Bass Blog

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

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Friday, August 31, 2007


On Wednesday my annual preseason string order arrived. It is always good to start off with a fresh set of strings and a renewed sense of optimism. Unfortunately only the strings endure for any length of time.

As usual, I discovered the package dropped surreptitiously on the porch by our local FedEx person, someone I have never once managed to catch in the act of delivery. In contrast, his counterpart from UPS seems like an old friend.

Part of my order is the usual Pirastro flat-chromsteel set. I’ve tried different strings over the years but always seem to come back to these. My consternation isn’t with the strings; it’s the package that annoys me

The front of the flat-chrom package has a classy design – arabesque border, the crossed tuning forks inside the little octagon a nice touch, with just a splash of color. I’m happy the Pirastro strings I use – Flat-chromsteel, Eudoxa (Queen of strings! they call them.) and Oliv (The noble sound…?) – all have maintained the traditional front cover design. Sadly, the venerable Flexocor has gone to cartoonish color drawing. (Since when did strings need cover art anyway?)

But, what really gets me is the flip side, where

I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Playing!

is scrawled in cursive script. The first time I noticed that I thought somebody had sold me used strings or was playing a prank.

Sorry to say, I’m not so happy to see such exuberance whenever I get a new set of strings. Why this annoys me so much, I have no idea, but it really irks me every time. Maybe it is because I was ‘put in my place’ early on in my career.

The CSO was putting on a semi-staged opera with a very hefty, fairly famous soprano. I came bounding up the stairs during a rehearsal break and literally ran into her as she descended.

“Is break over already!” she wailed, still grunting and sweating her way down to her dressing room.

“No,” I answered, trying to be clever, “I’m so full of enthusiasm, I can’t wait to get back onstage!”

“Well,” she barked, “get over it!”

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Shock of the Old

Here's a very interesting post I found on Jason's Blog:

I was ready to tear what's left of my hair out because a certain musician who had turned up on both of these gigs drives me insane with his playing. It is difficult to describe to civilians, but you musicians will know what I mean when I tell you what this man does to frustrate me: he plays way too loud, doesn't listen and, worst of all, rushes like a mo'fo' constantly. There is nothing I can do to make the music feel good because this guy is always phrasing way out in front of the beat. There were excellent drummers on both these gigs but there's only so much commiseration we can share via stolen looks and musical telepathy. We basically have to tune this guy out. Oh, by the way, he's a rhythm section player (I don't want to get too specific here).

As a consequence, I have to try to NOT listen to this musician, which is antithetical to the nature of playing music, especially in a small group. Adding to the maddening level of non-musicality is the unfortunate fact that I happen to like this man very much personally. If I didn't like him so much it would somehow be easier to loathe trying to create a groove on the same bandstand with him.

Read the entire post by Bill Harrison on Jason Heath’s blog here.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

From the Inbox Archive

More good questions I left unanswered due to general slothfulness.

1) How does the orchestra react to doing an Orchestra premiere of a work only one time and after such a small amount of rehearsal?

2) Does the small ratio of new works/composers entering the repertoire (or canon) compared to number of new works premiered make it more discouraging to premiere a new work? How often do you get the sense of "We could end up playing this work 5 of the next 20 years."

It seemed (at the Saturday concert) that the Ambush From Ten Sides Silk Road work was extremely popular with the audience, but the orchestra looked like they wished people would stop clapping so they could start their break.

3) Is there a difference in what works or interpretations can be presented at a summer festival versus what you do in Orchestra Hall? It seems like Breaking the Silence would be good in Orchestra Hall, but not necessarily what someone would want while sitting outside on a summer night?

Sometimes once is more than enough. But seriously, at times it seems like a waste to learn a new piece and only play it once. At Ravinia, rehearsal time is indeed tight which puts pressure on the orchestra to give a good performance. Some conductors are better at pulling that sort of thing off than others, but more often than not, the results are not entirely satisfactory.

The orchestra reaction to almost anything new or unfamiliar tends towards the negative, no matter what. It is worse at Ravinia, but the reasons may be more valid. Summer audiences are possibly even less receptive to new things than those who come to concerts downtown – completely understandable, considering the venue – so musicians often wonder why we are force-feeding difficult material to an unwilling or indifferent public while so much ‘standard’ repertoire goes unplayed. Additionally, we possibly squander an opportunity to reach out to people only marginally interested in classical music, or those who have never heard it before, and maybe even chase some of them away with the programming.

