Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

The {redacted}SO Receives Boos

sort of

1) a churlish, rude, or unmannerly person

1) a person who boos

Sir Mark Elder's talk preceding our performance of the Elgar Symphony no. 1, performed here for the first time in 33 years, was briefly accompanied by an odd noise, which I at first mistook for an audience member having some sort of physical problem, but which was soon revealed to be guttural evidence of extreme disgruntlement. The speech, laudable for its cogent advocacy of this neglected masterpiece as well as its relative brevity, was immediately followed by some lustily delivered “Boos” from a single, loudly dissatisfied customer somewhere high up in the balcony. We have been booed before, certainly, and I've commented on it, a couple times (here, and here, for anyone interested), but always at the end of a musical performance. This was a first, in my experience, where a conductor's remarks prompted a vocal display of displeasure.

Generally, I'm pro booing – the whole freedom of expression thing, you know. Also, it is heartening when someone is moved enough by what we do to break with the convention of offering polite applause to everything and instead chooses to express themselves forcefully, even in the negative. And finally, one of my happiest student memories comes from the Spoleto Festival, where, on my night off, I attended the Opera performance specifically to boo, along with many Italians I hasten to add, every aria sung by the awful tenor who had been bedeviling me all summer.

At an orchestral concert, the post performance boo contains enough ambiguity in its target – the composition, conductor, soloist, one or more of my colleagues, certainly never me! – to give everyone on stage some degree of plausible deniability. It is this ambiguity which also prevents many boos from ever materializing in the first place. Audience members have informed me that, although they might have objected to one aspect of a performance, they refrained from booing out of respect for the innocent. Also, when mixed in with the normal, perfunctory applause, the virulence of any one, or group of booers, is greatly attenuated. With everybody's opinions mixed together, the negative ones are largely drowned out.

The case in question here is a little different. Clearly, Maestro Elder was the sole target of the outburst, as the rest of us on stage were sitting there doing nothing. The content of his remarks, in spite of some florid language describing Elgar and his first symphony, seemed blandly inoffensive to me. However, I admit that, in the current climate where people resort to outrage first and ask questions later (know anyone like that?), I might have missed some seemly innocuous micro-aggression. Perhaps mention of the knighted composer's famous mustache caused some folliclearly challenged person's blood to boil, who knows. If the booer meant to voice a general opposition to pre-performance commentary, a better time to do it might have been the moment the hated microphone made its appearance. The boos, barely covered by the smattering of applause normal after most podium delivered remarks, created an atmosphere of nervous agitation in the auditorium completely at odds with the quiet serenity with which symphony begins, and so did more to mar the coming performance than add any useful commentary on what had come before. The time to boo the composition or the performance, of course, would have been after.

Maestro Elder, an earnest and likeable fellow, qualities it might shock the reader to discover are not representative of every podium climber, seemed briefly taken aback by the unexpected reaction to his preamble, but quickly put it behind him, literally, as he turned to face the orchestra. From there, the performance went on without incident, becoming yet one more in our improbable unbroken string of musical triumphs. After, one of my colleagues reminded me of another time when words rather than music received an audible negative reaction – a Beyond the Score presentation of the Shostakovitch 4th symphony back in 2006, where an audience member with pro Stalinist sympathies grew tired of hearing discouraging words said about the former USSR leader and started heckling. (“I didn't come to hear lies,” or something like it is part of what he called out.) It's possible the same gentleman returned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his patriotic defense of the motherland, although rumor had it he was declared persona non grata back in '06. The conductor for that performance? None other than Sir Mark Elder. Strange!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The New Traditionalists

My New Year's resolution: to blog more often, perhaps even on a semi-regular basis. Since I follow the lunar calendar, I don't consider late February to be too late a start.

(click to embiggen the images)

Orchestra musicians exist in a milieu rich with traditions, some of which are ennobling, many of which are stultifying. One of my favorites, and not at all in the sarcastic sense, has to be the way our bass section plays the passage above, which occurs near the end of the Tchaikowsky 6th Symphony.

I've highlighted the 2nd and 4th horn parts, marked fortissimo and gestopft (stopped), which is that brassy, deliciously nasty sound produced by stuffing a hand into the bell. The arrows show the double bass part holding a low F-sharp (which sounds one octave below the written pitch). The first time I played the piece with the {redacted}SO, I was bemused to notice everyone else in the section changing bows during the long note in sync with the horns, perhaps even adding in a bit of sforzato (accent) for good measure. My stand partner, who had already been in the orchestra many years by that point, leaned over and sheepishly confessed that when he got in the orchestra, all of 'the old-timers' played that way, so he joined in and had continued to do so ever since.

Completely separate from the question of whether or not this is a good idea, I find myself thoroughly enjoying doing my part to maintain this unwritten tradition – the parts have never been so marked; and, in fact, 'institutionalizing' such a thing would most probably take all the fun out of it. Since, for whatever reason, our section tends to ideologically skew even more towards the bureaucratically minded than the orchestra as a whole, it is refreshing to see something unscripted see the light of day every now and again.

This week, we came as close as I've ever seen to a conductor acknowledging the practice, and perhaps even encouraging it. Manfred Honeck, filling in for the absent Music Director, had much to say about the Tchaikovsky 6th, too much, if an informal canvassing of colleagues is to be taken seriously. Arriving at the passage in question, he exhorted the horns to play the stopped note more loudly. Then, if I'm not mistaken, he turned slightly to the right and invited the trombones and tuba (who are holding a sustained F-sharp along with the basses) to help out, if they cared too. In the bass section there was a slight stirring among those who were still at that point A) awake, and B) paying attention, with the realization we might also be officially invited to join in, but alas, there was nary a mention of it directed toward us. As far as that passage goes, it's still don't ask, don't tell for now.

The many things performers do to interpret works, from the radical overhauling of the composer's intent, to the mundane, nuts and bolts adjustments needed to make even some of the greatest 'masterpieces' intelligible, makes an for some interesting pondering. I've often thought a novel form of protest, should performers ever need to resort to such a thing, might be a kind of 'work to rule', wherein we played exactly what was in the score and waited to see how long such a thing was tolerated by the listening public.

The sort of lazy literalism one can fall into as a performer was debunked one time in humorous fashion. The composer, Krzystof Penderecki was on the podium, conducting one of his works. (The Polish Requiem? Memory escapes me.) He wanted a certain musician to play something louder. Perhaps momentarily forgetting who was on the podium, the musician replied “But my part says mezzo-forte,” to which Penderecki replied, “But I am still alive!”