Bass Blog

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

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Ravinia Week 5

Stop the Planets - I Want to Get Off

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld once did a bit where he wondered what aliens landing on earth would make of dogs and their owners. Seeing members of one species following those of another, picking up their poop and carrying it around in a little bag, which would the aliens consider to be the masters?

The thought crossed my mind the other day while playing The Planets with a click track syncing the live orchestra to a film. While both dog and owner are at least living creatures, the subservience of something alive to something not alive is problematic, at least when considering that the 'live-ness' of the music is supposed to be one of ts most compelling features.

Strangely, the most 'real' imagery from the Planets film was shot by the robots sent to Mars a few years back, actual photographs taken by real cameras as opposed to digital animations. Whether in service of our curiosity or merely our vanity, those machines nevertheless operated at the behest of humankind. With technology at our disposal capable of sending a robot to another planet with enough artificial intelligence to roam around for months taking pictures and doing experiments, I am certain it would be possible to arrange somehow that moving images, digitally created and mechanically reproduced could be made to follow a live performance of The Planets. Technology in the service of, if not humanity, at least art. Making a hundred or so highly skilled performers slaves to a click track in order to sync to a film left us holding the bag, so to speak.

The one more or less normal concert of the week took place on Thursday evening – the Holst, which was paired with the Grieg piano concerto took place on Tuesday – when Gianandrea Noseda lead an all Rachmaninov program. Noseda is an upbeat sort of fellow, although not cloyingly so, and almost in spite of myself I have come to enjoy working with him. It didn't take much to make this a high point in an otherwise lowly week.

After two 'classical' concerts in a row, you could pretty much guess what was in store for Sunday at 5 PM. If a pitcher throws two strikes in a row, right down the middle, you can bet good money the third will be way outside, or in the dirt.

Ann Hampton Calloway has a great voice and probably deserves to have her own show. The same could be said for the orchestra, I suppose. It seems as if the critics are finally noticing that a large, late-romantic sized orchestra, a jazz combo, and the great American songbook don't necessarily go together. Sometimes when 'pop' acts get onstage with us, their slick showbiz antics cause a few eyes to roll. The Sunday show was in no danger of eliciting that sort of reaction as it dipped below even a minimal level of professionalism.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Ravinia Week 4

programming, old school!

A concert featuring an overture, symphony, concerto and virtuoso showpiece, nary a Broadway show-tune in earshot, Teutonic death worship given the week off, sweltering heat, swarming gnats, cannons – this week had it all.

Program A
BARBER Overture to The School for Scandal
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70
INTERMISSION
BARBER Violin Concerto, Op. 14
RAVEL Tzigane
(Joshua Bell, violin)

Program B
BERLIOZ Three Pieces from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17
INTERMISSION
VERDI Overture to Giovanna d'Arco
DVOŘÁK Slavonic Dance No. 2, Op. 72
MENDELSSOHN The Hebrides Overture, Op. 26, “Fingal's Cave”

ROSSINI Overture to William Tell


Program C
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
INTERMISSION
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
TCHAIKOVSKY 1812, Overture solonelle, Op. 49

The brief flashback I had in in the middle of program B took me back to circa 1993. That is until I realized we were playing on a Thursday night and the Pavilion was nearly half empty. The gnats buzzing their way into every exposed orifice might have helped sour my mood on an otherwise enjoyable evening – finally the kind of lighthearted concert one would ideally imagine for a summer audience. Only the lack of an audience seemed to contradict the argument that poor programming leads to sub par attendance. Even the brutal heat wave had dissipated enough to where the temperature could be classified as pleasantly sweltering. If you can't fill seats with Rossini, Verdi, Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Berlioz on as cool an evening as we are likely to see any time soon, then perhaps classical music is doomed after all. Or else there is something horribly wrong somewhere.

