Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

This week at the CSO

This week’s CSO program

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9
Haydn Symphony No. 96 (The Miracle)
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27
Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and piano


1:30-4 5-7 CSO rehearsals

1:30-4 CSO rehearsal

2-4:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

8 CSO concert

8 CSO concert

3 CSO concert (Beyond the Score)

The rehearsal on Wednesday was devoted to the beyond the score musical examples. The concert will be filmed and made available for download, like the Miraculous Mandarin, so the rehearsal Thursday was filmed to use as patch material. I had to wear my suit, which did not make me at all happy.

On Friday we played a short tribute in memory of Rostropovitch. I was wondering if John Sharp, our principal cellist, would play something but we stuck with the usual – Bach, air from Orchestral Suite #3. When did this become the piece to honor the dead?

Jeffrey Kahane has been wonderful to work with this week. I haven't heard a touch like his on the piano very often - very light and fluid. He is really working hard too. Playing two concertos and conducting the symphony would be enough. On top of that, there is the Beyond the Score program where he has to play and conduct the orchestra through 80 (cont ‘em!) musical examples from piano concerto #27 on the first half of the concert, including switching back and forth between piano and fortepiano. Then on the second half, he has to play and conduct the piece.

Lastly, I have to say that often playing weeks with a reduced section (4 basses this week) is often a disappointing, infuriating, or worse. This week however, Mark Kraemer is very capably heading the section and I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Letter from Matt Heller

Matt Heller recently emailed me with the good news that he had won the bass audition in Calgary. I had also read about it on his blog. Anyone who hasn’t checked out Matt’s blog should do so. I hope he keeps it up and chronicles the transition into the next phase of his career.

Perhaps in a fit of blog envy – Matt writes well, and with insight – I suggested we might compare notes. His perspective from near the beginning of a career and mine somewhere in the middle might make for an interesting counterpoint.

(Full disclosure: Matt became a success in spite of having studied with me for a couple years.)

Anyhow, he emailed me the following question.

I do feel like this can be a useful exercise though, trying to understand how what we do is seen and judged by fellow musicians. We've all known people who are great players but who we dread sitting next to, or even playing in the same section. So I guess my first question to you as an experienced orchestra player would be - what qualities appeal to you in a colleague? Besides the basics - like be prepared, bring a pencil, don't always be bumming rosin and other supplies - are there any "deal-breakers", or positive signals you look for? When I talked to Max Dimoff, he emphasized that a new player should not be afraid to contribute to the section right away, in terms of their sound, musical ideas, and personality. Would you agree with that, or do you think the greater danger is sticking out too much?

So much of what goes into being a good colleague happens offstage. Perhaps that is something to touch on later. However, most of that is common sense – something I should point out is not required in great quantities to play an instrument well enough to land a job. And yet I find people usually play the way they are. The boorish person offstage usually manifests some of that quality in their playing.

If I had to distill my thoughts on what makes a good colleague down to one word it would be flexibility. The players most satisfying to make music with and the least likely to annoy, whether sharing a stand or across the stage, are those who are both perceptive of and responsive to what is going on around them. Max makes a good point that a new player shouldn’t hesitate to contribute. I would only add that the contribution of any player in a section needs to be balanced between playing and listening.

It is interesting to me that the audition processes isn’t really set up to test for flexibility, or the listening side of the equation, the thing I consider one of the most important factors in finding a good colleague. I know some orchestras have candidates play a duo, some chamber music, or have the conductor get up and wave his magic wand in their face, but those measures are rare, and I’m not sure what they show. Being flexible is almost more of a mindset.

The audition process is probably more about rigidity and discipline than anything else, but the mindset used to succeed at an audition isn’t necessarily one that will be successful later on. To play a good audition means playing consistently and avoiding error. Orchestral playing certainly has those two elements, but the overriding idea is that everyone plays together. Once I started playing professionally I had to adapt my notions about things like pitch and rhythm. As a student I looked at those things as absolutes – pitch and rhythm were aspects of my playing I needed to work on, to correct. Now it’s all relative. The player who slavishly clings to his (or her) notion of rightness in he face of the group becomes a real annoyance.

