Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why do they Laugh?

With Muti now safely through his latest residency and back home, or wherever he went, I can finally exhale, uncross my fingers, and put my voodoo doll and Virgen de Guadalupe back in the closet. The Marcello recording project has hit a slowdown due to scheduling difficulties at the venue. The next installments should begin again in a week or so.

Lately, I've been thinking about audience reactions and behavior during concerts, in part motivated by our Music Director's conspicuous negative responses to distractions from the audience, which seems to have made an unfortunate jump to certain members of the orchestra who feel they have the green light to smirk or scowl in the direction of errant coughers. The ill-timed cough really seems to get our Maestro's ire up, so much so that we stopped and restarted Death and Transfiguration in response to a particularly loud episode of phlegmatic ejection during the first measure. This was by no means precedent setting. During the Solti era, after the collapse of the recording industry, when most of his concerts were converted to live recording sessions, I recall him stopping during a take (previously called a performance) of the Háry János Suite in response to an unfortunately timed cough. Astonishingly, near the very opening of (I believe) Debussy Images, the great Maestro stopped the performance, turned and admonished a paying customer to either be quiet, or get out!

Although somewhat ambivalent, I am almost embarrassed to admit siding with the coughers – to a degree. Expecting a couple thousand people to sit for two hours in absolute silence is probably unreasonable, and from my perspective, a performance isn't 'ruined' by noises indicating the presence of live human beings. Then again, I'm not paying top dollar to sit where I sit, and chances are, I will be playing the piece again anyway, so I can sympathize with the person in the audience who might get peeved hearing a cough instead of their favorite passage on the one night in months they've shelled out hard-earned money to attend a live concert. But my fear is that making the concert hall, already something of a mausoleum, resemble also the domain of the stern, frowning, shushing librarian, won't do much to change our image as an 'elitist' and unwelcoming institution.

Another interesting bit of audience behavior was the reaction to Lélio, where judging by the maestro's expression, both the New York sophisticates as well as the local rubes laughed at inappropriate moments. Quite possibly, modern audiences simply don't identify with the hyperbolic romanticism of Lélio, or worse, find it funny. The WTF? looks Muti threw the orchestra brought to mind a number of similar instances when our former music director, bewildered at an audience reaction to something, would turn to the orchestra and ask, why do they laugh? In many of those instances, I could understand the audience reaction, in that it didn't necessarily surprise me, although I'm not sure I could answer why do they laugh? succinctly, which makes me wonder if there is some sort of cultural difference at work. There are a wide variety of things that make people laugh, many of which have nothing to do with humor. Stress, or nerves, surprise, relief, are all things which can cause laughter. And what makes people in groups laugh is probably even more complex. Another thing to consider might be that in certain demographics, laughter (along with applause) is the only socially acceptable sound an audience member can make. In some instances where laughter seems a puzzling response, I think the audience is so uptight, so unsure of what kind of reaction is permissible, the laughter is triggered by a kind of release of tension when everyone realizes they have 'gotten' something, or an intense emotional moment has passed.

For reasons still unclear to me, I once found myself at a screening of the film The Joy Luck Club at a theater in a part of the city far from where I lived. Even during the coming attractions, it became clear I was in the midst of a boisterous and vocal audience, quite different from the crowd I normally found myself part of when going to the movies. As I remember, The Joy Luck Club is something of an emotional roller-coaster, and the people around me were not at all shy about expressing themselves out loud. The scene couldn't have been farther removed from the symphony, the theater, or even the places I usually went to see movies. My first reaction, annoyance that these noisy people were ruining the film, faded as it became clear the expressions from the audience were not not the sort of cynical observations blurted out by the pimply-faced teenager, immediately looking to his peers for affirmation, rather, they were spontaneous responses to what people were feeling, expressed in a way that actually enhanced the communal aspect of watching a film with a bunch of total strangers. By the end, I wondered what was wrong with me, that my reactions were so muted in comparison to the people around me.

