Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Red, White and Blue Orchestra (part one)

This post was getting way too long, so I split it in two.

Years ago, after a concert, a stranger approached without invitation and began to unburden himself. The scenario becomes slightly less odd when I add that I was carrying my double bass at the time. As many who play the instrument know, trundling about with such a conspicuous load makes one a slow-moving, easy target, captive to all manner of unwanted attention. The reason for the fellow's need to share his thoughts became apparent soon enough when he noted that as a lapsed Catholic and infrequent concert-goer, attending his first performance after a lengthy absence had evoked unpleasant memories from his childhood. More than anything, he said, the hushed reverence of the concert hall, the men in funny costume, all of the sitting down and standing up, reminded him of the Latin Masses he had endured as a child. Even though the language of music seemed as unfathomable and profound as Latin had been to his youthful mind, he found both piercingly beautiful, literally the voice of the divine, to his way of thinking. What annoyed him about both the concert and the Mass were the ways which both mediated that voice through unnecessary, worldly pageantry and stiff formality that spoke more to human pettiness and egotism than to the otherworldly. Unfortunately, much of what he related is lost to me, for, at the time, even in my as yet underdeveloped penchant for fleeing the scene of a concert with utmost alacrity, I impatiently discounted his remarks as the unfortunate coincidence of a traumatic religious upbringing with poor social skills. Yet this gentleman, who I served poorly at the time with my indifference, is probably in some way responsible for my often wondering about the format of the orchestra concert, its stagecraft (such as it is) and what meaning or message is conveyed to the audience by the non musical portions of a performance.

Due to its variability, the end of an orchestral performance provides more fodder for speculation than the beginning to those who wish to view the concert as psychodrama or read it as some kind of political allegory. At the conclusion of most theater productions, even after dropping character, the players take their bows in a choreographed, rehearsed sequence, perhaps moving from the minor roles to the leading parts, culminating with a final joining of hands by the entire cast. By contrast, the end of an orchestral performance is, by design, an impromptu affair, with only the broad outline of what is to occur known by the musicians in advance. The maestro will take any number of curtain calls, at certain points asking the entire ensemble to stand. Depending on the repertoire, individuals, soloists or sections, will be asked to rise in turn, either remaining on their feet, or sitting to make way for others. Who will be acknowledged, and in what order, is not revealed in advance. Lack of planning is usually not much of a problem, or results in only minor hiccups, but occasionally produces a shambolic or comedic effect. Sometimes at the motion to stand, two players will rise, or none at all, with several people looking over their shoulders, returning 'who, me?' looks to the imploring maestro. How ironic for the audience to observe that the conductor who supposedly possessed the ability to draw the most exquisite and subtle nuances from the orchestra by the slightest gesture of hand during the performance, has now become unable to distinguish between two players sitting a yard or so apart by pointing with that same hand during the applause. With the hand having lost its supernatural abilities, the maestro may next resort to miming the instruments or calling on the players to lip read. An interesting aside is that, during more than thirty years playing in orchestras, beyond some very general instructions (try to smile, look at the audience, don't clean your instrument!) I have never witnessed, or even heard about, discussion of what would take place during the applause.

Through its spontaneity, the post concert ritual opens a window into the inner workings of the maestro. Just as Kremlinologists once studied photos from the Red Square Mayday Parade in order to deduce a deeper meaning from the position of dignitaries atop Lenin's tomb relative to the General Secretary, the concertgoer can sometimes 'read between the lines' during the applause by noting who gets acknowledged, and in what order. For instance, after a recent performance, the trombone section was given a bow, but none of the vocal soloists. What was the meaning in that? A nod to the military industrial complex? A warning to the intelligentsia? Who knows. Every conductor has a unique way of handling the post performance acknowledgments. Certain of them appear to have a set routine for each piece that they follow with little variation – Brahms 1st symphony might be 1) concertmaster 2) horn 3) oboe, etc., for example – while others appear to react in the moment. A poor performance, inattentiveness, or something that occurred during the rehearsals might move a player down in the order, or off it altogether. Some are generally stingy about rewarding individuals, and others search out any player who might have had the slightest contribution to the performance for recognition. Of course, none of the preceding applies to the string sections except in the rarest of situations. Their treatment is systematic, and will be covered in the next post.

1 comment:

nocynic said...

Many years ago, quite out of character, I actually attended a post-concert reception; I think Patner put me up to it. To my horror, I ended up at the Adults' Table, sitting next to the conductor, Pierre Boulez. After dealing with the stress in characteristic fashion (a great deal of alcohol, consumed very quickly), I had the temerity to ask him why he had not had our viola section stand up during the applause after we performed the complete "Miraculous Mandarin". I pointed out that there were no less than three extremely prominent and difficult viola section solos in the work, and that if (say) the horns or trombones had had comparable exposure they would have been acknowledged as a matter of course.
Pierre gave his Gallic little chuckle and remarked "Well, you know, it was your decision--you chose to play the viola!"