Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Beethoven 9th story

Tonight is my last concert of the 2006-2007 season. Actually, there is another week of concerts – Beethoven 9 – but mercifully I took time off. I have nothing against Herbert Blomstedt. In fact, I would be interested in working with him again after a long absence. It is just that Beethoven 9 isn’t my cup of tea any more for at least two reasons. First, it comes up way too often (I think we ended last season and our former music director’s tenure here with the 9th) and second, it is the source of one of my (at the time) most awful moments on stage, but something which now makes for a good story.

It was ten years ago, maybe more – one of the first concerts after Orchestra Hall was renovated to become Symphony Center. Such a grand occasion of course cried out for another run-through of the Beethoven 9th. As was usual for that era, the final rehearsal ended in a mad scramble and confusion, with time running out and not everything having been rehearsed, including notably the recititative and Ode to Joy theme for cellos and basses. The Maestro’s tempo for the Ode was slow, very slow, probably about half the metronome marking. As we know now, he conducts it in 4 when for years we were used to playing it in 2.

At the very end of the rehearsal one of the cellists interrupted the Maestro in the midst of some philosophical musings about the Ode, calling out a question from somewhere at the back of the section. “Are you doing that in two or four!?” As fate would have it this individual was a noted antagonist of our former music director. So rather than answer the question, the Maestro grew angry. “Two, four, seven! It doesn’t matter!” Rehearsal over. I’m sure most of you can tell what is about to happen next.

That evening we made it through the recitative unscathed, but when the theme was supposed to start the Maestro gave one of his customary ambiguous gestures – extending an arm with no discernable vertical or horizontal motion. Like a litter of kittens dumped out of a box the cello and bass sections scattered in all directions – some in two, some in four, maybe even a few in three – a quiet cacophony ensued, one that seemed to go on forever but only lasted about eight bars before the last stray cat got rounded up. I think of that experience every time the piece comes up, which, as I mentioned earlier is all too often in my opinion.


gottagopractice said...

The imagery of the kittens is so apropos. I hate when that happens.

John Floeter said...

Hey Michael,
I was there for this, and I'll never forget it. I remember hours of rehearsal time being eaten up on adjustments to the new canopy over the stage. When it came to the Ode in the first performance, I took off like a bat out of Hell in 7/8 for about 3 notes. Quickly, everyone quit playing except one person who confidently took the tempo in 2, and the rest of the lower strings eventually "hummed along".
The next performance, just before the Ode, it looked like the maestro was giving us the finger x 4. Talk about clarity in non-verbal gestures!

Michael Hovnanian said...


I’m glad to get some corroboration of this event. There was another rehearsal around then where most of the time was spent moving the horn section around the stage.

I do recall getting the four-finger salute the next night. During the applause after the disastrous performance my stand partner turned to me and said, “I hate him!” I don’t think he was referring to Beethoven.