Bass Blog

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

Feel free to email your comments.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mr Sunshine

About an hour into the first rehearsal of the Bruckner 7th under Bernard Haitink I had a disquieting thought. The Bruckner symphonies were a staple of our former music director so I have spent many hours rehearsing them, hours I will unfortunately never get back. After finishing the first movement I realized I had been holding myself in a kind of cringe that was just beginning to relax. Where was the browbeating? Where were the condescending lectures? What happened to the tedium? And yet the orchestra sounded fabulous, better than we have in a while. How was that possible?

For years around here ‘artistry’ has been so firmly linked to negativity that it is almost impossible for any conductor to clear away the poisoned atmosphere. Somehow Haitink managed to do it this week. He is a quiet, self-effacing conductor, and the orchestra really seems to admire and respect him. Rehearsals were eerily quiet when he stopped us to make minor corrections here and there. His remarks were consistently both tactful and effective.

As everyone knows, orchestra musicians are feckless and lazy. Naturally we would prefer any conductor who treated us nicely over one who might attempt to lead us to a higher level of artistry. That in mind, I tried to keep a critical ear on Haitink’s concerts to see if my sense of contentment vanished during the performance or the musical standards had slipped in any way. The concert is after all the time when all conductors are equal in the sense that the lecturers have to shut up and conduct while the nice guys have to show they have enough backbone to actually lead the orchestra.

Bruckner’s symphonies are like massive cathedrals built from thousands of notes. Conductors can become so enamored with superficial features, pausing to admire every gargoyle and arabesque, that they lose sight of the thing as a whole. Haitink’s approach to the 7th was a success I thought because he focused on the structure rather than every single (or arbitrarily selected) bricks. The music actually flowed along – even at about 70 minutes the symphony seemed refreshingly brief.

Finally, another conductor mistake is fall victim to the episodic nature of Bruckner’s writing and build every climax to maximum dynamic, pummeling the audience (and orchestra) with bruising fortissimos when the composer has actually carefully structured the dynamics. Haitink was somewhat successful at getting the orchestra to observe the dynamics and restored some sense of balance to the sound.

The thing that amazed me and inspired this post was that he was able to do it all in a professional and respectful way. And the orchestra responded with (so far) three very fine performances. The whole thing reminded me of a story probably every school-aged child learns at some point – although I wonder if that was the case with our former music director.

The sun and a storm cloud were debating who had the greater power. When they saw a man walking below they decided to test their strength by seeing which of them could get the man’s jacket off his back. First the storm cloud huffed and puffed, blowing cold winds at the man and pelting him with rain. But the man only pulled his coat more tightly about him. But when the sun came out from behind the cloud the man freely removed his coat and continued on his way.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed your blog about the CSO with "Mr. Sunshine", aka Bernard Haitink. I recently left a principal position in a major canadian orchestra just for that very reason. I had spent 32+ years there, never really got much that I was really happy about and everyone around was miserable. I still want to play but I will do it on my own terms now. Its interesting and sad to see that the great orchestras have the same problems. Vincent Ellin

testtube said...

Interesting comparison. I didn't know that DB's conducting style was resented. I'm looking forward to Tuesday's concert.

Jacque said...

A quick take on a tangentially related subject - see the second paragraph:

Jacque said...

testtube: I'll be interested to hear what you have to say after the concert as well. The 'struggle against the conductor' is well-known among professional musicians, but it makes sense that it should be all but invisible to the audience.

I respect your preference, if you have one, to remain anonymous-ish here online, but I am curious to know more about your relationship to the world of 'classical' music (are you a long-time subscriber, or newly attending a concert at a time, for instance) and how you are affected by the things you learn here at CSO Bass Blog or at Jason Heath's blog (link to one of the "Road Warrior" series of posts).

I do hope you enjoy your musical experiences; bringing pleasure to those around us is one of the primary reasons most of us took up music to begin with!


testtube said...


I'm a soon-to-be-graduating college student at the U of C, and have been attending about 15 CSO concerts a year for the last three years. I was forced to learn the piano as a child and attained a reasonable standard after 8 years of being threatened with physical violence if I did not practice, but never enjoyed listening to or playing music all that time, and only started listening to classical music again (and attending concerts in my hometown, etc.) three years after my parents finally stopped forcing piano lessons on me. Even then, I would say that I did not learn how to listen to music intelligently until I took a few theory and analysis courses at the U of C. I've never played in an ensemble so I'm curious about the social dynamics amongst the musicians. And it's always interesting to read their opinions on music and other musicians.

Angrybassist said...

I'm only an amateur bass player, but I've noticed in some cases you get what I call rigor without excellence: The conductor (or teacher) is just pissed that standards aren't higher, so he tries to force it with increasing levels of rigor (and, often, rancor). Excellence seldom follows; in fact, quality tends to drop. Rigor is a good thing, but it's not enough to produce excellence by itself.

Jacque said...

angrybassist: I think you've made many excellent points in your succinct post.

I'm sitting here trying to summarize all of them, and I can't! There is so much implied:
- the leader of the team doesn't have to be the best at the technical skill of the team, but must appreciate what is the best.
- the leader must encourage the best to come out of the rest of the team, in a positive way.
- leaders who lead by browbeating may achieve amazing results (Bobby Knight), but sacrifice other aspects of the team. And those results are rarely repeatable by others.

I could probably go on, but I won't.


MK said...

Dear Michael,

I've been enjoying your blog since inception. thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us.

