Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Great Men of Music

My fingers are crossed for the success of this visit by our music director. I don't want to jinx anything by even thinking the wrong sorts of thoughts, so I'll write about something else for now.

Over the past month or so we have been host to some venerable maestros. The floorboards have been groaning under the collective gravitas of these great men of music. Some of the concerts have been pretty good too.

Choral icon Helmuth Rilling led enjoyable performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah in front of thousands of rabid choir directors here for a convention, and for whom the esteemed German maestro could do no wrong. In fact, I think to many of those conventioneers, the instrumentalists were something of a nuisance, or at best, a necessary evil. Of the school I've had passing acquaintance with in the early music world, Rilling seemed used to an instrumental ensemble prepared to fend for itself while he tended to the needs of the chorus. For the most part, we were content to sit off in a corner and play nicely with our toys while the singers did their thing. My memory might be failing me, but this kind of blockbuster choral concert used to be a more frequent occurrence around here. Perhaps they are too tired from the Christmas shows to do more.

Whatever else he brings, Charles Dutoit always seems to pack his suitcase with plenty of excitement when he comes to town. Although this time I wonder if he left his bag unattended for a moment and somebody slipped in a couple of strange items, namely The Enigma Variations, and Sibelius Suite from Karelia, both of which seemed at odds with his francophilic tendencies. This iteration of the Elgar brought to mind the master French chef who holds his nose and whips up a shepherd's pie merely to show how truly awful food from across the channel is.

The Elgar also served as subject matter for another Beyond the Score presentation. Since one of my colleagues all but dared me to write about it, I have to confess to being thoroughly engrossed listening to stories about the dog who jumped into the water, the man who slammed the door on his way out, the sudden thunderstorm, and the lady who took a boat ride (or did she...?!)

Dutoit stayed for another week to lead us in Petrushka, along with the Grieg piano concerto and the aforementioned Suite from Karelia, bringing some elan to the Stravinsky, reminiscent of nail-biters from the Solti era, with 'excitement' as the byproduct of a spasmodic modal expressivity, and the hyperbolic extraneosity of gestural vectors emanating from the vicinity of the podium. Anyone scratching their head trying to follow that last sentence has taken the first small step on the road to empathizing with the occasional plight of an orchestral musician.

The Grieg piano concerto brought to mind an egregious omission from my previous post on the subject of memorable outbursts from the audience. To set the scene: a number of years ago (more than 10?). On the podium, a conductor nicknamed 'Santa' (as in Claus). At the piano, the son of a Russian dissident. After a lackluster performance of the Grieg, from the balcony came lusty booing from a single, very agitated audience member, followed by confetti as torn pages from a program book were tossed in the air. My eagle-eyed stand partner identified one of our local critics as the perpetrator. How that slipped my mind, I have no idea.

Bringing Bruckner 4 to our concert hall is like showing up at a party with a bottle of wine only to discover your hosts have a case of it under the back stairs. But we are always ready to uncork another Bruckner Symphony, no matter how many times we've had it before. With a reputation for testiness preceding him, Kurt Masur's mostly gentlemanly demeanor came as something of a pleasant surprise. Although, noticeably less chipper than the last time I saw him, it is hard to say if the bonhomie was intentional or a side affect of advancing age. His getup – concert attire in name only, since it was a a concert and that was what he was wearing – goes down as one of the most talked about outfits we have seen in quite some time.

Conductors who try and foist a sense 'drama' onto Bruckner often end up highlighting some of the idiocy in the music, or in themselves. Masur managed to find the grandeur of the thing without becoming ponderous, the lightness without it becoming an embarrassingly unfunny joke, which is a pretty fine line to tread. Kudos to him. Somebody remarked that if he (Masur) didn't understand the piece, nobody would. I guess if coming to a deep appreciation of Bruckner is another byproduct of the aging process, I'll hold hold out for a deathbed conversion.

6 comments:

nocynic said...

I'm still a few years short of my AARP card, and I have loved Bruckner for years. The party line is that the strings are stuck with endless tremolos, but I am always struck by his beautifully wrought and satisfying part-writing. Masur got the right sound for the work, and that is more than half the battle. The movements that always trouble me are the scherzos. You play a complete sonata-allegro movement--expo, development, recap. And then after the trio you play exactly the same thing again. Everything happens six times. Even Beethoven generations earlier figured out that you're better off varying the da capo.
And, of course, he couldn't write a transition to save his life. Oh well, nobody's perfect. Wagner couldn't tell a joke, and Mozart never wrote a decent tuba part.

Michael Hovnanian said...

I think you forgot about part of the Mozart Requiem:

Tuba, mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Michael Hovnanian said...

AARP is open to anyone 50 and over, BTW...

Michael said...

What's so special about Masur's concert attire?

Brad said...

I know I was surprised to see Maestro Masur come out on stage wearing a baggy, light brown jacket that seemed almost like a tarp was draped over him. It was unusual and pretty casual looking, but I almost forgot after being so caught up in his fascinating and majestic account of Bruckner 4. Something that struck me throughout the performance was how Masur had somehow transformed the sound of the orchestra. I love its characteristically bold and virtuosic style, but it was really interesting hearing on this occasion such a completely mellow, blended sound from top to bottom. It was like a different orchestra was on stage.

Andrew Patner said...

Re the Grieg night: {blush}.