To get a job in an orchestra a bass player has to master the Beethoven 5th symphony. It shows up on every audition. I'm sure each instrument has some piece from the repertoire that serves a similar function, but the Beethoven 5th is pretty good because it is also well known to the layperson. So to pass the audition, typically a player has to go up against fifty, one hundred, two hundred others, play the Beethoven 5th, plus a bunch of other, often more difficult things, and somehow come out at the head of the pack. Brutal as it is, the process assures a certain level of quality on stage. I wonder what would happen if the folks selling tickets to concerts went through a similar procedure – get handed a typical program and released onto the streets for half an hour. Anyone who can't sell tickets to the Beethoven 5th is out of the running.

All of the above does not take into account what happened at the Sunday concert, which I can only imagine was overflowing – an all Tchaikovsky concert with cannons is sort of the twinkle-twinkle of of concert programs. Anyhow, a bit of strategery in choosing my concerts off had me sitting this one out. Canons (or ballistics of any type) are on my growing list of things that trigger an almost uncontainable urge to take a night off. I think I have already mentioned some of them – Galas, Benefits, Festive concerts, etc. Leafing through my notes, I identified a few things I've endured over the years which, having dealt with at least once, I feel perfectly comfortable with trying to avoid in the future. Many of these items are perfectly fine and acceptable in and of themselves. It is only their inclusion in a 'classical music' concert that sends me scurrying for the leave request form. So, count me out of any concert featuring:

fireworks
tap dancers
puppets (shadow, marionette, sock, etc.)
alp-horns
ophicleides
animals (trained or feral)
bagpipes
musicologists or historians
trombones
Orcs
Jingling Johnnies
magicians
mentalists
conductors in costumes
smoke
bubbles
dirndl wearing zither players
(zithers)
(dirndls)
flags
confetti
bunting of any kind
mimes
scaffolding
balloons
powdered wigs
ice skaters
former music directors (living)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ravinia Week 03

The week that wasn't

There were two concerts scheduled this week and, as luck would have it, I ended up off both nights.

Having Wednesday night off was not by choice. The Weill and Schrecker program called for a very small orchestra. As I have mentioned before, any concert with 'Gala', 'Special', 'Festive', or other superlative attached immediately goes to the top of my wish list for days off. All of the speechifying, bowing, hugging, and whatnot gives me the willies, so Saturday had a big 'X' through it in my calendar. I suffered a brief pang of regret, looking at the program order and noticing the concert ended with 'Ravel', fearing I might miss out on another extraordinary overtime bonanza until it became apparent 'Ravel' referred to Daphnis and not Bolero. Also, Conlon has much better clock management skills than Eschenbach.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ravinia Week 2

Eschenbach and More Show Tunes

The Sunday concert (I don't know what to call it, is 5 PM afternoon or evening?) seemed like a microcosm of the whole Ravinia experience. A small crowd witnessed an underutilized orchestra swelter through a program of Broadway show music. The most disturbing fact is that may have been the best concert of the week.

If anyone needs help filling out their Ravinia scorecard, my records show the following after two weeks:

Total concerts: 6
Pops concerts: 3 (.500 average)
Concerts with Patti Lupone: 0

Usually all sorts of interesting things happen when Christoph Eschenbach comes to town. One of the more mundane yet annoying is that the rehearsal schedule gets all cockeyed.

Thursday
10-12:30
Brahms Symphony

1:30-4
Dvorak Symphony
Brahms Double

Friday:
2:30-5
Dvorak Symphony
Brahms Symphony
Korngold violin concerto

At first glance the above seems unremarkable, until one realizes that the two Brahms pieces were on the Friday concert, the Dvorak and Korngold on Saturday. Now, not everyone plays every concert, and the seating arrangement changes from night to night, so creating these ungodly rehearsal 'sandwiches' makes for all sorts of pains in all sorts of backsides. I think even with their banks of computers, the personnel office can't keep up with this sort of nonsense. In an effort to limit my exposure to any sort of Eschenbacchanalia, and with the full knowledge that by doing so I might deny myself the fruits of a potential of overtime bonanza, I scheduled a day off for Saturday. On Friday afternoon I sat blissfully under the stage waiting while the orchestra rehearsed Dvorak, unaware of the personnel office calling my home and inquiring as to my whereabouts, causing my wife either undue worry or premature celebration at the thought I might have met either an untimely or long overdue demise en-route to the rehearsal.

