Bass Blog

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

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Heart of Darkness

The Rivers Festival came to an end on June 9th, although the onstage activities seemed to take a week off for a Haydn/Martinu/Scriabin program that had nothing to do with rivers, as far as I could tell. Music directors conduct what they want, when they want to, and the rest of the season kind of takes shape around that. However, among other things going on that week, there was some sort of outdoor concert which the MD took part in, and also a bunch of brass players went down the local river in a boat (He got a real pretty mouth ain't he? - insert your favorite quote from deliverance here. I don't think Dueling Banjos arranged for Tuba and Bass Trombone made it onto the program, but who knows, I wasn't there, and since the nice web-page devoted to the festival has disappeared, everything I'm writing is based on very imprecise recollection).
To be honest, I ducked out that week for some much needed relief in order to play a set of concerts with a local period instrument group. While the Rivers Festival brought some new and interesting repertoire to the stage, it also brought its fair share of earsplitting selections as well. Some of the most enjoyable pieces, Bates, Revueltas, were also among hardest on the eardrums. So after several weeks in which I felt as if I might have been playing concerts for the hearing impaired, and/or in danger of joining their ranks myself, it was very nice to do something lower down on both the decibel and pay scales.
Although the performances took place after the scheduled end date of the festival, I did manage to get back on board for what was, I think, the last hurrah of River-themed entertainment, Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Gotterdamerung. It is well and proper to end this sort of festival at the Rhine; the waterway connecting Switzerland and the Netherlands has to be about as sacred to the classical music buff as the Ganges is to the Hindu.
Was the Rivers Festival success? Did it irrigate the parched musical landscape of our city, or did it siphon off precious, limited resources into unnecessary feelgood projects, fueled by focus-group generated corporate doublespeak? From my position onstage, it is impossible to comment on the many things I did not participate in. As mentioned earlier, I appreciated the influx of new or underperformed repertoire. If the various symposia and other events were a boondoggle, I cannot tell. I would greatly appreciate hearing what readers have to say about it.
Festivals may come and go, seasons change, music directors retire or move on, but one unavoidable fact, like death and taxes (depending on the circumstance, more odious than either) is the music of Anton Bruckner. We ended the proceedings last week with his 1st symphony, which I was really dreading until someone pointed out that the designation 'number one', rather than a descriptive title, merely functioned as an ordinal number. As a double bassist, like many of my comrades who play the instrument, I can confess without embarrassment to having thrived by reaping the benefits of lowered expectations. Therefore, when a colleague turned to me during one of the rehearsals and said “this piece isn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be,” I had a visceral sense of understanding. The most interesting thing I took away from the experience was noting the nested symmetry between the one work and the composer's entire output, observing how the great organist's maddening attention to detail, his dogged working through of an idea to its sometimes ridiculous conclusion, had persisted from the very beginning of his career and stayed the course from one symphony to the next, just as within each of the symphonies, that same maniacal persistence carried from one note to the next, one measure to the next, one section to the next, and so on. The ideas common to many, if not all the Bruckner Symphonies, depending on one's viewpoint either brilliant or execrable, seem to have sprung from his head fully formed and taken on the existence of unalterable truths, worthy of endless, worshipful repetition.
The 'downtown' portion of our season ended with a choral collaboration, including the Vivaldi Magnificat and Verdi 4 Sacred Pieces. After a week with a period instrument ensemble, the Vivaldi, although no surprise, came as a real shock to the system, a kind of “OK, you're back in Kansas” moment. The Verdi, on the other hand certainly more apropos, showed the assembled forces to better effect. It was nice to end on a high note. 

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Without a Paddle

Rivers Festival, May 9 – June 9
After two weeks of the Rivers Festival, it is hard to determine if we are headed up or down stream. Whatever direction, the journey has had its interesting moments. In spite of the minor drought of audience members, the Festival deserves credit for at least attempting to find some connection to the world outside the concert hall. Heaven knows we need some of that. For those interested in more background information, a handsome website has been put together. Go to {redacted} and look for the link to the Rivers Festival.
Although talking about classical music programming has about as much relevance as a couple of Byzantine priests arguing over which moldering object in the reliquary might be the most holy, I'll risk putting a toe in those waters by saying I have appreciated the Festival for bringing a few seldom heard pieces to the stage. The usual dead, male, European composers will all still be dead, male, and European when the festival is over. (And besides, if their greatness will somehow fade from memory when other music is played every now and then, perhaps they were not so great to begin with.) And if we are going to rely on using 'popularity' to determine programming, we'll end up playing a lot more Film Nights and show tunes from now on. So, although while not everything we have played so far may qualify for 'greatest music ever written' status, I have few regrets over presenting these pieces to the public.
The programmers of the Festival cast a fairly broad net to round up the repertoire, some of which seems to have a tenuous connection to the matter at hand. Although not officially part of the Festival, a Beyond the Score presentation of Scheherazade found its way onto the schedule this month. The piece (spoiler alert) has a shipwreck near the end and Rimsky-Korsakov was apparently a sailor, a fact which was pointed out extensively during the presentation, perhaps as some sort of aquatic tie-in. The Rite of Spring (also not in the festival itself, but included in a list of 2012-2013 season 'Rivers Repertoire') had me scratching my head until a colleague bonked me over the head with the all-too-obvious relationship. Even the Film Night program that also sneaked its way into the middle of the Festival had a vaguely aqueous tie-in, Singin' in the Rain has water right there in the title.
The repertoire has so far skewed towards the folksy (Moldau, Mississippi River) or the Jungle-y (Amazonas, Panambi, Noche de las Mayas). Takemitsu's Riverrun was something a bit different and definitely a highlight for me. As always, I find myself wishing the programming could have gone a bit further. Crumb's Echoes of Time and the River would have made an excellent addition to the Festival and given the underrepresented 1960s more of a voice.
Crumb did win the Pulitzer for 'Echoes', for what it is worth, so perhaps inclusion in the Festival might not have been totally out of place. Another prizewinning composer did make it onto the schedule. Florence Price won first prize from the Wanamaker foundation for her Symphony in E minor, although her Mississippi River is naturally what we ended up performing as part of the Festival. The problem with a lot of 'river music' is that it falls into the formula of presenting a series of tableaus, as if we were floating by on a raft at some sort of kitschy theme park. First we come upon a group of natives in loincloths, beating drums. Around the next bend, a cheerful family of animatronic bears are singing 'round the campfire with banjos and a washtub bass. Further on, some shirtless woodsmen burst into a rustic folk melody. Beethoven avoided the pitfall by placing the 'observer' on the river bank instead. Clever, prescient fellow.
Actually, the topic of perspective came up when I spoke with my friend, Dr X. (Since he generated a lot of interest after his guest post, at this point I need to clarify that the doctor is a: straight, and b: happily married.) Anyhow, the good doctor reminded me of Heraclitus' famous saying (“No man ever steps in the same river twice”) and mentioned how music resembles a river of sound, never the same.  He went on to express some regret over his previous post. How can one complain of repetitious programming with both listener and performer in a constant state of flux? Perhaps the real mystery to music lies in the minute differences from one performance to the next. How is the Bruckner 7th Symphony a totally new piece when the maestro has eaten chicken instead of beef before the concert? Or pasta. Perhaps we need less variation, but deeper concentration. Variety is both a profound truth about the world and an illusion which obscures it, he said. Needless to say, the Doctor, in the process of buying his tickets for next season, is very confused.