The other side of that coin is the disappointment musicians feel when we pander to an audience, or present something that isn’t representative of what we do. Summer performances – Ravinia or Millennium Park – can be an excellent opportunity to reach out to a new audience, people who might not feel comfortable coming to Symphony Center to hear a concert. The tragedy is that often, rather than bringing a bit of what we do best to those people and selling them on it, we ‘tailor’ the programming to fit the audience, presenting them with popsy shows, or concerts where the orchestra is backing up some other kind of act. Usually we are playing music we don’t know, don’t care about, or have difficulty playing well in front of our largest audiences, which is a real letdown.

With new music, such as the Silk Road repertoire, there is not a clear line between what is ‘pop’ and what is ‘serious’ music. Your perceptive observation of orchestra members’ body language probably tells you as much as you need to know about what certain musicians thought about it.

The fact that very few new works we premier ever get played again is a disappointment for a number of reasons. For the majority of players who don’t want to play new music in the first place, there is a feeling we have wasted time and money putting on something that is going to simply gather dust on a library shelf somewhere. For those who support at least the idea of new music, it also seems a waste not to give some of these works a few hearings before declaring them duds or masterpieces. Accepting or rejecting a new work out of hand after one performance (or series) isn’t really giving that music its due, in my opinion. In fact, I think it might have the effect of forcing works to opposite ends of a spectrum – the immediately accessible versus the difficult and complex – with some composers actively courting instant public acceptance and others studiously avoiding it.

Friday, August 17, 2007

More Clearing of the Inbox

Here’s a question that has been languishing in Hotmail for many months now. Huge topic, but I try and take a futile stab at it.

In your 2/11 post you referred to "distasteful modern" pieces. I would be so curious to hear more from your insider's perspective as a player about what makes some modern pieces distasteful. Is it gratuitous dissonance, technical demands on the performers, what? Don't feel like you have to name names of specific composers or pieces (unless you're not averse to doing so in which case I would love to know), but I would like to know how often you feel that you as a CSO member are asked to present modern music that strikes you as good material for a s.s. And are those pieces most typically 20th century works or are they just as likely to be something written in the last few years? I direct an organization that specializes in commissioning new music, particularly for the choral/orchestral repertoire so I would be curious to hear your thoughts on it if/when you have time. A future post perhaps?

There are so many ways players hate modern music it is impossible to discuss them all. As an aside, one of the most surprising things to me entering this profession was the discovery that orchestra musicians might be even more conservative than their audience when it comes to new music. The s.s. designation (shit sandwich) can apply to any concert with a 20th or 21st century work. Chances are somebody is going to hate the filling.

The most easily dismissed musician complaints are those levied against anything unfamiliar, or any piece that doesn’t live up to the reputations of the ‘old masters’. For many players and audience members alike, the concert hall has become a mausoleum where only the most esteemed corpses are allowed to rest.

Beyond that, atonality is probably the most criticized element of modern works, whether or not they are familiar. Schoenberg’s music gets the most derision from players even though a number of his pieces entered our repertoire under our former music director. When it comes to Schoenberg, familiarity definitely breeds contempt, or worse. There are those who claim the second Viennese school was a cabal formed to kill western music. Go figure.

Moving on to what I would consider more nuanced critiques of new music, the foremost would be simply lack of craft. Ungainly or unplayable instrumental parts are sure to raise musician hackles. Poor orchestration is another but related complaint. Dense, muddy, over-scored orchestrations seem to be the norm for a lot of the newly commissioned works we see.

Works that utilize musicians like robots are especially distasteful (although this critique can just as easily be applied to composers like Bruckner and Wagner, IMO). Often, it seems as if a new work was written on a synthesizer and might be best also played by one. A more subtle variation of that would be the feeling by some players that they can’t use their music training or instincts, the musical language is somehow unintelligible, leaving them bewildered, clueless and demoralized when facing a new work.

