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. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Stoppage Time

Billing the concerts last week as the Season Finale suggested we might be entering the realm of Alternate Facts, since many knew the ensemble was scheduled to return for four more performances. The season would really end with the orchestra accompanying a week-long run of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, yet another of the film night performances sneaking across the boarder between classical and popular music to infest our schedule. Cherubini, Chant sur la mort du Joseph Haydn was an interesting choice in this era of Fake News; the work was composed in reaction to a (failing?) London publication's erroneous report that the revered composer had died. Having survived in spite of Cherubini's request that all copies be destroyed once he learned the error upon which it was based, the star-crossed composition was given an interesting performance here on Saturday evening. About seven measures into the quiet introduction, in response to an inadvertent noise from the stage, the Maestro stopped the performance, turned and excoriated the audience for the disruption. Breaking the fourth wall is often an invitation for the least inhibited among us to open up their own particular jar of crazy, and so, true to form, in the uncomfortable silence following the Maestro's remarks somebody yelled out something, a few people clapped, a few more tittered, none of which did anything but make the atmosphere more tense. With all hope of quickly putting a minor disturbance behind us gone, we started again from the beginning.

There were many theories put forth by musicians to try and explain what had happened. Perhaps the Maestro reacted to some audience members' spontaneous expressions of surprise over the onstage noise, which also had a visual component. Maybe the quick assignation of blame to the audience was a show of solidarity with musicians. The only constant was the poor reporting in the press, beginning of course with the premature pronouncement of Haydn's death, and continuing with both local papers writing up the incident as a concert halted due to 'coughing', a misrepresentation parroted by one of the more popular classical music blogs.

Humans, on either side of the proscenium, occasionally make unintended noises. With training and concentrated focus on the task at hand, most musicians are able to block out whatever the audience is doing, even when it is startling, like someone talking loudly, falling ill, or even a fistfight breaking out in the box seats (the so-called Brawl at the Hall). Unexpected surprises from the stage can be harder to ignore, since (ostensibly) we are paying close attention to each other. Where force of concentration is insufficient, the professional code of conduct keeps most musicians focused on their own tasks when faced with anything from a broken string or dropped mute to someone vomiting onstage (yes, that happened). Lacking the training, not bound by a professional code of conduct, and probably not concentrating as deeply, audience members can be forgiven for spontaneous reactions to something startling or unusual.

Coughs, on the other hand, are often symptoms of a bored or uninvolved audience. A disinterested group of people tends to cough and fidget more. Sometimes the very same audience that coughed a lot during one part of a performance will become riveted later on, and much more quiet. Concerts with superstar performers tend to draw audiences that contain more people who are not really there to hear the music, so these crowds often contain more people who are disengaged from the performance, inattentive, and noisy. But, no matter who is performing, audience behavior is a reflection on what is happening on stage. Becoming irritated with an audience is like yelling at the wind. Asking people not to cough is like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant and then getting upset when they do.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Tongue Tied

When I asked an acquaintance why he was having so much trouble committing to acquiring a new cat, even though it was something he repeatedly expressed a strong desire to do, he replied that, as a man ‘of a certain age’, he fully expected that, even if it didn’t outlive him, his next cat would be his last.  In that frame of mind, he certainly didn’t want to rush into such an important decision and eventually ended up agonizing over it for more than a year.  When our music director’s contract was extended until 2022, as a musician ‘of a certain age’, I realized that either he or his replacement would be my last.  Fortunately for me, as a rank and file player, I won’t have a lot of agonizing to do, but the decision isn’t entirely without consequences. And the arrival of a new maestro is an interesting time to be in an orchestra - sort of a chance for the dispassionate observer to play Jane Goodall minus a trek through the jungle - certainly an experience to savor one last time.

Esa-Pekka Salonen came to town a few weeks ago, conducting some heavyweight repertoire - Mahler 9 and Verklärte Nacht were the mainstays - which might indicate somebody in the organization has their eye on him as music director material.  I like Salonen for the post, both as a conductor and composer, but also for a more insidious reason.  As the arrival of the current music director prompted a number musicians to take up the study of Italian, I wonder if a new era might see a similar interest in the Finnish language emerge. Unfortunately, the US State Department Foreign Service Institute lists Finnish among the group of languages most difficult for English speakers to learn. According to the FSI, in order to become conversant, a student of Finnish might expect to put in about 44 weeks, or 1100 hours of study. I think it would be very interesting to see if any of my colleagues would take up the challenge. Coincidentally, since Finnish is related to Hungarian, and both are from outside of the Indo-European family, there is a certain pleasing symmetry to the idea I might end my career just as it began, under the baton of a maestro speaking one of the Uralic languages.

The Bass Blog now has a Facebook page.  Nothing much to see there at the moment, but hopefully that will change in time.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Red, White and Blue Orchestra (part two)

You see, teamwork will only take you so far. Then the truly evolved person makes that extra grab for personal glory.
Montgomery Burns – The Simpsons, season 7, episode 12: Team Homer (aka the Pin Pals episode)

What makes an orchestra an orchestra? One essential component seems to be that to qualify as such, an orchestra must have more than one type of instrument; another requirement is that it have groups of like instruments playing the same part. Some more concise definitions require that bowed strings make up the grouped instruments sharing parts. Perhaps that is why the designations 'string orchestra' versus 'band' or (if they are trying to fancify it) 'wind ensemble' are used to describe groups made up entirely of strings or winds, respectively. Or maybe the right to the designation acknowledges that the orchestra began as a group of stringed instruments, and it is this core group which continues to give the ensemble its identity. Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, from the time of Louis XIII was, as the name suggests, a group of instruments from viol family with multiple players sharing each of five separate parts. It is this ensemble which is regarded by many as the prototype for the modern orchestra. The members of this fabulous group had the perk of being allowed to carry swords and they held secure positions that were hereditary or could be sold. (Anyone who decries the supposedly coddled state of orchestral musicians as yet another symptom of decay in the modern era should look back about 500 years and reconsider.) The 24 strings, who were better at using their 'indoor voices', were occasionally augmented with wind instruments, customarily used for outdoor performances, playing one to a part and, to quote King Louis, voila!