Perhaps I’ve been at this too long, but the image that comes to mind is of one of those ships with a lot of poor souls chained to the oars. The point is to get the boat where it is going as quickly and painlessly as possible. You may not like the tempo of the guy beating the drum at the back, or the way the guy next to you holds his oar, but if you are gong to get anywhere you all have to pull together. The time for a mutiny, or to make some small obscure point, is not out in the open waters, or in the middle of a Beethoven Symphony.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Conductor makes helpful remark…!

Playing Tchaikovsky this week under Andrey Boreyko was generally a positive experience – he’s a nice man with good musical ideas. One thing he said stuck in my mind, enough to make me wan to write about it.

We were rehearsing one of the selections from Sleeping Beauty, the Panorama, I think. Anyhow, the movement in 6/8 has repeated 16th notes in the winds, a melody in quarter notes in the strings, with the basses playing pizzicato on the 1st and 4th 8th notes of the bar. Like this:

In our section unfortunately this can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. And sure enough, the bass pizzicatos came thudding in early and often. I should point out to students that this is a classic case where it is necessary to follow the moving notes (the 16ths ) and not get sucked in by the melody which might tend to rush or drag against the beat. Most experienced players would have figured out as much by the time they got into an orchestra, at least you would think so.

Boreyko ran parts of the movement several times and then stopped to explain how the theater in which Sleeping Beauty would be premiered had just installed what at the time was a technical marvel: a rotating stage. He went on to say that the Panorama music reflected this development, with the constant 16ths in the winds representing a kind of ‘mechanical’ force driving the music.

Usually orchestral players are resistant to these kinds of extra musical explanations, labeling them as perhaps some sort of relapse into amateurism. “You want that faster or slower?” (or something like that) is often the response when a conductor tries to wax poetic.

Whether Boreyko had the errant bass pizzicatos in mind or not when he made his comments, I have no idea. I think many conductors have given up on us since commenting on something like that often makes it worse rather than fixes the problem. But miracle of miracles, the next time through, the bass pizzicatos were more or less in he right places.

Shrewd calculation, or naïve accident – I’m still scratching my head.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

This week

My computer troubles seem to be solved, at least temporarily, so I can resume more frequent blogging.

This week’s CSO program

Mozart Symphony No. 34
Schumann Piano Concerto
Stravinsky Divertimento
Tchaikovsky Selections from The Sleeping Beauty
Andrey Boreyko, conductor
Hélène Grimaud, piano


10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
7:30 CSO concert (recorded live, patch session after concert)

12-2:30 3:30-5:30 CSO rehearsals

10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

1:30 CSO concert

8 CSO concert

2 Gunnelpumpers at the Green Mill

The live recording Tuesday was from the series last week with Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. I’m not sure when the CD will be released. The Silk Road selections varied in quality from fascinating to awful, but it should make for a pretty interesting CD. I wouldn’t be surprised if it outsells all of the recordings the CSO is supposed to release in the next couple years. I made the mistake of riding my bike to the concert that night. Because of the patch session, I found myself pedaling home into a frigid, howling headwind at 12:30 AM.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A self indulgent post

My practice studio is messy and disorganized. I have file cabinets and shelves for my music, but stuff ends up stacked on my music stand, the floor and a small table nearby. Usually I can dig through the pile and find the things I’ve been practicing most recently. I like the messy system because the urge to practice is often fleeting, so much so that the act of searching though a file cabinet for some music might be enough to kill it. In fact, I’ve come to look at the music lying out as akin to the colors on an artist’s palette. Seeing what I’ve chosen to file away versus leave out might shed some light on what in the musical spectrum I have been working on.

Below is a list of what I found. Some items are clearly there only because I clean my studio so infrequently; others are things I look at daily. Also, we recently had houseguests and I had to straighten up a bit – meaning I had to straighten some of the precariously leaning piles and so things got reshuffled out of their ‘natural’ order.

Anyhow, I hope this is of interest to somebody. It was to me.

On the Stand:

Zimmerman – Complete Bass Parts Bach book.
I’m not sure why this ended up at the front. I played Brandenburg 2 a while ago…

2 computer printed sheets of string crossings
Years ago I made sets of string crossings. 1 sheet has all the permutations on 2 strings in 6/8 time. The other, all the permutations on 3 strings containing 1 skip (from A to G string, for instance) across the barline.