That experience left me wondering about what is expected of an audience member at a so-called 'high culture' event – sitting in the dark, silent, motionless, trying one's best not to become a distraction, praying everyone else does the same – where many of the shared, or communal aspects of the experience have been pared away. In the spectrum of human behavior, if one were able to look at the sum total of how everyone on the planet listened to music, watched live theater, or films, I wonder if the oddballs would be the folks who, listening to some musician's emotional outpouring, watching images of people fornicating or dismembering each other, simply sit there with sticks up their rear-ends, shushing the person in the next row. Some arts organization somewhere (it might have been my own...) had the slogan “...be moved” which I thought should have come with the caveat, “...but don't move!”

Of course, the antics of the cellphone toting boor are execrable, the clueless cougher who makes not the slightest attempt at muffling his outburst is villainously rude, and the inter-movement clapper a cad not even worthy of our contempt. I am not advocating anarchy in the audience, and as I am not a regular audience member, I can't speak from that perspective. However, common courtesy to one's fellows ought to be enough to channel public behavior appropriately. And the courteous person on the receiving end of a discourtesy is supposed to courteously ignore it. Maybe if audiences were a bit less up tight, they would feel more free to express feelings spontaneously and the odd, why do they laugh? reactions would go away. As always, I am very curious to hear what audience members think.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 08

The joke about Vivaldi – that he wrote the same concerto a hundred times – might, at first glance, apply to these six sonatas. On closer inspection, they each reveal their individual characteristics, and none seems more idiosyncratic than the 4th movement of the sonata no. 2. The marking of Andante is unique for this set, and, I think, unusual for one of the 'fast' movements of a Baroque Sonata. But this seems to fit with my feeling that the tempos of the final movements should be somewhat slower than the second movements, which I've arrived at through nothing more (or less, I suppose) than my own intuition and a bunch of listening.

The slurs are also an intriguing feature of this movement. The bass arrangement I have seen most often, and from which I began learning this Sonata, mostly follows the pattern of three notes slurred, three notes separate, which gives an interesting 'three against two' feel. When I first got hold of the facsimile, the slurring was a matter for no small amount of consternation, since I was loath to change the way I had been playing, and the intent of the markings in the source seemed somewhat unclear. I fantasized about confronting the copyist, grabbing him by the lapels and asking why the heck he didn't make the markings a little more clear.

The slurs as marked make for some pretty awkward string crossings and shifts, but after speaking to a cellist, who informed me that although they were pretty unwieldy on the cello as well, he would still try to follow them, I decided to bite the bullet and try as well. As with many things, although I hated those slurs at first, I eventually became very fond of them. They fit with the overall quirkiness of the movement, and as is often the case, trying to impose some sort of false uniformity onto the music is not always the best course.


some examples from the facsimile (scribbled measure numbers, mine):







looked like this in the edition for double bass:




click below to listen


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project 07

The project continues with the 3rd movement, Largo. I'm quite fond of this little movement. It brings to mind a scene of extreme torpor, if that is the right word to describe the feeling one might have on a long, lazy Italian afternoon, with the heat shimmering out over the fields, while you sit in the relative cool beneath a Roman arch, a bottle of wine slowly draining as the day settles towards evening.

I'm not sure if two double basses can bring something like that off, but, hey, I tried.

click below to listen

Sonata no.2 III Largo


Friday, May 06, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project 06

Blame it on Bruckner

Not much to say about this movement. I had a faster tempo in mind, but as the 'recording session' took place immediately after playing a Bruckner Symphony for the fourth day in a row, my fingers were something less than fresh. So, instead of a fast Allegro, I settled for something a bit more more jaunty.

In the bass edition I used until I found the facsimile, the F-sharps in measures 5 and 6 were 'corrected' to F-naturals. By the time I got hold of the facsimile, I was pretty much playing from memory, and so it wasn't until I started to do some layout work for my own edition that I spotted the F-sharp and realized, just in time, I'd been playing a wrong note all along.

