Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

Showdown at the CSOK corral

a tragic comedy in one mercifully short act

[Scene: An old Midwestern Orchestra, parched without the reign of a music director going on a full year now. Every now and again in these desperate times a local bully might step up and try and take the musical law into his own hands.]

The grizzled old principal dragged his eyes from the crossword bedeviling him the past three rehearsals. “Maestro,” he drawled.

Eyes rolled in the orchestra and a kind of ‘here we go again’ sigh started up, just what a weary old-time saloonkeeper might do when he knows his place is about to get busted up and there isn’t darn thing he can do about it.

Biting his ‘T’s and spitting them out as if they were rancid bits of chaw, he went on.

“That’s…not…together! You’d be better off conducting the rhythm right there instead of the melody.”

A few hisses went up from the orchestra, some nervous laughter. This was a ticklish spot right here, to be sure.

As it had all week, Chung’s face remained an enigma. Now, for the first time anybody could recall, all eyes were on the conductor. He shot a quick glance skyward, as if checking out one last detail. And then he did the unexpected. He smiled.

“Perhaps what I should do is let you take over for those two bars,” he said quietly.

There was sustained laughter, much bow tapping on the stands, even a little applause. In one deft stroke he had applied boot to the seat of pants and sent the bully sprawling through the double doors out into the street.

But the grizzled veteran wasn’t going down quite so easy. He was on his feet again, trying to get back in.

“Well, then you’re going to have to come back here and play the ___,” he said, lamely.

Chung shook his head and gave his world-weary smile.

“You’re right,” he said. “I don’t know how to play the ___, but I’m willing to learn at least one passage in order to give you your opportunity.”

More laughter, but quieter this time, the whole thing blowing away like a tumbleweed bouncing down a dusty street.


My apologies for the preceding bit of silliness, although the dialog is pretty close to what was actually said. The lack of respect for Chung troubles me. Ever since he conducted here (I believe for the first time) a number of years ago, there has been constant grumbling from some quarters about his ‘bad attitude’ or some variation of that complaint. I don’t see it. He appears to be a complex individual, to be sure, but his treatment of the orchestra has always been professional even when it hasn’t been reciprocated.

The other big complaint seems to be he is aloof. Indeed, Chung often conducts either with eyes closed, or not fixed on anyone in particular. For years around here every musical gesture had to come at the behest of the music director with a knowing look, a wink or a nod from the podium. Chung doesn’t work that way, so the people most bothered appear to be some of the wind soloists who are used to being coddled. “He didn’t even look at me before my solo!” I heard one of them whining during rehearsal break. Meanwhile string players, for whom eye contact with the maestro is more akin to being caught in the prison guard-tower spotlight – a rare occurrence and one that almost always foretells something ominous – seem less bothered by Chung’s mannerisms.

Chung conducts – big surprise here – with his hands, not his face. The hands are where to look for the expression, but the expressions are subtle. We aren’t used to that style of conducting, hence the misunderstandings, I imagine.

For the most part, I am enjoying his Brahms 1st. I think he is somewhat fatalistic in the face of our ‘fuck you’ attitude and some of his ideas, particularly concerning the dynamic range, are a bit watered down. His tempo for the 3rd movement is the fastest I have encountered, but he makes a pretty good case for it. In the middle section he wants to go even faster. The orchestra really isn’t used to playing that movement with the agility he is asking for. At the rehearsal I got the image of somebody trying to negotiate an equestrian course while riding a rhinoceros. We crashed through every gate and ploughed through every hedge. In fact, it was in this section the little scene I dramatized above took place. I am happy to report now it came together a bit more at the first two concerts and so far everybody has been all smiles.


Unknown said...

I thought that Chung had a huge impact on the sound of the strings. He created a very warm and balanced sound. I enjoyed the concert very much! Thanks for the blog. It is always interesting and entertaining.

Unknown said...

Boulez conducts with his hands and not his face, too, no?

Michael Hovnanian said...