The preceding may seem like the most trivial sort of griping, and I will plead guilty to the charge after making a brief statement in defense.

Music is (quite obviously) an art which unfolds in time. A large part of what we concern ourselves with as musicians is (or ought to be) the premeditated and thoughtful placement of elements in time. Am I together with so-and-so? At what rate are we getting faster, slower, louder, softer? Is that pizzicato (ahem) a shade too early? These are our concerns.

It is therefore my contention that this temporal sensitivity makes the poor, sloppy, or thoughtless usage of time all the more irritating. It is telling that the conductors who waste time in rehearsal, end early one day, go too long the next, don't know when rehearsal starts or ends, are often the same fellows who have no sense of how to make a transition, pace a ritardando, and so on, the temporal insensitivity manifesting itself in both macro and the micro mismanagement of time. With that, I rest my case and await sentencing.

On Friday evening, solists Benedetti and Elschenbroich played admirably, avoiding the scylla and charyibdiss of the Brahms double. The piece can very easily lapse into sounding like two cats either fighting or mating, virtually indistinguishable to the untrained ear. As Brahms apparently only wrote three symphonies, it was odd the one we played Friday bore the label #4. The performance took all the usual pratfalls, along with a few extra curves thrown from the podium. In the 3rd movement of the part I was reading from, I noticed the italicized marking gracioso, which gave me a chuckle, as this poor piece always gets the most pugilistic pounding. Perhaps it's the triangle. The last movement, Allegro energico e passionato, began at a promising pace but, reaching the middle section, lapsed into the all-too-familiar dirge funebre.

I can never tell which of the pops shows are going to be well attended. Celebrating her 85th birthday, which has to make her one of the oldest people to appear before our orchestra (not counting those on the podium), Barbara Cook sang to a smallish, Mahler 6th sized crowd. Her elegant stylings were more in evidence when she sang with the combo. Fortunately, the orchestra sat out half her numbers but still managed to collect some overtime by evening's end.

If anyone had given it a moment's thought, they could have put an intermission in that concert, lumped all the orchestral pieces on the first half, dismissed the orchestra altogether and still ended on a high note, all while saving a little money – just sayin.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Ravinia Week 1


Death Marches and Show Tunes

To give credit where it is due, an irate yet erudite colleague who gave me an earful on the way home from the concert on Sunday suggested the title for this post. The first three concerts featured a turgid, steaming slab of Mahler 6, served up between two pretty flimsy slices of Americana. There has been a fair amount of grousing in recent years that the programming at Ravinia has become all about either concentration camps and (perhaps motivated by some fairness doctrine) heavy German fare on the one hand, or show tunes on the other – as if there was nothing worth hearing in between. The programming for week 1 did nothing to dispel that.

Since much of the country suffered the same fate last week, I risk little in the way of betraying the identity of the orchestra I work for by reporting that the weather was beastly hot and humid – over 100 degrees for three days in a row. A tiny crowd braved the heat to watch our 5 PM July 4th show – the first one I can remember doing in about 20 years. The lawn was as devoid of human presence as it had been back in 1776, save for any native Americans who might have wandered by and wondered what the pale-faced idiots were doing out in the midday sun. An onstage thermometer read 95 at the start of the show.

To celebrate America's birthday, Conductor Steven Reineke assembled a frothy mixture of patriotic favorites and (you guessed it) show tunes, inoffensive at least for those willing to concede we have gone from being a nation of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, to one of Williams and Disney. Ashley Brown, known for her portrayal of that most American of heroines, Mary Poppins, sang beautifully and bravely in the fierce heat, particularly the selections from Brigadoon. As I did not read the program notes, I can't say if there was some thematic thread here; the Scots have allegedly been pushing for some form of independence recently.

Jap van Zweden conducted a respectable Mahler 6 on Saturday evening when the temperature was still brutal and the audience only marginally larger than for the Independence Day show. Nothing says summer like 90 minutes of angst in 90 degree heat. The hammer blows in the Finale are always the focus of attention when we play Mahler 6, and dare I say they have become a little bit overexposed. As if making a point to be at odds with the way our orchestra operates downtown, the Ravinia camera crew completely ignored them.

