Bass Blog

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

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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.


Bill in Dallas said...

As a long-time season ticket subscriber, I share some of your feelings about new music. ON the other hand, I think it is important for the orchestra and audiences not to listen to ONLY the "standard" repertoire. We need to stretch our horizons too. Not too many years ago Mahler was considered "too-something" to be played often, and I think now that is not the case.

How do you reconcile these ideas with the often heard condemnation of classical symphony orchestras (well, from some music critics at least) as perpetrators of some sort of adoration of stale old music with no desire to expand? This is offered up as a reason for the decline in attendance and sales of recordings.

I personally think that one reason for the decline is the reduction in public school music programs which I think were a big factor in educating prospective audience members.

I enjoy reading your blog.. it gives a good window into a world I am pleased to know more about.

Michael Hovnanian said...

In answering the question, I tried to present the views of the musicians in general. My own opinion is that we should play very much more 20th and 21st century music, but I acknowledge that puts me well out of the mainstream.

The term ‘standard’ repertoire is somewhat confusing, and probably I misused it in this context. A colleague recently pointed out that we had played Bolero more often than the combined number of performances of anything by Mendelssohn. There are other composers who would fall in the same category. I’m not sure what to call this large body of works from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries the CSO should be playing but isn’t.

I agree totally that the decline in music education contributes to the decline in attendance. The less educated audience is also probably more apt to clamor for only the overly familiar repertoire as well.

Hucbald said...

I had a music prof back in the day who was asked, "Why is there such resistance to new music in orchestral circles?" His answer made almost everybody in the hall laugh: "Because it's no fun to play and it's no fun to listen to."

DJA said...

There's a real chicken-and-egg problem here, in that audiences would respond much better to new works if orchestras played them better, and were more willing to make an emotional commitment to the music. Who the hell wants to hear a bunch of bitter, indifferent musicians massacre a new work?

While I would love it if orchestras would program more new music, there's not much point if they're not even going to try to do justice to them.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Agreed. I don’t know how many times I have walked off stage after the first run-through of a new piece – when nobody could reasonably claim we had played well – hearing players pronounce it a dud, or worse. Continuing on, it is the composers who are killing classical music.

To my colleagues’ credit, the level of professionalism is high enough that we generally try our best and give a decent performance more often than not, even when presented with something glaringly awful.

If bitterness and indifference were disqualifying factors I shudder to think what our season would look like.

MK said...


Your last few posts have been quite intriguing. I think dja touches on a crucial point. Musical education is woefully neglected these days, not just in the US, but also in Europe (where I grew up). But this lack of musical education perpetuates itself in other ways which broaden the gulf between modern classical music and the general public. Popular music is no longer interactive in the sense that people more and more simply consume standardized industrial pop music while not engaging interactively in any sort of musical activity at home. I don't even mean Hausmusik, but simply singing in a church choir or playing a guitar around a campfire.

The sort of classical music that tended to more easily draw in novices - music that incorporates folk or church music elements or uses other familiar points of departure - is no longer being written for the simple reason that composers and the general public no longer share a musical vocabulary. Mass-produced popular music has to a large extent become so banal that it provides no inspiration for greater musical works. In the past, composers could draw on folk tunes, church music, jazz or other common elements of musical vocabulary that would draw in the uniniated. But this interface between art music and popular entertainment music has virtually disappeared. Thus, a large amount of music being written today is only intelligible to someone with a prior understanding of 20th century classical music or, in some cases, world music, which tend to be the sources of inspiration for living composers these days.

If there is a decline in classical audiences (which frankly I don't believe - critics need to get out of the expensive seats and hang out with the kids on the gallery), it is also a decline of jazz audiences and of active participation in choirs etc. across the board as more and more people become passive, musically illiterate consumers of mass-produced, regurgitated music of the lowest common denominator.