Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Once more unto the breach



“Of course, you know this piece very well.”

To the naïve or untrained observer, it might appear that the Maestro beginning rehearsals with such a compliment is off to a good start. However, this bit of flattery clangs off the ears of the hardened orchestral musician like a dropped mute, especially when it serves as the prelude to, maybe even an apology in advance for hours, perhaps even days, spent in a painstaking vivisection of the repertoire on offer. Indeed, in this context 'knowing the piece very well' is often coded language for received wisdom, the accumulation of error, or of a misguided tradition, which the conductor is about to sweep away with a number of well chosen words, leaving in its place something cleaner, more authentic, an ur-interpretation of what was once naively thought familiar. The empty promises ring hollow when brought up against the reality of the limited allotment of rehearsal time, not to mention the hubris of feeling oneself capable of knocking down an edifice in order to build a brand new castle-in-the-air during a few hours of rehearsal. Many times, when unrealistic expectations manifest themselves as inadequate preparation, it is this disdained 'knowledge' of the orchestra that saves a foundering performance.

To claim an orchestra knows a piece very well is a multifaceted assertion, but one which essentially boils down to an acknowledgment that the orchestra, as a group, knows how to execute a good performance on its own, with minimal guidance (sometimes even in the face of malevolence or gross negligence) from the podium. Obviously, this knowledge includes each individual player's mastery of their instrument, but further extends to familiarity with the other parts, which, in a practical sense, and in this context most importantly, means knowing what to listen for, how to respond to it, and how to incorporate that into the physical act of performing. This knowledge is pragmatic, visceral as well as intellectual; it is the accretion of all the player's experiences, numerous trials and errors over many years, triumphs, train-wrecks, hours spent in rehearsal, in practice, in listening, and for some, even in contemplation.

Just as merely attending a few lectures on human anatomy, reading a few textbooks, perhaps observing a dissection, might not make a person a good lover, listening to a conductor talk about music is not necessarily the best route to a good performance. The better conductors seem to understand how to balance the mechanistic with the spiritual when it comes to spending precious rehearsal time, acknowledging that, much like one's personal hygiene, the knowledge of the orchestra, in its visceral and practical sense, requires a certain amount of repeated, sometimes unpleasant, usually unglamorous, attention.

At one end of the spectrum is the conductor who relies too heavily on the knowledge of the orchestra, merely waving arms around and accepting whatever happens. Like the charlatan baker, who, having an order for a birthday cake canceled, merely scrapes off the frosted inscription and presents the cake to the next unsuspecting customer, this conductor adds little to the orchestra's store of knowledge, but instead cashes in on the work of others. This Maestro's appearance on the podium is a sort of nightly stage dive, where the orchestra, in possession of a sense of dignity, not to mention professionalism, along with the inability to take spontaneous collective action, catches him or her every time. The antipode of such a Maestro is, at the 'highest level' of the profession, more common, and, by most musicians, considered at least somewhat insufferable, namely, the incessant talker, the Maestro who does not leave enough rehearsal time for the orchestra to actually put into practice the myriad ideas presented. Perhaps as symptom of encroaching age, I find that, although I'm often scratching my head, trying to figure out how what is being said is going to help the week's performance, I have more patience for the talkative Maestro than some of my colleagues. Yes, the boyhood reminiscences, or what some far-flung critic had to say about a long-forgotten performance are odious, but other podium offerings make me happy to 'learn as I earn' - the steps to the ländler, for instance, or the difference between an Austrian and a German military march (or at least the fact that such a difference exists - interesting how many Austrians I've met who are at pains to point out the most subtle discrepancies between themselves and Germans), these may not be the most important things in the moment, certainly not from my particular corner of the orchestra, but they are interesting, and, year in year out, add to the collective wisdom of the orchestra.

The conductor, like the doctor who sees serious malady and does nothing, should be discouraged. Similarly, his counterpart, the well-meaning, overzealous ideologue whose first impulse is to immediately euthanize the patient and set about effecting a resurrection, should be gently dissuaded. Each Maestro who takes the podium leaves a mark, contributing to the orchestra's collective wisdom. The orchestra, out of necessity, and as a survival instinct, prioritizes pragmatism, and in so doing can be somewhat ruthless in dismissing otherwise well-meaning conductors. However, from a player's perspective, the steps to making a positive contribution, and to avoid becoming a cautionary tale, seem to be obvious, yet somehow illusive.

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I would like to take this opportunity to thank the various readers of the Bass Blog, both colleagues and people unknown to me, who have contacted me during my lengthy hiatus. Your inquiries as to the fate of the Blog, not to mention my own well-being, have been greatly appreciated. I thank you for your enduring patience with this self-destructive hobby of mine. Of course, due to my contrarian nature, those who expressed pleasure at the disappearance of the Blog, and wished for its continued non-existence, provided the ultimate motivating factor in my decision to resurrect it.