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!”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

You're so vain

you probably think this blog is about you

The (poorly taken) photo is from Wall Drug in South Dakota. The sign behind the “Cowboy Orchestra”reads: “Our drugstore musicians ain't heard o' Petrillo. They play just for the thrillo.” (Note how their working conditions were unilaterally changed by management.) This is either a pretty old sign, or an extremely inside joke. I wonder how many folks who look at that know about James Petrillo?

Taken during my sabbatical last year, the photo seems all the more apropos lately since our contract was up for renegotiation this fall. Happily, after a few tense weeks an agreement was reached and everything is all smiles and bonhomie around the concert hall. Contract time is interesting to me mostly for its rhetorical excess – the pleas of poverty from management set against the claims that classical music is a priceless asset, as necessary to human survival as air and water. While the truth most probably lies somewhere in between, I feel that as a musician, albeit a cynical one,  my bet is that the deep pockets are even more unfathomable than the mysterious powers of music. I'm waiting to see the bottom of one, or the top of the other, with no real hope of glimpsing either before my career ends.

It is interesting that (at least at times other than during contract negotiations) management occasionally buys into what I think of as the myth of 'The Transformational Power of Music', which I would describe as the belief that some needy individuals, whether deprived of freedom, opportunity, or even the material necessities of life, might be changed profoundly through exposure to a concert of classical music. Then, of course, the coffers open and the funding flows freely toward such a glamorous and an ennobling end. Certainly not the only instances, but among the more notable examples of an institution getting caught up in that idea are the two tours we've taken to Russia. I think both trips were undertaken, at least in part, as some sort of effort to spread the message of freedom through music.  Although, during our first visit the U.S.S.R. was sounding its death rattle, I'm not convinced our performances had anything to do with its ultimate demise. Furthermore, trotting out an orchestra at some freedom-themed event always gives me a bit of a chuckle. If anything, the orchestra resembles, at best, a dictatorship in miniature (if occasionally even a benign one), and at worst, a dystopian, bureaucratic nightmare. I wonder how many strongmen or plutocrats who attend these concerts secretly lean back in their chairs with a feeling of self-satisfaction, seeing in the orchestra more affirmation than threat. Meanwhile the common citizen, for whom the music might offer solace, a balm against suffering, or even stir the heart to action, is nowhere to be seen, unable to afford a ticket.

When the Berlin Wall fell, with the obligatory triumphalist Beethoven's Ninth staged in the rubble, the cynic in me grumbled that if music really had such a transformational power, why didn't somebody put the orchestra there before the collapse, perhaps bringing it about years earlier? As a performer, it can be frustrating when the tail wags the dog, when symbolism Trumps the music, because musicians know that music really does have a transformational power. The little boy who, upon hearing the Schubert C major Symphony, threw down his crutches and walked, or the dictator who listened to the Missa Solemnis, wept and opened the doors to his prisons – I suppose these sorts of things might actually happen, but with such a vanishingly small probability that belief in them is essentially hokum, like trying to start a campfire by assembling the kindling then waiting for lightning to strike it. The transformational power of music is no myth, but I think it works in more subtle, certainly less direct ways. The showy, symbolic gestures our leaders sometimes fall in love with are wonderful, sometimes expensive, spectacles, which I grudgingly admit also have their place and their function. But music is most powerful as an element of culture when it becomes a part of people's day-today existence. I would go so far to say that music has more power when it is ordinary than when it is extraordinary. And, of course, the orchestra was there long before the Wall came down. The Berlin Philharmonic made its home for many years within a stone's throw of it. The many concerts given there, and the vibrancy of cultural life in the west had more power than any one-off concert could achieve, however glamorous. The real triumph was in the 'mundane' task of supporting a world class ensemble in a difficult environment – paying a wage that would attract the finest players, and making certain musicians would have the wherewithal to provide for the health and welfare of their families. Nothing particularly glamorous or mythical about that.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Cannon Fodder

