave souls participate in decision making. Those lacking a healthy amount of inhibitions seize the opportunity for inappropriate displays of personal aggrandizement.

Someone with no firsthand knowledge of the classical music business recently asked me how much discussion about the music making went on at a typical rehearsal. His surprise at the answer (none) got me to thinking that the layperson doesn't have much knowledge of the process of making music in an orchestra, where the decisions tend to flow in one direction only. There is a fairly prevalent misconception that the music business is some bastion of freedom.

The random thoughts I had came in the form of a wish that somebody would write a book about the history of the orchestra, comparing it to the political systems developing simultaneously, and also relating all that with developing concepts of individuality and freedom. If anybody is up to that (or if something like that is already extant) let me know. I'd gladly fork over about $5 for the paperback.

Before the emergence of the institutions of maestro and orchestra as we know them today, the music business was under the church and the nobility, hardly bastions of freedom themselves. I'm interested in the connection between the rise of concepts like liberty and equality alongside the rise of the orchestra, with the conductor as leader. Another interesting relationship is the development of romanticism and the accompanying ideas of personal freedom of expression and the ways this was reflected in the increasing size and regimentation within the orchestra itself, almost as if at the moment when the music itself music began to represent an ideal of freedom, the means of production (if you will) became more tightly controlled, compartmentalized areas of local authority – section leaders, assistants and the rest of the hierarchy within the group – with authority flowing in a one way direction only, down from above. I'm pretty fascinated by the symbolism implied by the orchestra as a social structure. Sometimes I worry that we are perpetuating some unhealthy ideas, particularly with what I see as a troublesome relationship to authority in the art form and the profession surrounding it. We are probably championing the industrial revolution more than the enlightenment by preserving the 19th century orchestra in all its glory.

I certainly don't see the era before the modern orchestra as some sort of utopia for musicians. When Lully had his unfortunate accident, I'm sure there was some bitter, scowling cellist, the sort of fellow who would be perfectly at home in the modern orchestra, muttering “Good riddance!”

As much as musicians might chafe under the centralized authority emanating from the podium and radiating downward through various 'titled' players within the group, when given the chance at self governance, the structures rise up in depressing resemblance to the centralized authority of the orchestra itself. The tendencies toward centralization and authoritarianism seem to be deeply ingrained, perhaps inevitable byproducts of our work.

The bass section of our orchestra is going through something of a social experiment at the moment, with our principal player on an extended leave of absence. Since we have no assistant principal to step in and fill the post, the rest of us are sharing the leadership duties, such as they are. When the situation was first announced, I blush to admit to having some utopian, egalitarian, and dare I say even socialistic fantasies about the possibilities of what we might accomplish, demonstrating to the world, or at least the very tiny portion of it that might pay any attention at all to a group of bass players, how we might function outside traditional ideas of authority and subordination . Needless to say, my idealism has taken a pretty severe beating as a result.

Watching public television one Sunday afternoon long ago, I remember a classic old silent film, something about a peasant revolution,. The film's depressing denouement has been on my my a lot lately. After the heroic storming of the palace, a small group of peasants find themselves in the empty throne room, the scene of a hastily abandoned banquet and the narrow escape of the royal person. With no idea what to do next, the peasants descend into anarchy and debauchery. As the screen dims, a pair of simpletons roll on the floor, struggling over some shiny but useless bauble while others gorge themselves on the royal leftovers. In another corner, a Rasputin-like character combs his filthy beard with the queen's jewel encrusted comb. A couple of wily individuals, with some some inkling of what power is all about, sneak away with the keys to the armory.