Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Bad Dog!

I left my shoes out on the porch last night when I got home from the concert.

The CSO Ravinia season opened Friday evening with Pinchas Zuckerman playing Mozart violin concert no. 5 followed by the CSO slogging through Mahler 5. (I guess the programming thread for that concert was – 5!) Since I was off the Mozart (2 basses) I can only comment on the Mahler. All I can say is that from where I was sitting – on the second stand, safely ensconced behind the stage-left pillar – the performance made me feel as if the orchestra marched confidently, even triumphantly onto the stage after intermission only to step right into something unpleasant.

Right off the bat I should say that I am basically a supporter of James Colon who led the performance. He is sincere, friendly, and his approach to the late romantic staples of our repertoire (OK, warhorses) like the Mahler 5 strips away some of the hyper-emotional excesses that tend to cling to those pieces like, well, you know…

The problem is that there are times when the orchestra can’t or won’t play together under his baton, which basically moves way ahead of the beat. There are other conductors who do the same sort of thing to better results so it is hard to put my finger on what is going on. It is my suspicion that there is a little bit of willful musical misbehavior coming from the orchestra and Conlon, trying to be the nice guy, is letting things get a little too loose. However, when a conductor needs to stop and explain what he is trying to do with his baton it is usually a bad sign.

When I started with the CSO the ensemble playing astonished me. (I should quickly add that there are various ways to become astonished.) What made a big impression on me was how the various sections of the orchestra could stay absolutely together even while drifting ever so slightly apart from each other. It was weird to be sitting (for instance) at the edge of the bass and viola sections, hearing the basses edging slightly ahead (surprise, surprise) of the brave, stolid violas, with neither section falling apart. There used to be a very strong tradition here of playing together at all costs that has turned into something else. The ‘all eyes glued on the conductor’ approach tends to enslave us to whatever is going on at the podium and seems to have degraded our ability to listen and play together when things get rough. The mad ‘every man for himself’ stampede that almost derailed the scherzo last night was fairly embarrassing to be part of, and something that no self-respecting group of musicians should have let happen, whoever was on the podium and whatever they were doing.

Maybe Conlon should trade his baton for a rolled up newspaper.


Jacque said...


Do any of your colleagues read your blog and talk to you in person about it? I'd love to be a fly on the wall in those conversations. (Not that I think you should publish personal conversations here, that might not be right.)


Michael Hovnanian said...

A few people mentioned they've seen it. When that happens I try and change the subject immediately.