The whole notion that players and audience members need to ‘get’ a modern piece of music is something that could merit a lengthy book – by someone other than myself. To touch on it, Boulez’s music is often held up as an example of the hyper-intellectual and unintelligible. But in my opinion it is possible to have an emotional response to his music (beyond anger) with a little bit of open-mindedness. Unfortunately, that is in short supply at times.

My own feelings, which put me squarely in the minority, are that it is unfair to compare a recent work, especially one getting its first performance, to any of the over fed war-horses contentedly munching away in the orchestral stables these past 200 years. The idea of holding every new thing up to the standard of ‘masterpiece’ or simply the ‘familiar’ probably does more to stifle music than any sinister machinations of the atonalists.

Monday, August 13, 2007

CSO Bass Blog Soldiers On

When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity.

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

And so it went with the CSO portion of the Ravinia Festival this year. At six weeks it seemed all too fleeting. On the other hand there were times (the slow movement of Bruckner 7th comes to mind) it seemed interminable. Unfortunately, six weeks (or less) might become the norm for the CSO at Ravinia considering the priorities of the leadership there and the plans they appear to have for the festival. I understand Ravinia has stated they would love to offer the CSO an 8-week residency (like in the old days, say five years ago…) so long as it begins after July 4 and concludes by mid-August. Logic like that, I don’t think even Einstein could wrap his brain around. We’re clearly dealing with an irrational lack of exuberance on Ravinia’s part.

But the CSO Bass Blog will persevere, even through vacation. I plan to continue answering some of the questions I have let pile up over the past few months. Indeed, if there are any (politely worded) reader questions out there, this might be a good time to submit them with the reasonable expectation of a timely response. There are also a few other topics on my mind I will have more time to delve into now that the pesky business of playing is for the moment behind me.

Right now, the main news about the CSO is that there is no news. Contract negotiations are suspended until early September. As I have mentioned before, the last day of our contract is September 16. The convergence of the negotiations, the start of our season, the arrival of Ricardo Muti, and our European tour two weeks later should make for an exciting time.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ravinia week 06 (August 6 - 12)

This week’s CSO Programs

Apollo Chorus of Chicago
James Conlon, Conductor
Patricia Racette, Soprano
James Valenti, Tenor
Fred Burchinal, Baritone
Ning Liang, Mezzo-soprano

Puccini: Madama Butterfly

James Conlon, Conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau ("The Mermaid")


11-1:30 CSO rehearsal

11-1:30 2:30-5 CSO rehearsals

11-1:30 2:30-5 CSO rehearsals


7:30 CSO concert

12:30-3 CSO rehearsal
5 CSO concert

And that does it for the 2006-2007 season of the CSO.

The first rehearsal for the 2007-2008 season is on Tuesday, September 11. As of this posting, the players and management have not agreed on a new contract. However, the week of September 10-16 is part of the current contract, so there is no danger the opening week of rehearsals and concerts would be affected if an agreement is not reached by that time.

Beyond that, we will have to wait and see.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Clearing the Inbox

Since starting this blog I have received a number of questions and made vague promises to answer them at some point.

A bigwig from the International Bottesini Society recently contacted me with a series of interesting questions. I agreed to answer them in my blog if they would wave my 25 years of unpaid membership dues, so here goes.

1. Describe an experience that made you glad you play bass.

Once upon a time I played in the ‘Junior Symphony’, which I guess is the farm team for the Seattle Youth Symphony. I must have been about twelve when this happened. We were playing (or trying to play) the last movement of Tchaikovsky 4. The conductor threw a fit at the general lack of preparation in the strings and decided to go round the orchestra, stand by stand, to hear the theme.

There were only three of us in the bass section, and although I can only speak for myself, I can safely say none of us had any idea how to play those notes. First violins, seconds, violas, and cellos each went through their public humiliation before all eyes turned to the basses. Now as any bass player knows, the basses don’t play the complete passage at the beginning of the movement. Without saying anything to each other, the three of us all instinctively chose the same survival mechanism. When the conductor gave the downbeat, together, we played exactly four notes and stopped.

The conductor found it impossible to maintain his wrath in the face of such brazen incompetence and let the matter drop. At that moment I was very glad I played the bass.