The week closed with another 5 PM show on Sunday. 5 PM still strikes me as an odd time for a concert – when is one supposed to have supper? Marvin Hamlisch presented a laudable first half in conditions that could almost be described as pleasant since the heat wave had broken the night before. He presented a few short selections, peppered with witty banter that showcased impeccable comedic timing, at one point deftly turning the dead microphone he was handed into a running gag. 

For the second half, he took a backseat to Idina Menzel, who like most of the stars of stage and screen that perform with us was completely unknown to me. She seems to have a rabid following of gay men and adolescent girls. Ms Menzel reportedly was under the weather and did not attend the rehearsal. The diva too sick to sing is something of a cliché, but she really did seem to be in some kind of distress, with a cup of herbal tea and various lozenges at the ready during the performance. I haven't seen that much onstage consumption since Pavarotti's now infamous Otello with us a number of years back.

Words and music have a strange relationship. If not used carefully, words have a unique power to crush music – sort of like the surgeon's scalpel, which can either heal or maim. Ms Menzel obviously had a lot to say to her fans, but the incessant ramblings of her monologues between each selection had the effect of sucking the life out of the performance. The true professional, Hamlisch stepped in with some well-timed one-liners, appreciated as much for their wit as for their brevity, but even he seemed to wilt under the verbal barrage. When all was said an done, a concert with about 60 minutes of music dragged on for 2 hours and 40 minutes, the only bright side of which was the two overtime payments due each and every player.

The confluence of professionalism and overtime makes for the perfect segue into week 2 at Ravinia – the return of Christoph Eschenbach.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Blog of the tour, part 05


Viva il puma!

The other day, it struck me as odd that after a trip to Russia (of all places) I'm not supposed to mention what I did upon my return to the good old USA. What a universe we live in... Anyhow, it is probably high time to finish writing about the tour,now that is has been over for more than a week.

The St Petersburg passport officers could learn a thing or two from their counterpart in Rome who didn't stop talking on his phone long enough to open my passport before welcoming me to the country with an impatient flick of the wrist.

As the name suggests, the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome is an opera house. The hall, a typical opera house design, semicircular with box seats stacked to the ceiling, had dry, if not unpleasant acoustics. Perhaps the miles of crushed velvet and brocade had something to do with it. Quite a change from the the two wonderful, if relatively unadorned shoe-box halls in Russia. The president of Italy (Giorgio Napolitano!) himself attended the concert, sitting in a box so gloriously festooned and ornate as to make the royal box at Festival Hall in London look like a Photomat. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Berlusconi, but I understand he is on the outs just now. Combined with my not seeing Putin in Russia, I was 0 for 2 in my search for these famous, controversial strongmen.

On leaving Russia, the orchestra jettisoned Space Odyssey and the Franck Symphony in D minor from the tour repertoire. The concerts in Italy consisted of Death and Transfiguration, Il Gattopardo, Shostakovitch Symphony no. 5, and La forza del destino. Together, those make for a pretty long concert by themselves. The inclusion of speeches and other pageantry insured a hefty overtime payment would be forthcoming at the end of the trip.

Quite a buildup preceded our visit to Naples, hometown of the Maestro. The hall, the pizza, the mozzarella cheese (mentioned several times) were all supposed to be first rate. With expectations raised so high the urge to approach the place with even more than the normal degree of skepticism was impossible to resist. However, Naples turned out to be a wonderful city, irresistible really, on a sunny day off, with picturesque Vesuvius, Pompeii, and the Mediterranean Sea all close at hand.

The Teatro Grande (another Opera Palazzo) by far surpassed the Roman Opera House with its grandiose, almost stupefying magnificence. All of the extra tonnage of velvet draperies and upholstery insured an even drier acoustic than Rome.

