Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Return to Mordor

 
A pattern seems to be evolving at Ravinia; begin the truncated summer session with a week of Christoph von Dohnányi and end with a week of Lord of the Rings. I'm not sure how many years the eighty-three-year-old maestro has left, but now that the LOTR folks have turned The Hobbit into a trilogy of films, we have five more to go. (If they tackle The Silmarillion, I'll probably throw myself under a train. If Ravinia ever makes us play LOTR, the musical, I might self immolate in the parking lot.)
 
Sometimes it feels as if Sauron himself takes a hand in scheduling during the summer season. Nothing whips the Orc-hestra into that deadly combination of boredom and anger like fifteen hours of rehearsal spent going over (and over) two Beethoven Symphonies and two Piano Concertos (3, 3, 4 and 5 – don't ask me which is which; I'm desperately trying to put the whole thing behind me). Dohnányi, who has admirable qualities as a musician, also has a disposition which forces him to leave no turn un-scorned, and makes for some tedious rehearsals. The ensemble really seemed to hit its stride sometime around Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, with three rehearsals yet to go before the opening concert, the finest playing might have been lavished on the fellows cutting the grass or zipping around the empty park on their Segways.
 
These weren't the first outdoor concerts of the 2013 summer season, however. A couple weeks prior, the {redacted}SO took its show on the road to a local arboretum and presented three performances in a fairly bucolic setting. The motivation for doing such a thing, while somewhat complex, has to include a degree of frustration at the way in which the orchestra finds itself increasingly sidelined at Ravinia. After spending nine-or-so months a year as ostensibly the finest orchestra in our zip-code, it is something of a come-down to arrive at our summer 'home' and discover we are several rungs on the ladder below the likes of Steely Dan and Brian Wilson. (No offense to Messrs. Dan and Wilson – I'm sure they are fine musicians.) So, one option for those chafing under the dominion of the lidless eye is to make like the Elves of Middle Earth, get in a boat and set sail for friendlier shores.
 
During my student days, a friend faced a dilemma when he wanted to bring a girlfriend home for the holidays. His religiously conservative parents wouldn't allow any sort of cohabitation to go on under their roof. But, like the orthodox of many faiths, they allowed for a giant loophole, one which permitted my friend to do whatever he wanted, so long as it happened inside a tent in the backyard. I couldn't help but think of my old college pal while playing at the arboretum, as our very tent-like temporary stage groaned, creaked, and flapped like a ship caught in a gale. The price of freedom, I suppose, is sometimes having to put up with rustic conditions.
 
The concerts we put on were 1) The Music of John Williams, 2) the ubiquitous summer staple, an all Tchaikovsky program, and 3) a family concert of Mexican, Spanish, and South American selections that, on paper, looked the most insubstantial of the three, but which I found to be the most satisfying of the lot. As often happens when attempting to reach out to a 'new' audience, the programmers, perhaps showing a lack of faith in the commodity on offer, aimed low. Modesty and decorum prevent me from dwelling too much on what went down in the tent my friend erected in his back yard, but I assume he didn't curl up in his sleeping bag with a flashlight and a Superman Comic. It is one thing to win your freedom, and still another to know what to do with it. To continue banging away at a tired analogy, the consummation of the relationship between the orchestra and our audience ought to be the presentation of the finest music by the best musicians. Whatever the plans for the future, I hope our organization doesn't lose sight of that. Anything less is not worth leaving the house for, or, in other words, if you plan on getting busy, get serious.

5 comments:

Brad said...

How true. I also wonder if the pricing change for CSO concerts at Ravinia, apparently for this season and next, will have the desired effect of driving up interest and turnout going forward or instead lowering the prestige of the ensemble at that venue. If Ravinia truly feels they're fortunate to have the finest orchestra in the world (as their advertising insists), then they should treat it as such.

nocynic said...

Yes,exactly right. The management of the XSO recently put out a policy statement with its view of the future entitled "Vision 2020". The phrase "classical music" appears in it exactly once, in a boilerplate restatement of a mission statement crafted more than a decade ago.
"Vision 2020"'s begins with a recap of the historical roots of the orchestra, a summary of the impulses behind its founding. We are told that the the goal in founding the orchestra was "uniting the city’s diverse immigrant population". Theodore Thomas, the orchestra's founder, seems to have been some sort of proto-Barack Obama in our management's view; due lip service is played to his "attention to audience engagement and community service." The promulgation and preservation of classical music is not mentioned as a motivation for founding the orchestra.
We are in a nasty cross-hairs. On one hand, we are unionized, one of the few unions left who can strike without fear of replacement workers. A lot of our patrons don't much care for that. And we represent High Art, which is not in high regard today. Free Market Fundamentalism has little respect for a pursuit that cannot pay its own way. I'm near retirement; I suspect I'm getting out just in time.

Michael Hovnanian said...

If the situation at Ravinia is any kind of harbinger of the future in store for our profession, we are in deep trouble.

To Brad's comment; it will be interesting to see if audiences are up or not this season. I didn't see the lawn, but last week the shows were nowhere near full. Offering cheap(er) tickets, while a step in the right direction, might be too little too late.

Jacque said...

I can't wait to see you onstage for this: http://cso.org/TicketsAndEvents/EventDetails.aspx?eid=6164 , he quipped cynically.

radek-helgren said...

Good to see you back on stage. Hope you're glad to be back, more or less.