Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Greatest of All Time

{Not to ignore the elephant in the room, I join my colleagues in wishing for our music director's good health and speedy recovery. The desire to seek an explanation, or at least, information about what happened, while quintessentially human, does nothing to ameliorate the situation, although it may satisfy our own desires for immediate resolution. At the moment, compassion for someone who has suffered misfortune, or at very least the right to privacy, might be the most appropriate response.}

Last week, I played an awful lot of Mozart, at the {redacted}SO and with Ars Viva. Two different people reminded me his birthday was coming up (on January 27th) but I forgot, and so enjoyed the sensation of being surprised by the same news twice.

Some years ago, overcoming what had been a longstanding aversion, I broke down and attended a double bass convention in a distant city. While there, I encountered a colleague who specialized in music of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Elements of our discussion have remained with me over the years, even though as a naïve first-time conventioneer, I had yet to fully realize the primary function of such events, to facilitate marketing and commerce, and the thinly veiled motive behind our conversation was to get me to buy some sheet music. Nevertheless, the gist of what he had to say – very briefly, that our fixation with only performing and listening to the 'greatest' works by the 'greatest' composers does a disservice to listeners and performers alike – has stayed with me ever since, that, and the score to the piece by Franz Anton Hoffmeister I bought from him.

While engaged in this most interesting conversation, we were interrupted by someone bursting in, breathlessly informing us of an impromptu lecture presenting the 'discovery' of the Haydn double bass concerto. As all bassists know, the Haydn concerto has been considered lost for about 200 years, probably ending up lining Mozart's birdcage, or else carelessly tossed aside by some slovenly bassist, a loss felt keenly to this day, a missed opportunity for a marginalized instrument to gain some degree of legitimacy. Looking back, I still cannot decide whether it was in confirmation or in refudiation of the point he had just made, but the mere possibility of a work by Haydn was sufficient to banish thoughts of Hoffmeister back to oblivion and send my colleague dashing off (with me right behind) to hear about this new 'great' addition to the double bass repertoire. Imagine our disappointment then, finding ourselves victims of a bait-and-switch, the lecture really nothing more than a trumped up sales pitch for a new edition of a concerto by Johann Matthias Sperger, the bassist in Haydn's orchestra at Esterhazy. The 'lecturer' seemed genuinely surprised by those in attendance who, being offered Haydn but receiving Sperger, expressed disappointment. “This is not as great as Haydn? No?” is when I remember people starting to walk out. I vowed right then and there never to attend another bass convention.

[n.b. I am actually quite fond of Sperger as a composer of numerous concertos and other pieces for solo double bass. One of my life's major disappointments has to be the failure of the admittedly ill-initialed Sperger Society to more successfully champion his works.]

Last week , between the two orchestras I played with, seven works of Mozart were on offer, all of which I had performed before except the Piano Concert no. 11. Regrettably, I was downsized from that piece – the last player or two in each string section being expendable in the name of 'lightness' or 'transparency' even though, one on a part, the winds continue to play as loudly as before. So it came to pass that I ended up playing nothing but old favorites.

At some point during the week, I tried to recall all of the Mozart Symphonies I had ever performed and could only come up with no.s 1, 25, 29, 35, 36, 39, 40, and 41 off the top of my head (the bottom of my head being buried in the blizzard of '11). There might be a couple of others that, possibly due to some sort of trauma induced amnesia, I can no longer recall having performed, but not many. This interests me because it seems almost impossible to hear or read about Mozart without mention of his untimely demise and, as if somehow related, his prolificacy. When presented with these facts in a pre-concert (or during-the-concert) lecture, audiences usually murmur, or you hear a sigh wash across the auditorium. “So sad...So young...Damned shame, really...” And then you are either told outright, or your mind follows the suggestion on its own, to imagine a world, a world with ten, twenty, thirty, forty more years...of Mozart! What a world that would be! But alas, the world limps on, cruelly denied. The other composer with a birthday last week, Schubert, gets pretty much the same reaction, although, cutting a more pathetic figure, and as yet not the subject of a major motion picture (imagine the box office possibilities of “Peter” ), Schubert probably wins in the sympathy department.