Nanny Method, Book 2
Open to page 122 – the section (quaintly) translated as ‘exercises of bow’. I often run through these pages to loosen up the bow arm. Nanny Book 2 is the scale and arpeggio book – my nemesis as a student. My copy lost its cover years ago, possibly due to some angry outburst…

Zimmerman – Complete Bass Parts Beethoven book.
Stuffed inside at page 120 is Sevcik book 1 (?). This is one of the bowing books I swiped from my sister, who used to play the violin. The cover vanished way back when, so I don’t have the exact title at hand. Anyhow, recently, I have been doing some of the bowing patterns (no. 7) in 6/8 with letter ‘M’ from Beethoven 9. I usually do the Sevcik bowing patterns with scales, but recently I decided to try and find some orchestral passages I could substitute for the little etudes. Beethoven 9, letter ‘M’ always wipes me out, so I though I would force myself to play it repeatedly…

Then a bunch of bass quartet music:
2nd bass part to Two Dances, Teppo-Hauta-aho
2nd bass part to Sawtooth Hammer, ??
I really like this piece - enough to want to publish it. The part doesn’t have the composer’s name on it. I believe he is a friend of Doug Johnson.
3rd bass part to Space Bass, Carolyn Bremer
4th bass part to Six Chansons (Rainer Maria Rilke), Paul Hindemith, arranged by Jacque Harper.
We recorded a couple of these with the Chicago Bass ensemble for our demo CD.
4th bass part to Canon for Four Double Basses, Michael Wittgraf.
1st bass part to Quartet no. 2, Jan Alm – pages hopelessly out of order.
The first movement of this piece was also on our CD.

Way at the back I found two pages from some scale studies I made years ago. These were 5 - note ascending patterns with fingerings laboriously added in pencil.

From the floor and on the table next to my stand. Stack #1:

More bass quartet music:
Arcadelt Ave Maria (score)
4th bass part to La vi llegar, Enrique Francini. A nice tango arrangement by Dan Armstrong.
Suite for 4 Basses, Bernhard Alt. score with part 3 and 4 transcribed up a step so all 4 parts have the same tuning. My old teacher, James Harnett wrote this out by hand. Nice piece, but the tuning scheme of this quartet makes it a real drag to program…
Prophetiae Sibyllarum (Prelude) Lassus (score)
complete set of parts to the Gunther Schuller bass quartet.
The Wacker Consort performed this piece last week.

Zimmerman 36 Overtures and Romantic Symphonies books. The CSO played the Flying Dutchman Overture and Franck Symphony in D recently.

A set of Xeroxed parts from a bass sectional at Roosevelt University:
Beethoven 5, Barenreiter edition
Pulcinella complete ballet (tutti part)
Don Juan, Kalmus ed.
Dialogue with Time, Lera Auerbach

Csardas, Vittorio Monti (violin and piano editon)
This is something a lot of the hot young (bass) soloists play nowadays. I though I would keep up with the times by learning it…

Violin concerto no. 2, Alan Hovhaness. Violin part written out by hand years ago by M. Hovnanian
This would make a nice transcription, but making a piano reduction of the score is probably something I’ll neve get around to…

Sonata for Cello and Piano,op. 69, Beethoven. (cello part)

Perpetuum Mobile, Gustav Laska (bass part)

Mass in A, Schubert (bass part)

Comprehensive Double Bass Orchestral Excerpts, Ring Warner

Computer printed sheet of finger exercises (see the post in this blog from 12/7/06)

Sevcik violin studies, op. 2 and 3 books

Trout quintet, complete set of parts.

Thesaurus of scales and Melodic Patterns, Nicholas Slonimsky
Every once in a while, I dig this book out, pick an odd scale and try to figure out how to finger it.

Last but not least, a truly ancient copy of the piano part to the Dragonetti concerto.

Stack #2:

My Way of Playing the Double Bass, Ludwig Streicher, vol.s 2 and 4
I love these books!

Bass part to the Bottesini Elegy and Dragonetti concerto.
Vanhal concerto Piano part in C, Duncan McTier ed.
The above items must have been for students

Simandl Method, books 4 and 5
These contain some wonderfully obscure bass solo music by Simandl and other composers

Trios and Quartets for Double Basses, vol. 3, Zimmermann, ed.