Reaction to our performance seemed a bit on the arid side as well. In Rome, the Strauss received a polite ovation compared with Il gattopardo, which delighted the crowd. Shostakovitch 5 and Forza are hard to miss with, and the ovations were appropriately enthusiastic. But the Neapolitan audience reaction was reserved, certainly not the boisterous ovation for the local hero one might have expected. To top it off, the Maestro's end-of-concert remarks were repeatedly interrupted by a female heckler. While I have no idea what she was saying, from her tone of voice I immediately formed the mental image of a lady of a certain age who had to hurry home from the concert to put food out for her 35 cats.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Blog of the tour, part 04

Goodbye to all that.

As mentioned, the hall in Moscow turned out to be a wonderful place to play after all the tripping and slipping on the stairs. St Petersburg also had a magnificent concert hall, although I might not have been in the best spot on the stage to appreciate the acoustics. The earplugs were pushed in so far one of them didn't come out until I sneezed the next morning, if you know what I mean.

As with almost every tour, the public transit infrastructure in Russia made what we have back home look pretty shabby. I imagine if more Americans traveled overseas they might approve increased funding for transportation if only to avoid shame and embarrassment.

However, the St Petersburg airport needs works, and lots of it. One of my colleagues who dropped off his partner earlier in the day warned of a possible cluster-f#ck when our large group arrived. Sure enough, as our buses pulled up the line was already out the door, although that line turned out only to be a sort of preliminary line - a line to get in line. The real bottleneck occurred at passport control. If you imagine the human digestive tract, with however many yards of intestine crammed into the abdominal cavity, you will get an idea of how that line snaked around the all-too-small room. At every bend, a few enterprising, boorish, or clueless people took the opportunity to jump a loop or two ahead. Like any orchestra, we have a deep well of bitchiness and personal outrage to draw upon, but no appeal proved effective at getting the cutters to move back to their place. By my watch, it took about four hours of standing in line to make it through passport control and onto my flight.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Blog of the tour, part 03

Mind the Steps of Central Asia!

One of the problems with touring is that eventually the hilarity stops and you have start rehearsing and playing concerts. The Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory is a wonderful auditorium, provided you can make it to the stage uninjured. The place has some infrastructure shortcomings, not the least of which were the slippery, unevenly spaced stone stairs backstage - I saw two players trip and fall there. But all was forgiven once I took my seat on stage and glanced up at the striking composer portraits. From on high, an illustrious collection of composers kept the on-stage proceedings under stern surveillance. Directly in my field of vision when I looked towards the podium (which is to say, several times) an inscrutable Tchaikovsky appeared to have his gaze fixed on something in the back row of the orchestra. 

As these concerts were some kind of important cultural-political event with the future of Russian-American relations hinging on how well we played, it was only natural the first thing the audience heard were a number of speeches, nearly half an hour of them, truth be told. It may not be well known that, as a rule, musicians (at least this one) detest sitting through pre-concert introductions, welcomes, remarks, presentations, award ceremonies, lectures, explications, words of thanks, praise, sympathy, excuses (so-and-so is not feeling well but has decided to sing anyhow), the unfurling of flags or banners of any type, the viewing of portraits, photographs or sculpture, the bestowal of medals, plaques or trophies, announcements concerning future or past concerts, mention of recordings and other merchandise, reminders about receptions, parties, or vehicles with headlights left on, the wheeling on stage of a giant cake and the singing of 'happy birthday' (I'm looking at you, Costa Mesa!) religious incantations, prayers or evangelizing of any sort, to name but a few of the things I've endured over the years.

Once the music started, the programs (Wednesday: Smirnov, Space Odyssey; Rota, Music from Il Gattopardo; Shostakovich, Symphony no. 5; encore - Verdi, La forza del destino. Thursday, repeated Saturday in St. Petersburg: Smirnov; Strauss, Death and Transfiguration; Frank, Symphony in D minor; Verdi) generally went smoothly, and seemed well received. 