All musicians of the orchestra collaborate to bring off a performance. True, there are instances of nonconformity, ranging from recalcitrance all the way to willful sabotage (Please, don't ask me to write about that.), but the ethos is overwhelmingly one of cooperation. With between eight and sixteen players sharing a part, the string sections require a different degree of cooperative effort than the winds, brass, and percussion, where each individual bears responsibility for his or her own line. I once participated in a conversation during which a member of a wind section made a disparaging remark about how it seemed that before every performance the stagehands would come and take one or more chairs out of the string sections (meaning a player would be absent – this is something for audience members to lookout for during the warm-ups, by the way), while players at the back (winds, brass, percussion), having more of a sense of responsibility and pride in their jobs, were seldom if ever absent. True enough, but another pair of anecdotes might show this in a different light. Once, with the music director on the podium, we were playing a piece with a major solo part for one of the string principals who became seriously ill mid-week, after one or two performances, if I recall. The newly hired assistant took over on very short notice and performed more than admirably. Another time, a principal of a wind section made the entirely understandable and forgivable error of mixing up a matinee and an evening performance in the schedule. First the concert order was reshuffled, and then the rest of the performance was ultimately delayed by about one hour, awaiting the arrival of the essential yet tardy musician. As the show must go on, in this case I say score one for the strength and flexibility of the collective! It is true that during a performance an audience member might observe a string player dropping out momentarily in order to turn a page, put on a mute, scratch an itch, or whatever, without a significantly noticeable result. But this only underscores the strength of these sections and the adaptability of the players. Like the internet, which can endure catastrophic local failure due to a design where no single node is essential to the survival of the whole, the string sections of an orchestra are strong and flexible because of their built-in redundancy and the players are attuned to working collectively and adjusting to whatever minor variations might occur. This strength emanates from willing self-sacrifice, along with the attendant sublimation of ego, which is the price paid by string players to distribute their responsibility widely among themselves. The countless minor adjustments and compromises that go into playing in a string section are largely unremarked upon in rehearsal and are more or less taken for granted during the applause.

Returning to the post performance acknowledgments, the trend of having more and more individuals, sections, sets and subsets of groups within the orchestra rise for special recognition during the applause seems to be gaining momentum. This trend has also affected other art-forms as well. A New York Times article from a few years back noted the increasing length of film credits, where anyone who so much as brought coffee and donuts to the director now gets a mention. In the concert hall every conductor is now on the lookout for opportunities to distinguish an individual player from the larger group. This is troubling, and not merely as an expression of sour grapes from a string player, but arises from a general uneasiness with the fact that the orchestra, already imagined by many in the public as an autocratic, elitist organization, does little to counteract those negative perceptions by spotlighting individual accomplishment over collaborative effort.

There is a brief section in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus which I cannot recall exactly or find again when I thumb impatiently through the book, so it is possible I'm making it up out of whole cloth, but the passage I have in mind is a description of the way Renaissance composers embedded a bit Christian symbolism into their compositions by writing crossed voices in the polyphony to invoke the image of the Holy Cross. These secret symbols communicated to those who could read the score but were not readily discernible to those who merely heard the music. With that passage, whether it really exists or not, in the back of my mind, my thoughts crystallized when I found myself in the music library looking through the score of the Bruckner 9th Symphony in search of a minor discrepancy. What drove me to the library is not now important, probably on the same level as observing that the gargoyle on one side of a Gothic cathedral has six teeth, then traipsing a hundred meters or so in order to discover that its counterpart on the opposite side has but five. Nevertheless, the inconsequential yet nagging question had me seeking out the score in search of an answer. As it was an election year here in the US, I had also been pouring over dozens of electoral maps at the time. Anyone who has done so will have noted the great spatial disparity; vast swaths of sparsely populated territory are held by the Republican (conservative) party while the Democrats (liberals) are clustered in densely populated urban centers. Turning to the Trio section of the second movement, where I knew I would find the answer to my query, the great expanse of empty staves struck me as instantly familiar. What appeared to be a mostly empty page of manuscript actually represented a majority of the players playing! Is it possible that conductors, who (allegedly) spend hour upon hour studying scores, rather than holding animus for the string sections, are responding to this spatial under-representation on the printed page when it comes to post performance acknowledgment?

(click to embiggen)
Left: Bruckner 9th symphony, Trio. Two thirds of the orchestra (strings) playing, one third resting. 
Right: 2016 presidential election results. Decisive victory for the Democratic (Blue) candidate (+~900,000 votes).
N.B. Use of the state of Illinois is for illustration purposes only. No information about the location of a Large Midwestern City is intended or implied.

Could it simply be that conductors, seeing an image of a grand orchestral score in their mind's eye, convert the disparity on the page into an unequal lavishing of attention? Some conductors certainly appear to follow the formula that everyone who gets a line in the score gets a bow. Obviously, this does not completely explain the treatment of the string sections, who get 4 or 5 lines yet almost always rise as a group. It is possible that with the strings clustered at the bottom of the score, coming last in the order, and with patience and applause thinning out, the maestro is merely wrapping things up in a kind of yada yada yada. Or perhaps the strings have gone the way of a vestigial organ, or the reptilian brain, once upon a time vital to the organism, maybe its defining characteristic even, but now layered over with the fruits of more recent evolution and progress.

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.