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)