Inclusion of the Smirnov was, according to rumor, something of a political move which made his absence at these concerts all the more puzzling since he had managed to make the trip over to the USA for our concerts. I hope he is feeling OK. At 7 minutes, the evocatively titled Space Odyssey might might be the shortest work to cash in on an association with the ancient Greek wanderer. The program notes back home (sorry, I didn't read the ones in Russian) made no reference to Kubrick, Also sprach Zarathustra or the year 2001.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Blog of the tour, part 02

Red Sauce over Moscow

(Sorry for another fast-food themed post - my last on this trip, I hope)

The first evening left time for little more than a quick jaunt over to Red Square before dark. I wanted to see if the Kremlin had been Disney-ified yet or not. The folks selling matryoshka dolls and other trinkets were at the Kremlin walls but had not breached the perimeter. Red square looked much as it had before, although now crowded with ice-cream cone eating lollygags and (religious?) fanatics screaming through bullhorns it had lost some of its solemnity. Lenin still lies in his tomb, the body of amazing 'peasant-under-glace' apparently immune to the passage of time. My wife will be glad to know they still deny access to anyone with a camera.

With darkness closing in fast, I hurried over to the eternal flame, memorial to the soldiers who died in the Great Patriotic War (aka WW II to us in the west), a moving, human-scaled remembrance, much more effective than the bloated, at once kitschy and sterile monstrosity of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War and Victory Park I was to visit the following day. As the light had failed utterly, I turned to head back to the hotel, whereupon I noticed a structure that had not drawn my attention earlier in my rush to get to the center of the old 'Evil Empire'. The low-slung building seemed to be the top level of some larger underground structure that looked suspiciously like a shopping mall. The businesses visible at street level were (of course) McDonald's, with its royalist sidekick the Burger King tagging along just around the corner, and then another nod to the patriarchy, Sushi King, which I think is a local place, and finally, the ultimate kick in the throat to any dreams of socialist utopia - Sbarro.

Now I have nothing against Sbarro, except that it is terrible. McDonald's, and to a slightly lesser extent, Burger King, one expects to see just about anywhere, especially places where the symbols of rabid consumerism and brand fetishism carry the extra weight of irony. When someday the golden arches rise above the Vatican, it will surprise me not a bit. After all, when one captures Iwo Jima, goes to the moon, or accomplishes some similar feat, it is right and proper to plant the flag, just as it might be expected that, having vanquished another foe, a gladiator would plant a heel squarely on the chest of his fallen victim while raising a fist in triumph. But after having only moments before turned away from the solemn war memorial, I couldn't help but think, 27 million dead, for Sbarro? That's difficult to swallow, no matter how you slice it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Blog of the tour, part 01

Subway!?! No Way!

For me, the tour doesn't begin until the wheels hit the runaway, then I'm back on the clock. The warm, almost balmy Moscow air came as something of a surprise, although the fields still dotted with patches of snow made it seem as if this might have been a recent change in the weather. Still, it was much warmer here in Moscow than where I had come from - how many times do you get to say that?

Subway (the ubiquitous sandwich chain) wins the gold medal for the glaring first sign of 'our' triumph over socialism; It's right there in the Aeroexpress station beside Sheremetyevo Airport. McDonald’s and Starbucks were not behind for the silver and bronze. The half-hour train ride to the city center proved speedy, cheap (about $10) and efficient. Although we may have given them Subway, they are far ahead of us (at least our hometown) when it comes to actual subways, trains, and the like. It seems my colleagues, arriving a day earlier, had a less than optimal experience on buses stuck in Moscow traffic, which makes the train trip all the sweeter.

On account of the fine weather, I decided to walk to the Hotel from Belorusskaya station, about two miles. After about two blocks it was obvious pedestrians were moving much more quickly than the cars. A few odd glances from passers-by made me more than normally self-conscious until it occurred to me that my shirt, emblazoned with "Armenia Ice Hockey" might not have been the optimal choice. The Armenians have had some trouble with their neighbors, or so I hear. Discreetly, I put on another shirt. A few blocks down the road a persistent young scamp, street urchin of the classic mode, waved his cardboard sign in my face, asking for money (I believe) while feebly and ineptly trying to pick my pockets. I didn't feel truly relaxed until I passed through the metal detector into the secure bubble of the hotel lobby.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Farrago by the Lake