Last week, either by design, or like so many things in this profession, by accident, the {redacted}SO at Ravinia explored the quintessence of our summer music festival experience. During the span of three concerts we performed a Zemlinsky Tone Poem, a pair of war-horse concertos (which both turned into white knuckle affairs), a Gala concert, that most American of summer staples – an all Tchaikovsky Spectacular, and, where we finally reached a kind of Waterloo, (insert Sad Trombone sound here) a film night performance of the movie Gladiator. About the only things missing were a major overtime boondoggle in favor of musicians and the devastating thunderstorm, which arrived Sunday evening about an hour too late to do anybody any good.

Alexander Zemlinsky, one of the composers championed by our departing warm-weather music director, makes the perfect mascot to represent the recent travails of the {redacted}SO in our summer home. Alma Schindler's rejection of a homely musical underdog in favor of the more handsome and successful Gustav Mahler emblamizes the way classical music itself has been jilted by our summer overlords in favor of the more appealing (and lucrative) Broadway and Pop acts which are now the current paramours of the festival brain trust. In the movies, the underdog makes an improbable, if predictable, comeback, while in real life, the weaker forces consult focus groups and audience surveys as they continue to back-pedal, before finally declaring victory.

Of course, the apex, zenith, and nadir of any musical season is the gala concert, which in summertime includes the added spectacle of seeing several hundred very uncomfortable looking gentlemen strutting about in ninety-degree heat wearing tuxedos. At least members of the smarter can sex resort to sleeveless or even strapless attire. A concert is really something when the most delicate playing from the orchestra takes place during the Star Spangled Banner, but such was the case in our Gala Tchaikovsky Spectacular. Maxim Vengerov, who survived the violin concerto by sheer force of will and a seasoned veteran's ability to keep his head down (and a straight face) during the tutti sections, got the evening off to a roaring start, earning bravos for, if nothing else, surviving salvo after salvo of in-artful accompaniment. Advancing deeper into Russian territory, the orchestral campaign stretched its supply-lines to common sense almost to the breaking point and became bogged down during an overlong suite from Swan Lake that evoked images more pachydermical than avian – if there is anything less than fortissimo in that ballet, I'd love to play it someday, but alas. In the end, the Grand Orchestral Army marched on to its dénouement in that ode to the Musical-Industrial Complex, The 1812 Overture. I guess it says something about a musical evening when the inevitable, longed for conclusion, is the warm caress of the cannonball.

Just as the Grand Army of the French Republic found no rest after its Pyrrhic conquest of Moscow, the mighty {redacted}SO, heads bowed but spirits not yet completely broken by the aforementioned Gala concert, had to return the very next evening for the Film Night performance of Gladiator.

Hans Zimmer may very well be a great film composer. Gladiator may very well be a great, or even competent film score. At this point in my career (or perhaps just this summer) I think shell shock can be attributed as significant cause to disqualify me as any kind of of judge. I will say, however, there is a certain level of Dante's Hell in which arguably one of the greatest orchestras in our time zone sits idly by in ninety-plus-degree heat during rehearsal while a conductor, in the monstrously erroneous belief he is earning kudos for doing so, scratches his head and mulls over whether the percussion section should be shaking a necklace made of Puka rather than Cowry shells, or if the ratchet in use has thirty-six rather than thirty-eight teeth, or if the baton used to strike the Taiko drum is of Hinoki or Taro wood.

It seems as if these film night concerts are here to stay, which isn't an entirely bad thing. Although Gladiator wasn't a sellout by any stretch of the imagination, these type of concerts seem to be popular even if the musical appeal of the selections is sometimes pretty questionable. Making these the backbone of a symphonic season might be questionable strategy as well. Using a pickup orchestra, or what we call 'members of' (optional extra employment) would ensure a happier orchestra – think of how much better a galley plies the waves with free men at the oars rather than slaves – and it would also free management from some of those pesky union rules about weekly service counts and whatnot. Even Napoleon knew some things are best handled by mercenaries.

