Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, May 05, 2007


The CSO concerts this week have an interesting programming idea from conductor Kent Nagano. Rihm’s Das Lesen der Schrift was apparently commissioned by Nagano as a sort of companion piece to the Brahms requiem. In fact the four movements of Das Lesen are meant to be played after movements 2,3,5, and 6 of the requiem.

The idea, as described by Nagano, was to provide an opportunity for listeners to reflect on the masterpiece during the new interludes because through repetition the Brahms had become ordinary, lost some of its impact, or has become taken for granted. Those are my paraphrases of his explanations.

Combining a beloved piece like the requiem with something modern provoked the expected firestorm of protest and condemnation from the players. I feel a bit sorry for Nagano. He is very earnest about his ideas which are being almost universally reviled. If not for the Rihm, I think the orchestra’s opinion of him would be quite favorable, based on his fine job on the requiem.
As a modern music supporter I am enjoying the Rihm, although I’m not convinced the Brahms benefits from its presence. Anyhow, this is a new take on the shit sandwich. (see the post of 2/11/07 for a discussion of the s.s. Maybe we can call it the shit club sandwich, although it is more like grinding up a pill and stirring it into your dog’s food so he’ll swallow it without realizing.


Matt Heller said...

Does that make the Brahms Requiem the dog food? Hmmm, not exactly an appetizing thought.

This does seem like a Green Eggs and Ham approach to audience education - would you like it with some Brahms? would you like it at the Proms? I hope people like Nagano will keep making the case for this music though, even when the orchestra members need to be convinced as much as the audience. Those attitudes can change with time - even if people's opinions won't change, new listeners start to take their places. You should check out Alex Ross' April 30th New Yorker article about Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Phil ("The Anti-Maestro"), if you haven't read it yet.

This won't happen in a week, but sooner or later people will realize that Ligeti and Rihm aren't s.s. material, but tasty dishes in their own right. Maybe a nice pho or bi bim bop, something that heats up your palate a more than it's used to. Bon appetit!

testtube said...

I always thought it was the audience rather than the orchestra that was opposed to modern works. Sorry to hear that conservatism is rife amongst the musicians as well.

Jacque said...

Yes, testtube, there are a lot of "musicians" who would rather just sit in their comfort zone once they've gotten tenure. Similarly there are accountants who are afraid to upgrade their PeopleSoft installations, train conductors who don't like the new schedules and dozens of other imperfect analogous situations.

Of course the pressure is immense: audiences are so conditioned to the idea that they will be hearing the zenith of perfection, what performer can stand the nerves required to take a chance on something in 13/8 time and microtonal harmony (or whatever the compositional trick du jour happens to be)--someone might (gasp!) hear you make a mistake!

Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY (performers, audience, critics, administration) needs to take all of this a little less seriously. Do you have fun as an amateur sailor because you win every race? No, you're happy to be DOING it, and maybe getting better as you go. Is your weekend softball team the league champion every year? No? But you keep doing it? Must be something more to this "life" thing than perfection.

Ok, ok, end of rant. It is a shame that there are members of the CSO who are down on Nagano. I've played for him, and he's a good guy, and a good conductor.

Karajan fan said...

Jacque, I completely agree with you. Very well said. I guess not every orchestra can be like the Berlin Philharmonic. LOL

Michael Hovnanian said...

Not sure what the Berlin Phil has to do with it – do they love Nagano, have an enlightened attitude towards modern music? Oh well…

My comments on the conservatism of orchestral musicians vs. the audience shouldn’t be taken as a scientific survey. I don’t mingle with the audience much. Also, the pro modern music faction among the players tends to keep quiet in the face of overwhelming opposition.

As performers our job is to give voice to a wide variety of music. Problems arise when orchestral musicians begin to see themselves as curators. I agree programming at the CSO (not only the modern music) is a big problem and the players have a lot of expertise that is going untapped. However, if we players only perform what we feel like playing, we’re not living up to our responsibility.

There is an interesting hypocritical attitude among the musicians. The player whose acceptance of ‘modern’ music extends through (let’s say) Bartok, Stravinsky and Shostakovitch will criticize the conservative audience member who does not accept those composers as closed-minded, not understanding a work of genius, unwilling to listen, etc. etc. Yet when the audience member shares their dislike of another composer, say Shoenberg, it is taken as confirmation that Shoenberg has ‘gone too far’ or written music that cannot be understood or appreciated and we shouldn’t force that sort of music on an unwilling public.

Another problem I have is with the idea that everything we play needs to be a ‘masterpiece’. That sort of attitude might have value when programming music that has been around for a while, but isn’t helpful for anything new.

Unknown said...

The modern composer's name is spelled Rihm, by the way.

Michael Hovnanian said...

You are correct. My aoplogies to Mr Rihm. Spell check lets me down yet again...

Michael Hovnanian said...

And just so people don't wonder what Marc was talking about: I corrected the spelling in the original post - I couldn't leave a gaffe like that hanging out there. I like those pieces. But in all honesty, I did spell Rihm as 'Rhim' 4 times!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Michael. You're not the first to misspell a word in cyberspace! I shared my thoughts on the program over at

Jacque said...

Glad to hear your response, Michael. I agree that not everything needs to be a 'masterpiece.' The drive to do that is probably coming from the marketing department, needing pithy catchy 'value-add' phrases to put on the annual brochure.

I'm not sure that I understand your paragraph about the hypocritical nature of some musicians but I think I agree. I'll add, perhaps contrarily, that I think it is okay to dislike certain composers or works. But one must acknowledge that such an attitude is one's own personal preference. As a member of a group committed to bringing music to the world -- if you have any desire to keep the art vibrant -- we have to give an honest and sincere effort to giving each piece its due, and not color the performance with our own personal dislikes. If you find you are constantly disliking the music you are asked to perform, and especially if you have no voice in making the selection, then it may be time for you to pursue another performance opportunity. Or, yes, even another career.

I confess, I've been in the role of complaining about the horrid unpleasantness of some contemporary work... but I think many of those times I was suffering at the mercy of a long drive, low pay, less-than-stellar conducting (no fun to play those intricate rhythms if the conductor can't make head nor tails of it!) and the general malaise of the driving for dollars symphony life, as well as trying to ingratiate myself among colleagues who were likewise complaining.

Having said all that, I await your response, and then we'll also see how you react when I call up the Hauta-Aho in our next CBE rehearsal (but of course, you DO have a voice in the artistic selection there...) :-)


Anonymous said...

I was at the Madison, WI performance of these works, and I must say, I was floored. It was, perhaps, the best concert I have been to in my life.

The Zimmerman went off very well, and I think the audience enjoyed it, if only because of the saw player and the interesting effects. The choral work I wasn't so hot on, but I don't go see the CSO for the chorus.

The Requiem, however, we absolutely magnificent, and unlike you, I thought the Rihm was a good addition to the piece. It is such a shame that pieces like the Brahms' Requiem have become so overplayed that their effect is routine. The Rihm forces you to listen with new ears, as you must in his music. Perhaps Rihm's additions were not his best music, but I thought his transitions were flawless, and when the Brahms began again, it was extremely fresh.

Thank you for a wonderful night.

How did you like playing in the Overture Center?

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the concert. The Overture Center is a wonderful hall.