So, there seems to be something askew here. Mozart and Schubert: prolific geniuses who died young, far too young. We wish they had lived longer, written more music. Yet, much of the music they did write (at least in terms of the symphonic) molders on library shelves, unplayed. The late works may indeed be the 'greatest', whatever that means, but is the rest really rubbish by comparison? I wonder if someone at the Ars Viva concert looked at the program book during Mozart Symphony no. 25 (a delightful piece) and harrumphed, “Symphony 25? He wrote 16 more for God's sake! Why aren't they playing number 41?!” And then we move on to the point my fellow bassist-conventioneer made. Are there other composers, other pieces worth hearing? Would hearing them, at least once in a while, give us a better understanding, a perspective on the era, the style, on the supposed 'genius' of the 'great' composers, the 'great' works? I don't presume to know the answers to any of these questions. As a performer, with zero input as to what gets programed anywhere, I feel a certain amount of frustration at the repetitiveness of programming, with the focus on the 'greatest' men and their 'greatest' creations, to the exclusion of all else, and I have an inkling this is somehow related to the growing irrelevance of so-called 'classical' music today.


eric said...

Of semi-relevance, albeit non-sequitur: how about just touching some of those "other composers" for starters. Like...say, if you had an arts festival celebrating (ironically enough) the arts experience of our Cold War-era foe, wouldn't you do something more than just the usual symphony that everyone hears every 18 months down at 220 South?

Back to W.A... his first symphony has some delightful passages and I believe a 3-against-2 rhythm which was quite advanced for a six-year old.

Well wishes to your music director.

tom said...

Thanks for this post.

“…I feel a certain amount of frustration at the repetitiveness of programming, with the focus on the 'greatest' men and their 'greatest' creations, to the exclusion of all else, and I have an inkling this is somehow related to the growing irrelevance of so-called 'classical' music today. “

I share your feelings about highways and byways of the repertoire. I guess your MD does too, judging by his interest in Cherubini. Henry Fogel also had a blog on the topic a few years back.

I think you're right, but the over-reliance on 'greats' is more likely an effect rather than a cause.

Here are some possible causes or maybe other effects, in no particular order –

The iPod has superseded the radio. If all you ever listen to is 'your' music, what chance does the unfamiliar have?

Declining quantity and quality of classical music on the radio. Some of those DJs have been pretty good at illuminating less familiar works.

Declining role of the pre-packaged subscription in selling orchestra concerts. Each concert/program needs to stand on its own in the marketplace, rather than form part of a package of familiar and less so. (I've noticed a 'triage' philosophy that creeps in here and there though. Like, 'attendance will be down during this religious holiday in December anyway, so let's have some fun and play Bartok'.) Will Brahms be considered risky programming in a generation?

Increasing participation of marketing/development practitioners in programming decisions. "I can't sell/find a sponsor for this." is a pretty good reason to go back to the drawing board in an organisation facing deficits.

Careerism on the part of (particularly younger) conductors, soloists and their agents lead them to choose pieces where the heavy lifting has already been done.

Lack of rehearsal time.

Resistance among musicians themselves, both younger ones whose concept of the repertoire is defined by excerpt books, and older ones where it is defined by incremental practise time.

The recording industry, and CDs in particular thrived on a ‘completist’ approach to the repertoire, and some conductors worked especially well in that environment. Neeme Järvi comes to mind. Now that the industry is toast, there’s no need to look at the Tchaikovsky 3rds and Mendelssohn 1sts, let alone Raff, Reger etc.

The changing face of musicology, and its effect on undergraduate courses in Music Appreciation taught to non-music majors. For a college student looking for a easy credit, how can a traditional music appreciation course (say, the way it was taught in the 3rd quarter of the 20th century) compete with ‘Music of Led Zeppelin’, taught by someone with a doctorate in reggae?

A former MD where I work had a good phrase regarding situation you describe and the perilous temptation to ‘escape to the interesting’.

Happily, one can always take the role of consumer and enjoy streaming from the Naxos catalogue, free with a library card where I live.

sjid said...