P.S. As originally published, this post contained some language that was regrettably sexist and vulgar.  My apologies.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Fantastic Fingering

Seeing a noted soloist return as a conductor is not often cause for high hopes, whether the transformation occurs after age has taken its toll on the playing, or in mid career, ennui, or an inflated ego has inflamed the desire to conquer a higher musical mountain. Although but a few steps, the journey between the soloist's spot at the footlights and the podium is a perilous road which has buried many a neophyte beneath an avalanche of overwhelming details, thrown many an overeager yet unprepared dilettante down into a hidden crevasse, or left many a dabbler dawdling along the crisscrossing paths of interpretive uncertainty.

With these thoughts in the back of my mind, Nikolaj Znaider playing a Mozart concerto and conducting Symphonie fantastique on the Ravinia schedule looked like cause for concern. As if to confirm my worst fears, when greeting the orchestra, his Israeli-tinged accent immediately brought on a horrible, pit-of-the-stomach sinking feeling, flashbacks to our own local fin de siècle malaise. Fortunately, he quickly dispelled those awful feelings with his cheerful, warmhearted demeanor on the podium. After years of trying to figure out the relationship between our winter and summer managers, or if there is one at all – sometimes they seem to be thumbing their noses at each-other, at others, they seem to be ignoring each-other altogether – I've given up trying to figure things out like why we had just played the Berlioz about two weeks prior, during our annual week-long residency at a local arboretum. (The two concerts were about forty miles apart. I wonder if there is any overlap in audience.) Whatever the reason, I wouldn't say the musicians were on the edge of their seats, eager to play the piece again so soon. I might even say exactly the opposite was true. But against all odds Znaider succeeded in making it a more or less pleasant experience. Not the best performance we've ever given, but he did some nice things, and I find him very likeable.

(Non bassists should consider stopping at this point.)

Symphonie fantastique has a bunch of fun passages for the double basses, a few of which even make it onto audition lists from time to time – Marche au supplice, Scène au champs, Ronde du Sabbat, and the excerpt below, which is from what I'd guess one might call the development section of the first movement, Rêveries – Passions. The fingering dates back to my student days, and it's either a very good fingering, or else I'm very lazy, because I've never changed it.

From where the quarter notes begin, the first three bars aren't 'extensions', although that is certainly a possibility depending on string length and hand size, but rather 'pivots' (where the thumb doesn't move). The first real shift occurs between the 'g' and 'e' (where it says: 'shift').

The next several bars might become clearer with brackets showing the different 'positions', and, consequently, where the shifts occur. 

The overlapping brackets in the second bar show where the thumb is 'brought up'. After the perfect fifth (e – a: 4 – 1) is established, the hand pivots on the first finger, leading to the minor third (a – c: 1 – +). I find this fingering for minor thirds to be pretty comfortable, and the diminished triads, adding the 2nd finger are solid. The shift (from a to e, 1 – 2) moves the entire hand up a half-step to establish the triad on a-sharp

In the following measure, the first finger remains in place (a-sharp = b-flat) and the thumb moves up one half-step. One bar later, it is the thumb which remains in place while the 1st and 2nd fingers move up a whole-step to set up another diminished triad. In the final two bars, the 'd' is closed with the thumb, then the hand pivots on the first finger and the thumb comes off the string so the harmonic may be touched with the 4th finger. As Berlioz might have said, voila!

A few more comments.

For my taste, the 'small' or 'quick' little crescendos and diminuendos, such as occur throughout this any many other passages in Berlioz, can almost never be too exaggerated. Making these dramatic dynamic effects, which are often at odds with the meter, gives more of the lurid, frenzied, and in this case dreamlike character to the music.

The quarter-note passage appears in the part with four notes slurred. Splitting those slurs in half makes it easier to maximize the crescendos. This bowing is, I think, the 'industry standard'. I'm curious to hear from anyone who adheres to the printed slurs.