Gamba Sonata #1, cemabalo part, Discordia edition

Bach 6 cello suites, facsimiles of 4 early editions
A fabulous little book. Expensive - $60 – but worth it. Unfortuately it is poorly bound, it is falling apart after only a few years. Contains the Anna Magdelena Bach manuscript long with 3 other from the 18th century. Very cool for studying the suites. Makes me want to burn any bass edition I’ve ever come across!

Sevicik op. 2 Bow Studies book. Gerd, Reinke, ed.
Every time I crack open this book by arranged by the now infamous Reinke, I seem to find a typo of some sort. I don’t use it any more.

Bagatelles, Dvorak. Charming little pieces for string quartet and harmonium (or piano). I played the trout recently and at the last minute somebody decided we needed an encore. Many thanks to the staff at Performer’s Music in Chicago for digging this up…!

Bass part to Metaboles, Henri Dutilleux, and the Alpine Symphony, Strauss. A couple of recent CSO things.

Bach 6 cello suites, Fournier ed.

Sevcik, violin book, cover long missing so the opus number is unkown at the moment. This book has the arpeggios on two strings, along with my handwritten sheet transcribing some of the patterns to be played on the bass.
I really like to dig these out when I feel my bow arms need a thorough going over.

Last but not least, a folder of bass quartet music from the Wacker Consort, but I’m not going to bother opening that right now…

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Step 4

OK, the blogging fell by the wayside lately, due in part to my crappy laptop acting up. Actually, like an old cat, it is slowly winding down, sleeping more and more often, harder to wake up, forgetting things …

Also, I’ve had a few more weeks off recently. Some by design, some not. So this post is about a subject truly dear to my heart: time off.

There is a story often told by CSO players about something the late James C. Petrillo once said. After the players had fought for and finally won 52 weeks employment, the labor boss – not necessarily the best friend of the CSO players – reportedly said “Now I suppose the next thing you guys will be wanting is time off,” or something of the sort.

Fair enough.

Here is a way of looking at my own evolution from beginner to sophisticated professional.

1) wanting to hear myself play
2) wanting others to hear me play
3) wanting to be paid to play
and the ultimate step
4) wanting to be paid not to play

There are a number of different ‘flavors’ of time off. Here are some of the most common ways a player could get time off with pay.

The orchestra has vacation weeks, when no concerts or rehearsals are scheduled. These are usually in August, around New Year’s, and between the end of the downtown season and the summer weeks at Ravinia. The season schedule and vacation weeks are spelled out a year or two in advance.

There are two ‘split vacation weeks’ per year. Each player gets one of those weeks off. Usually small orchestra pieces are scheduled so only half the orchestra plays each one. There is some flexibility as to which week a player wants to play or have off.

Each player is entitled to two ‘released weeks’ per season. The string sections choose these by lottery before the beginning of each season. The winds have to take the repertoire more into account, but there is a fair amount of flexibility in choosing these weeks. Most players treat released weeks as vacation weeks, but actually they can be revoked or changed by the management with notice. It rarely happens, but isn’t impossible. If you have a released week, you can usually buy a nonrefundable airline ticket to go somewhere without worry. Knock on wood.

Rotated time off is the real wild card, especially in the strings. Each section has, or is supposed to have, extra players. For example, we have 9 bass players but the ‘normal’ complement is 8. If no player is on release, ill, or off for some other reason, then one or more players may be ‘rotated off’. Players rotated off are on call, so it isn’t a great idea to leave town, although some players do it. My own strategy is to stay far away from the phone when I am rotated off. Additional players may be rotated off a concert if the repertoire or conductor so dictates. Sometimes this happens at the last moment, resulting in an unexpected week off for some. That is how I ended up having all of the Florida tour ‘off’ save one concert. Some players don’t like having those surprise weeks off, some do, so there is a certain amount of haggling and trading that goes on with rotated weeks. Each player is guaranteed one ‘program’ rotated off per season.

There are other ways to have time off – sick leave, maternity leave, sabbaticals, etc. but the ones listed above are the most common.