When playing with a 'period' instrument group, or otherwise engaging in 'historically informed performance practice' (an earnest if clunky description), one often encounters parts (AKA sheet music) full of very specific markings - dots, dashes, hairpins, and whatnot - added by the conductor, concertmaster, or leader. Of course almost all the parts we play from in the [redacted]SO are marked up in some way, but the 'early music' parts are generally brought in by guest artists, showing their own, sometimes very specific ideas about phrasing and articulation, while the parts brought up from the orchestra library might have layer upon layer of often contradictory markings from previous performances. A good case in point is the part to the Franck Symphony in D minor I'm reading from this week, which is full of non vibrato and other penciled markings that have nothing to do with what Maestro Muti seems to want. From my experience, as a general rule the 'early music' parts tend to have more phrasings marked into them (rather than simply bowings), and those phrasings are more fastidiously unified.

There are often different, sometimes diametrically opposed ideas about phrasing certain passages, and people of good will might not hold the same opinions about them. Unfortunately, in the modern orchestra, rehearsal time is often in shorter supply than good will (depending on what instrument one plays), so one might imagine the practice of placing numerous specific markings in the instrumental parts would have caught on at some point. Yet, the 'period' performer and his set of pre-marked parts is often the subject of scorn, as somehow against spontaneity or expressiveness. The leader who resorts to pencil, or worse yet, language, to convey his intent is regarded as ineffectual, weak, or simply a total bore. The miserable kapellmeister, wire-rimmed spectacles sliding down his nose, pencil clutched in grimy fingerless gloves, who sits by a sputtering wood stove and scratches a mean-spirited diminuendo into twenty violin parts doesn't stand a chance in the world of the reigning maestro, resplendent in tails, hair blown back by the orchestral fortissimo, the dashing hero who can tame a hundred roaring musicians with a simple flick of his baton.

The problem with making conductorial convulsions the source of all musical inspiration is that they are often vague. The other night, my stand partner asked what I thought about the Maestro 'glaring' at us during a certain passage. I thought he had been smiling at that point, and so had aimed my toothiest grin back in the direction of the podium. Needless to say, after the performance I departed the concert hall more quickly than usual, just in case. Paradoxically, much of a conductor's strength comes from that vagueness, in that it binds the musicians more closely to him - the source of confusion simultaneously its only solution. This is something I've been thinking a lot about recently, and will hopefully return to at some point.

However, all of the preceding serves only as a rather long winded introduction to a description of a performance I took part in a number of years ago. To briefly set the scene: Beethoven 4th piano concerto 3rd movement, Rondo, Vivace; conductor, not remembered (someone highly regarded...); soloist (ditto). There is a passage in this movement (m. 57 if you want to look it up in the score) where the piano and orchestra trade one measure of music back and forth, not much more than a chord progression really, one of those fragments, in his genius, Beethoven takes apart and reassembles with ease. The 'melody', if any, is in the left hand of the piano, the violas, cellos and basses in the orchestra.
 






During the rehearsals, nothing was said about this small section of the piece - no time to look in detail at such a small corner, really. In performance, the conductor (not a bad one, if I recall) gave us a cue of much vigor, but weak in its informational content as to how as a player one ought to channel that energy and convert it into phrasing. In my immediate vicinity I heard the following renditions of the passage.





















From my position in the orchestra, I think it is not possible to determine how these interpretations combined in the ears of any particular audience member, if they were more, or less effective than a unified approach might have been, if for instance one of those phrasings had been marked into the parts and more or less followed by every musician. It is possible each and every performer whose interpretations I have notated above walked away from the concert I am recalling with the belief they phrased the passage well, perhaps even as the composer or conductor had wished it done, while all of their individual intentions were blended into the amalgamation reaching the audience, which actually resembled no single one of them. At times it feels as if there is a degree of inefficiency built into such a system, where a certain amount of one's effort is 'wasted', merely serving to counteract its antipode somewhere else on the stage, but perhaps that is the 'price' of freedom.