Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The 5,436 Overture


European thought, art, and culture is imported by Americans, who consume it like candy.  So it’s not entirely strange that a piece of music about the victory of a Russian Tsar over a French Emperor would become an American summer staple. The 1812 Overture  possesses many of the elements essential to American blockbuster style entertainment: bombast, triumphalism, religiosity, militarism, shallow spectacle, with a dollop weaponry thrown in.  Beethoven had his chance to dominate the 4th of July circuit but muffed it with Wellington’s Victory.  It is debatable whether we in the USA should be cheering on a Russian victory, either in 1812 or today. Ideologically, I’m not sure who was the good guy in that conflict.  But for the casual listener, I’m sure the piece is merely something vaguely rousing and patriotic, a musical tableau from around the time Canadians burned down our White House, or something. (Many of us would surely like invite them back to repeat the deed, forthwith!)

A trauma during my formative years as a musician left me incapable of appreciating Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. One of the first things I ever played with a local Youth Symphony was the 1812. A bit about Tchaikovsky’s writing for the double bass can be found here.  For now, it is sufficient to say that in Tchaikovsky, the bass isn’t fully a member of the string family, but gets palmed off on the low brass, as if they needed the help.  At a ‘string sectional’ on the piece, we got to the final page and rehearsed the section, right after the cannon shots, where the strings play those wonderful, swirling passages, tremolando. Of course, the basses don’t play that.  We play the chorale with the winds and brass. So I, along with another unlucky, sallow-faced and unprepared pre-teen bassist, had to squeak and sqawk through the chorale alone, horribly off key, and putrid of tone, while 40 of our comrades snickered.  I’ve found it impossible to enjoy the piece since that day.

The summer season devoted a lot of time to the music of Leonard Bernstein, culminating in two highly successful performances of his Mass - all the more satisfying since I was off both nights.  However, in addition to all of the Americana, there was a suspicious, perhaps even meddlesome, amount of Russian music programmed as well, as if somebody felt the need, musically, to say there are good people on both sides.  Most memorable was a weekend Maria Butina and Wayne LaPierre could only have dreamed about - two Tchaikovsky Spectaculars, back to back, with each night capped off (pun intended!) by the 1812 Overture.  The fusiliers seemed hellbent on using up the their entire supply of gunpowder, each shot louder than the one before, until the final blast at the second performance had me extracting a deeply impacted earplug with a pair of tweezers after the concert.

There is a body of circumstantial evidence of collusion between summer and ‘downtown’ programming.  Year after year, some of the same pieces tend crop up a season later in one place or the other.  This year, suspiciously, the first set of subscription concerts is another all Russian affair.  Also, the annual free “Concert for {redacted}” this week culminates in, yes, the 1812 Overture.  Enough to give any conspiracy theorist reason to persist for yet another season.