On a more positive note, one passage that makes me happy I took up the bass is the opening pizzicato section of Mahler 4, 3rd movement. On those rare occasions when, due to a fortuitous leave of absence, illness, or by sheer luck, the bass section pizzicatos are together, this is one of the most satisfying things to play. In this business you often have to settle for very simple pleasures.

2. Describe an experience that made you wish you played something else -- or perhaps weren't a musician at all.

One word: Bolero.

3. What, in your opinion, is the worst moment in the standard orchestral repertoire for bassists?

I have to answer this a little carefully.

In my experience, the worst moment in the standard repertoire for the basses has to be the ‘bass solo’ passage in the Mahler 1st symphony. I’m not talking about having to play it myself though.

I imagine the questioner intended something else. There are really so many candidates for the worst moment. What comes to mind is the so-called ‘storm scene’ from Beethoven 6. I’m talking about the loud passages where the notes are largely inaudible but give the visual impression the bass section is engaged in some sort of communal act of autoeroticism.

I played Beethoven 6 in another orchestra before I got to Chicago. After playing through the ‘storm’ movement, the conductor stopped and addressed the bass section.

“Should we rehearse that?” he asked, foolishly.

Of course we all shook our heads, ‘no’.

“You know,” the Maestro went on. “When you get to heaven, you are going to have to face Beethoven!”

The principal shot back, “Well, he’s going to have to face me!”

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ravinia week 05 (July 30-August 5)

including the exciting Ravinia parking lot story!

This week’s CSO Programs

James Conlon, Conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor

James Conlon, Conductor
Plácido Domingo, Tenor
Ana Maria Martinez, Soprano
Gala Benefit Concert

James Conlon, Conductor
André Watts, Piano
Leonore Overture, No. 3, Op. 72a
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67


2:30-5 CSO rehearsal

2:30-5 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert


10:30-1 2-5 CSO rehearsals

7 CSO concert

12:30-3 CSO rehearsal
5 CSO concert

The only truly notable thing about these concerts is that temperatures are forecast in the nineties this week. I didn’t bother to include the ‘Gala’ repertoire, partly because the list is about a page long, partly because it includes much of the kind of fluff that makes galas intolerable.

Also, I have a particular sore spot for Ravinia galas, not to mention a dent in my car to tell about.

Last year I made the mistake of driving – I usually ride my bike to rehearsals and concerts. After the gala I was out the door quickly as is my custom, but not quickly enough to evade the guy directing traffic. After my quick exit from the musician’s parking lot a self-important traffic guy with flashlight and reflective vest stopped me at the next corner so that the rich gala attendees could slowly trundle their luxury automobiles out of the adjoining lot. Many cars exited while the line behind me continued to grow. At long last, no more cars came, or so it seemed. Obviously under orders from Ravinia management not to let a single musician cross until every last member of the second estate exited, the traffic guy continued to block a long line of cars, waiting to see if perhaps a few more might straggle out from the other lot. His problem (at least one of them anyway) was that from where he stood blocking my way, he was unable to see into the lot with the priority exiting privileges. By that point I was sufficiently irked to see this as an opportunity to turn the incident into a skirmish in the ongoing class war. Additionally, my position at the head of the line made me feel somehow responsible for all the other plebian automobiles forced to sit idling, waiting for the mere possibility that someone of more importance might emerge from the other lot.

Perhaps his resolve wavered, but I think he simply needed to abandon his post in order to see what was holding up the rich drivers. In any event, the parking guy turned his back and walked away without giving an explicit sign I had to continue waiting – a kind of parking ‘Simon Says’. That is when I seized the moment. Alas for me, my car, in its 16th year last summer, lacked the necessary acceleration to fully escape his wrath. Seeing himself bested, the parking guy erupted in rage – I could hear his shouted obscenities even though my car wanted for a muffler at the time. In desperation, he summoned burst of superhuman energy and managed to strike my car with his flashlight. I like to imagine that he threw it, like some modern-day Ninja of the parking lot, but I suspect that he was able to chase down my sluggish car to get close enough and whack me as I went by. In no mood to stop and confront somebody so obviously dealing with anger management issues, I waited until arriving at home to assess the damage.

I’ve decided to keep the resulting small crescent-shaped dent unrepaired for a number of reasons – the age of my car, my own cheapness, but not least to remind myself why I dislike Ravinia Galas.