Since you're comparing Haitink and Barenboim, please allow me to voice a slight bit of criticism from an audience point of view. While I thought Haitink's Mahler 3 earlier this season was phenomenal (and I love the recording, too!), I wasn't half as convinced by the Tuesday night Bruckner performance. What I've usually seen as a hallmark of Haitink's style - absolutely perfect sectional balancing - was somehow off, at least in the first two movements. From the start, the brass was overpowering. At the top of the opening phrase, all you heard was Clevenger, not the cellos. The sound of the orchestra was somehow a bit rough in the first two movements. The climax of the first movement seemed to reach fff a little early, plateauing instead of peaking. The last two movements were much better. The Scherzo, in particular, was truly inspired and throbbing with life.

But given that the last time I heard this particular symphony live was with Barenboim when the CSO was on tour in Berlin - was it three years ago? - the comparison does stick out in my mind. Barenboim achieved a more blended, darker, warmer sound in this work and a wider spectrum of dynamics. One thing I thought he always did remarkably well was to produce truly eerie pianissimos, as well as tremolos and ostinatos that were full of pent up energy even at low volume. This I missed in last night's performance. When this inner glow is present, as it was on Barenboim's best eveninigs, the work practically propels itself forward irrespective of the chosen tempo.

Now, of course, the two have a completely different approach to Bruckner. Haitink has a leaner, more classically proportioned view than Barenboim. So this is not to question Haitink's approach as such - I have, after all, heard him conduct a fantastic 9th in Amsterdam fairly recently. I just can't (yet) second the observation that the orchestra sounded better in this repertoire under him as opposed to Barenboim, at least based on last night's performance.

I see Eschenbach will be conducting the 7th in Ravinia this summer. I'm curious to hear what he will do with this. How much rehearsal time do you guys get for Ravinia performances? Is it the same as for subscription concerts?

Michael Hovnanian said...

MK, Thanks for your astute observations. I have to admit that in some ways the Tuesday performance was the weakest of the lot, which is often the case. We last played the Bruckner on Saturday, had Sunday and Monday off, then spent Tuesday morning rehearsing this week’s program. Sometime that makes for a fresh and interesting Tuesday night performance, but not in this case. Also, the Tuesday concert might have been recorded but much of it wouldn’t be used for the CD because of the absence of a key principal player. We had a patch session after the Saturday evening show, so I assume the producers and the orchestra assumed everything was covered. The orchestra was perhaps a little relaxed and sloppy on Tuesday. The atmosphere that evening was about as far from a concert on tour in Berlin as you could get. I do not mean this in any way as an excuse. It was still a pretty good performance, but not up to the level of the previous shows.

My stand partner noted the not so good balance as well. What seemed to happen was that the good work done by Haitink in rehearsals gradually became undone, like an elastic band snapping back into place. The brasses got a bit louder each night and the pianissimos (pianissimi?) in the strings tended more towards our customary mezzo forte. Haitink isn’t the kind of conductor to hold up the hand throughout a performance or scowl, as if that would have helped.

Eschenbach has done the 7th at Ravinia before, I believe. Somebody remarked just this evening that his rendition is about 10 minutes slower than Haitink’s, all of which seemed to be accrued during the slow movement. (Some players religiously mark down timings in the parts.) We get much less rehearsal time at Ravinia. The Mahler/Bruckner 7 concert has 2 rehearsals. Last week’s concert had 4. Sometimes Ravinia programs works we have played recently downtown I think to take advantage of the rehearsals the orchestra as done in advance.

Thanks for your comments. It is always nice to know somebody out there is listening closely.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Michael for your blog which I have really enjoyed.

This posting particularly caught my eye as I used to roll my eyes and mutter, "oh boy," during the love fest sendoff for the former music director.

The sycophantic press and critics led by one loud Sun Times freelancer were laughable in their misunderstanding of the musician's view of the music director. Thanks for your nuanced commentary.

I am reading two bass blogs now. I guess there must be something wrong with me.

Keep up the interesting and good work.

Alexj said...


I just discovered yur blog today and I am appreciative of your candor and honesty. I have read with great interest, especially because I am a conductor. Now let me explain:

I have played in professional orchestras for over twenty years. During that time a studied conducting and spent a great deal of time studying scores and watching conductors. My journey took me to academia and I am fortunate now to serve as director of orchestral activities at one of the important and large university music programs in the U.S.

All that to say that my interest in academia is to work with young, fresh musicians and to do what I can to instill a long-lasting love of orchestral music. My approach to working with orchestras (professional and student) has been similar to the Haitink model (in fact, one of my foreign doctoral concertmaster who performed in Haitink compared me to him--not sure I am worthy of such a comparison, but it was flattering).

The problem with treating players with such respect is that too often it is not appreciated or repayed with a good work ethic. There is a certainl level of discipline and professionalism expected in my ensembles; yet, there always seems to be a small group of individuals that seem to need a spanking and complain if they don't get one. It is as if "standards" are not being obtained if not demanded.

Frankly, I value the musical phrase, ideals, and chamber music qualities of performance over the sterility of perceived perfection. Is this wrong? My groups play with energy and a level of joy that is at the core of music, even if a note or two are out of tune. What is your view on this, especially as it relates to a professional orchestra.

Always learning....

Michael Hovnanian said...

Max submitted this post. I asked and received his permission to edit out the easily recognizable initials of some CSO members.

Hey, Mike--
Found your blog and am enjoying it. I agree with most of it, but not with your assessment of our former boss. I never felt browbeaten by him. I found his criticisms to be passionate and intense, but never personal. And he was basically always right. I think a lot of what Haitink is able to achieve here is piggybacking on the values DB instilled. I heard a recording of Beethoven's 8th with the London Philharmonic with Haitink on the radio a couple of days ago. It was brutal and dry--I figured it was probably Solti on a bad day; was amazed that it was Haitink. I think attitudes are contagious--could your negative reaction to DB have been spread by proximity to fellow bassists such as … … … … all of whom despised him? The violists almost all were quite fond of DB, which no doubt influenced my own views.