This movement has some curious slurs, which I took to be phrasing indications, rather than bowings, coincidentally, in the same measures with the changed accidentals. Mostly, I just didn't feel like slurring those notes, so I didn't.



mm. 5-6, slurs and F-sharps

Also, one passage became inordinately difficult due to the tuning of my lowest string (D, rather than F-sharp, or E) – a small price to pay for getting rid of the 'wolfy' A-string.




a pain to play with a low 'D' string




Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project 05



The Marcello Sonatas have been in the double bass repertoire for quite a while. I'm not sure when the first transcriptions were published, or if all six of the sonatas in this set (opus 2) are available, but I have come across no.s 2, 3, and 6, fairly regularly in the repertoire of junior high and high-school students.

When I began this project, I worked from one of the widely available editions for bass already in my library. After practicing for a while, I remember showing my part to Sonata no.2 to a harpsichordist, who, holding the paper in hand as if it were a wet piece of tissue, informed me there was something 'very wrong' with it before scolding me for not either, 1) finding a better edition, or 2) consulting a more original source. I'm not sure '1' exists (for double bass, at least), and so I went to step '2' and resolved to make my own edition based on an original source.

Slurs, articulations, and dynamics are usually the most suspicious elements when dealing with a modern edition of a baroque piece. Some of the changes are simply an editor trying to bring a measure of consistency to the variations of an old, sometimes hard to read, handwritten manuscript from the 18th century. On top of that, editors sometimes feel the need to 'modernize' the music, adding slurs and articulations that, while common today, were not in use at the time. Beyond that, often dynamics and phrasings, largely absent in original sources, have been added as an aid to the modern performer, perhaps unfamiliar with the style. Another complicating factor is when, as in this case, the piece is also being transcribed for a different instrument, and there are numerous editorial decisions about what is idiomatic.

The edition I am working from for these recordings, and the one upon which I will base my arrangement for bass, to be published at the conclusion of this project, is the London, c. 1732 edition, available in facsimile form. (The title page is above) The edition, while highly legible, seems to contain what at first glance by the modern eye look like numerous inconsistencies and small errors (although there is what appears to be a rather egregious error in the second measure of the first Sonata – see below). As I have had it explained to me by various authorities, the markings (or lack thereof) which may appear curious to our modern eyes have various explanations, from the shaky hand of an underpaid copyist, to the notion that everyone (at that time) would know the correct way to play the music, obviating the need for comprehensive instructions to the performer, and so on. The main thing I've taken away from my investigations into the matter, is not to jump to any sort of conclusion, and it is not always the best idea to impose a false consistency. There will be more to say on the subject, I'm sure, as the project progresses.




My recording of the first movement of Sonata no.2 contains a couple of willful departures from the manuscript that deserve explanation. The first is the addition of the small cadenza in the thirteenth measure. I have no idea if this is the sort of thing that would have been done at the time, or if what I have done is even remotely passable as stylistically acceptable. Chalk that up to rebelliousness, or call it an ornament that got way out of hand. The smaller digression, but the one that provides me with an immense amount of glee, is the low 'B' played as the penultimate note in the continuo. Of course, the cello does not go down to a low 'B' and Marcello wrote no such note. However, since there are so few things the bass can do that the cello cannot, and playing notes below the 16 foot 'C' is one of them, and in many passages with similar figuration, the bass line drops down an octave at just such a place, I decided to be unfaithful at this point.

There is also a more sinister reason for throwing in a note out of the range of the cello, which is the source of my enjoyment. In the course of my career, I have learned much of what I know about baroque music from the fine cellists, bassoonists and keyboardists with whom I have shared continuo duties. With these noble people, I have no quibble. However, there is a certain species of cellist, often found dominating the continuo, towards which I have a degree of animus. I'm speaking of those who have perfected the art of the over-the-shoulder scowl, the barked admonition, the affected air of superiority, those who make unilateral changes in the part and play without once giving thought that there are others playing the same line along with them. To those bad actors, I dedicate this one low note, as a kind of 'up yours' gesture on behalf of any and all bassists who have suffered.

I fiddled around and tried some different EQ setting for this movement, a bit darker, I think.

click below to listen

Marcello Sonata no.2 I Adagio

All of the movements released so fare are here