Bass Blog

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

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Kick in the Crown Jewels


Monday evening had to go down as one of the strangest opening concerts of the Ravinia season I can recall. As the number of concerts we play at our summer 'home' has dwindled over the years, the amount of times I've heard us referred to as the 'Crown Jewel' of the festival (or other similar things) has gone up exponentially – the sort of endearments a guy who wants to continually step out on his wife but is fearful of having her leave him might offer up.

The slightly goofy scenario began with a heartfelt and I have to believe sincere welcome from the chairwoman of the Ravinia board, who seemed to be going out of her way to assure everyone the orchestra was appreciated, welcome, essential, and all that. The line that 'summer does not begin until the {insert orchestra name here} comes to Ravinia' had an interesting counterpoint for me earlier in the day when a neighbor who saw me getting on my bike asked me where I was going. When I mentioned (erroneously, as it turned out) I was going to Ravinia to play the opening concert, she dismissed me with a wave of her hand. 'No way, the festival has been going on for weeks,' she said.

After listening to words of welcome and assurances of our importance to the festival, the smallish orchestra on hand to play the two Chopin piano concertos bravely performed our national anthem (without trombones, the piece seems to represent some lesser vision of our once-great nation). Then we all vacated the stage (which we were told to do 'quickly') to make way for the opening selection of the concert – a solo piano piece. The audience actually laughed at that point, making for sort of a cringe-worthy moment. The second half of the concert began with more solo piano music while the mighty orchestra waited in the wings.

I'm interested to know what readers think about Ravinia – the number of concerts we play there, the days of the week and times we play, as well as the repertoire, soloists, and conductors, or anything else while you are at it. Of particular importance to me is what everyone thinks about the (in my opinion God-awful) white coats we have to wear.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hear the CBE

The Chicago Bass Ensemble will take part in an interesting collaboration with artist Cheri Reif Naselli this Friday, June 25 from 6 to 9 PM at the ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation (832 W. Superior St. #204 Chicago, IL 60622 Phone: 312.733.2787) More information about the performance and the the artist can be found here.

Anyone attending this performance who can prove they are readers of the Bass Blog might receive some sort of prize, or at very least, a hearty 'Thank You' from the author.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The tail-end of the fest

During my student days I once went with a friend to look for a cheap apartment in a sleazy area of Los Angeles. A few minutes in the dingy place were enough to tell us we had no intention of living there. So merely out of politeness we listened while the landlady went through the details of first and last months' rent, when the garbage went out, and so on. With her back to the arch separating the living room from the kitchen, she was completely unaware of the large brown rat, about the size of a small dachshund, nonchalantly strolling across the kitchen floor while she address us. For some reason neither of us called her attention to the creature. In fact, we seemed reluctant to discuss it with each other after we left the place. An uncomfortable silence pervaded the car on the way home until some minutes later when we were crawling along the Santa Monica freeway and my friend and I blurted out in unison, “Holy crap, did you see THAT?!”

The preceding has nothing to do with anything, except perhaps a reflection on the tendency to fail to comment on the rat-in-the room while it is still there – in this case the Beethoven Festival, all of which has disappeared from the archway of the present and is safely in the past as I write this, except for the tail end, two more performances of the mighty 9th Symphony, paired with the not-so-mighty Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The comparison of the Beethoven Fest to a rat crossing room might strike some as untoward, or perhaps a sign of dissatisfaction. Quite to the contrary, I view the rat story as something that turned out well for me. It's not like I ended up living with the rat, after all.

Maestro Haitink has been in excellent form throughout the festival. A while ago, he suffered some sort of back ailment that slowed him down and, to be honest, had me a bit worried for him, but he seems to have bounced back and has been about as spry as I can remember seeing him. I have enjoyed his approach to all of the symphonies – particularly the not-too-slow slow movements (3rd and 6th symphonies most of all).

Another source of pleasure is the new set of parts we are using for these concerts – the Bärenreiter Urtext edition edited by Jonathan Del Mar. It has been enjoyable to observe the composer's markings, which is not the same a playing them, but at least we can see what he wrote. Another good thing about these parts is that the bass part is separate from the cello part. The old set had the two combined. To be honest, I'm not that interested in what the cellos are doing, and I feel pretty good about not having them know what I'm supposed to be playing. Some mysterious bowings have been marked in all of the otherwise brand-new parts, mysterious because since we are without a principal player right now, nobody can really say where they came from. Some of them look cribbed from the old Kalmus parts we've used in the past, which is a pity – sort of like trading in your old clunker for a a shiny new model only to discover the dealer has welded on the used, rusty muffler.

The pre-concert musician announcements exhorting patrons (and I suppose orchestra members) to turn off cellphones and whatnot have changed for the Beethoven festival. Gone are the little bits of humor or witty turns of phrase. I guess it is well known that Beethoven, like all the great classical musicians, had no sense of humor whatsoever and would have approved of our efforts to maintain the solemn dignity of these concerts.

Another change instituted for the festival is the setup of the orchestra, flat on the stage rather than atop the risers we normally use. I'm curious to know what audience members think about it. The orchestra is fairly well divided on the issue. Haitink must like it this way, hence the original request. Also, originally the risers were to be used for the concerts of the 9th Symphony (due to the presence of the chorus, I believe) but after the first week of concerts we learned the idea had been scrapped.

One minor regret is not to have played any of the rarer pieces: Creatures of Prometheus, Christ on the Mount of Olives, hell, Wellington's Victory (never played it). Missa Solemnis (OK, not so rare) would have made an excellent season-ending concert instead of the over-played 9th. Not a big deal though.

All in all, the atmosphere has been, in a word, festive. Audiences seem pretty excited about what is going on, which is always nice to see. My favorite audience member seems to have bought several tickets to these concerts – I'm speaking of the gentleman who yells out something very positive and encouraging at the end, usually a single-word adjective (Beautiful! Powerful! - one of my colleagues dubbed him Thesaurus Rex). Keep up the good work, sir! We'll keep trying our best to earn your praise.