Typical enlightened programming by progressive music directors includes a composition of new music sandwiched between two war horses, with the new music most often taken from a group of a dozen or so favored living composers in acts of blatant cronyism. The Proms are the source for much innovative programming, as the same works with even the same soloists turn up at your local concert stage two or three years after being showcased at serious music's premier new car show. I am skeptical about whether complex music can be treated fairly from a single hearing, let alone complex contemporary music. There are few Sinfonias out there. This sandwiching practice can turn off as many people as it educates. Not knowing what to expect, I was relieved to see that Muti is more reasonable about expanding our horizons. He started from the first concert with Lelio, an obscurity which appeals in proportion to ones romantic temperament. In the following program he combined a neglected Mozart and a forgotten Haydn symphonies together with the Hollywood revelation Mozart 25 and the Haydn 89, with the intention of showing lines of development as you suggest. Nearly every program from this season includes a thoughtfully chosen neglected work or a new one. He wants to expose us to many deserving works from before 1950 in addition to the predictable modern nourishment. As for Mozart in Chicago this year, it's not so bad: the unknown #23, and the lesser known 34 as well as #25, piano concerto #11, in addition to better known works and some obscure papa Haydn. I find Muti's contemporary choices as creative, with Salonen, Clyne and Bates. Let's give Muti credit for selecting composers-in-residence who really are avant-garde and not from the exclusive club of preferred providers as we find most everywhere else. This week would have been unknown Hindemith, but is now unfamiliar Prokofiev. A closer look at this year's programming will reveal lesser known but relevant works from all periods sandwiched into almost every concert. More of this would probably over-tax the audience. At least this audience, I am not in favor of using live performances to educate because very few ordinary people are capable of getting much from their initial exposure to a difficult composition, no matter when it was written. After hearing so many detractors talking about his conservative disposition, I was pleased to see that for me Muti manages the educational component exceptionally well.

It isn't necessary to present a fresh composition in order to provide a fresh experience. Conductor insight is the greatest asset for inspiring audiences and musicians with any work. Just the quality of playing can lift a standard work out of the ordinary. So many variables, from the orchestra's sound to the conductor's perspective and intensity, contibute to the unique experience of every concert. Imagination applied to the spectrum of choices is what lures us back to hear a favorite composition another time.
Stan Collins

sjid said...


When most of us step into orchestra hall, we step outside our daily routines which don't include much listening or playing. Most of us are no more than merely familiar with the standard repertory. So that piece that is repetitive to you is an occasion for most of us. The problem is not educational as much as it is social. In 19th Century central Europe most people had the kind of musical experience which let them appreciate difficult music and admire musicianship. They could play Beethoven on their pianos and did so as soon as he wrote the music. More recently similar social exposure was found in Russia-the Soviet Union. Conductors and composers were also performers, which is only rarely the case today. For better or worse, governments and politicians were involved. Mayor Daley has been a friend of the arts, but not much more. If anything at all comes from the White House it is at best on the order of Manhattan Transfer. Marching band is the focus of most music programs. Music has suffered from absence of personal experience and from illiteracy at all levels. Now, with orchestral budgets in the tens of millions, marketing takes over in order to just survive. Your orchestra cannot be expected to overcome social dumbing and numbing, even with the inspiration and leadership of Riccardo Muti.

Incidentally, McGegan is doing the Vanhal double bass concerto in St. Louis next month. Maybe you should take him out to dinner in April.
Stan Collins

Lisa Hirsch said...

I've been meaning to comment here for days and days, because it's such a great posting.

Overfocus on the few, the great, means that we lack context for their music. We don't know much about the musical soup those few swam in, unless we're experts in the music of a particular time and place. Who can name composers active in Vienna in the 1880s other than, say, Brahms? But wouldn't we like to know who his competition was?

MK said...

With your new MD, I think you'll get to play quite a few "non-great" works by famous composers and works by composers people have never heard of. ;-) The next season has some positively intriguing programs from that perspective. Also, you can always continue pushing for Neeme Järvi to keep coming back. Seems he always has some oddity in his pocket.

Was "refudiate" an intentional Palinism?

Michael Hovnanian said...

"Was "refudiate" an intentional Palinism?"

Yes! You get the gold star for catching that one. Now that I know people are paying attention, I'll try and put forth a better effort.

The Ghost of Jerry Reed said...

"One of my life's major disappointments has to be the failure of the admittedly ill-initialed Sperger Society to more successfully champion his works:

Spat out my coffee at work reading that gem. Thanks

Michael Hovnanian said...

I hope it wasn't expensive coffee...