Bass Blog

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

Feel free to email your comments.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Friday – Travel from Verona to Rome, Concert in Rome

It is difficult to know where to begin describing a day like this, perhaps at the beginning.

As is often the case, I skipped the hotel breakfast and stayed in my room to write. I’m not much of a breakfast person anyway so I chafe all the more under the provision in our contract whereby a large chunk of the per diem is deducted for the lavish buffets I rarely indulge in. Even more puzzling is the fact musicians would be billed for something most European hotels offer free of charge most of the time. No wonder some of my colleagues line pockets with purloined breakfast items to feed on for the rest of the day.

The bus ride to the airport ends with the bad news that our flight will be delayed. At 10:15 we are told to report back at 11 for an update. What happened to calling the airport before leaving, I wonder? At 11 the news is worse: no flight until 2. We are encouraged to get back onto the buses to be dropped off in Verona for some bonus sightseeing. I wander the streets of Verona for about an hour and get back on the bus at 1 to return to the airport.

Security is painfully slow, and Verona is one of those airports where passengers need to take a bus out to the plane even though it could be plainly seen through the terminal window parked about 200 feet away. The last orchestra members boarded a little after 2 at which point we were informed by a sheepish sounding captain that because of the slow boarding we had missed our slot and would need to wait 90 minutes. To the relief of all we got going almost right away. From then on the flight was more or less normal. We landed a bit after 3 and by 3:30 I was on the train to Rome. Since I chose not to stay at the orchestra hotel I was spared another bus trip. All in all there would be 7 bus rides a colleague pointed out at the intermission of the concert that evening.

I made it to my room by 5 and spent almost an hour trying to figure out how to get to the concert hall by city bus. Rome has hundreds of bus lines that twist and turn throughout the city, making planning a trip a challenge for the novice traveler. A brief nap followed by a slice of pizza on the run had to stand in for what was supposed to be a half-day in Rome. Arrival at the concert hall by bus at 8 PM for a 9 PM concert was largely uneventful.

The concert hall in Rome is part of a giant complex containing several venues. We were warned in our tour book that it was a 7-minute walk from the stage door to the stage – more or less true. Inside, the auditorium looked much like the all too familiar Berlin Philharmonie, with some of the same sound issues as well. At the opening of the Tchaikovsky 6, I thought I was playing but no sound seemed to come from the instrument. Someone said after the concert the basses sounded ‘OK’ in the hall, but under the ear, nada.

The orchestra played well, I thought, considering what a crappy day we had. The atmosphere was more charged than the night before, I guess because it was Rome. Also, the president of Italy was in attendance. I was nearly trampled by paparazzi on my 7-minute walk to get out of there.

Outside, I learned that there ‘might’ be a bus strike in progress, walked halfway back, and then took a taxi, not reaching the room until 12:30. Various revelries kept me up until about 3 AM.

Saturday is a free day, thank heavens.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Thursday – Travel from Torino to Verona, Concert in Verona

No breakfast this morning due to overindulgence last night. A persistent rain kept me in the hotel until it was time to walk to the train station. Fortunately most of the 10 blocks were under arcades running along the tracks.

The orchestra had a chartered train to Verona. We were herded into three first class cars at the front of the train while the other nine remained empty. During the trip, at least one brass player used a vacant car to practice.

Chartered travel arrangements always pose something of a dilemma where the desire to escape from the group runs headlong into the exigencies of getting from one city to the next on time, not to mention saving money. The trick is to surround oneself with colleagues whose presence is enjoyable, with the double function of creating a buffer zone against those whose proximity evokes displeasure. I was fortunate in my seating situation and the ride turned into a jolly time.

The train to Verona took about 3 hours, followed by a superfluous 5-minute bus ride. In the hotel by 3:30. The Leon D’Oro proved less than charming. Baggage delivery became something of a fiasco too. I ran into a few colleagues in the lobby who at 6 PM were still waiting for their luggage before the 8:30 concert.

The persistent drizzle had followed us from Torino. A nap preceded a brief soggy walk around the town swarming with tourists. No dinner before the concert due to continuing ramifications of last night’s overindulgence.

The hall in Verona turned out to be a charming old opera theater, seating only about 1,300. The sound onstage seemed dry but with a good bass response. The mellow sound was a pleasant change after the stridency of the night before. Muti seemed a little less keyed up than the night before as well. Maybe his day had been as dreary as ours.

After the concert, a fifteen minute walk back to the hotel in the rain.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Wednesday – rehearsal and concert in Torino

I’m up and about by 7 AM. The hotel (not one the orchestra is staying in) turns out to be a pleasant surprise. The smallish breakfast buffet would elicit outrage from certain orchestra members who turn noses up at any spread containing less than three different kinds of smoked fish, but it is not bad by any reasonable standard.

The city bus to the hall is slow but gives me a chance to rub elbows (literally) with a bunch of Italians on their way to work. As I find out later, the complex containing the concert hall used to be a Fiat plant. I guess the ‘T’ in Fiat stands for Torino, not Tony as in the timeworn joke.

At a loss to find the musician’s entrance, I wander aimlessly about the huge windswept plaza fronting the building until two different CSO staffers come out and show me the way in.

There is always a moment of anticipation opening the bass trunk after an overseas trip. I decided to use the CSO Testore – the instrument I waited 5 years for repairs on – so I was a little extra concerned this time. As a student I took a bass to Europe once, an instrument unremarkable save for its beautifully carved lions-head scroll. Opening the trunk I ended up catching the head as it tumbled out, having cracked off at the nut. It brought to mind the scene from The Godfather where the guy wakes up looking at the horse head. Anyhow, this time there was no discernable damage.

The auditorium, three floors below ground level, has attractive wood finishes all round. The sound of one bass alone on the stage is clear, if somewhat brittle. After a few peaceful minutes alone I am swamped as the rest of the orchestra trickles in and find out it can become quite loud. Instruments close by – trombones for instance – can be heard with painful clarity while those across the stage are difficult to make out.

Muti leads a relaxed rehearsal, giving the orchestra a chance to find its feet without too much meddling, certainly a different atmosphere from the way things have been done at the CSO in the past.

Afterwards, a chance encounter on the street leads to a pleasant lunch with a colleague. The rest of the afternoon is spent avoiding the dreary weather – napping at the hotel, writing.

For the 9 PM concert, I try and arrive early for some practice. Again, after a few minutes alone I’m drowned out but churn through about an hour of scales and Sevcik anyway.

From my position onstage it is difficult to give an objective assessment of the concert. There were some moments of less than perfect ensemble, perhaps attributable to the difficulty hearing across the stage. The louds seemed overly loud as well – nothing new there.

Muti was well received by the Italian audience, returning for many curtain calls at the end of the first half which lead to an awkward moment when the orchestra, eager to start its break, began to exit en masse just as the Maestro emerged for yet one more bow, resulting in a confusion of sitting and standing musicians, some halfway to the doors, nobody sure what to do next.

After the concert, a lively dinner with two colleagues and one critic. Back to the hotel by 2 AM.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tuesday – Arrival in Torino

The flight landed more or less on time at about 10:15 PM. Torino airport’s gleaming modern terminals and baggage hall lead to a rather shabby waiting area. At that hour there were no more trains, only a bus at 10:45.

A slight drizzle at the beginning of the trip abruptly became a downpour. The bus to the Porta Nuova train station for some reason pulled up a block short leaving passengers to fend for themselves. Rather than a bustling hub of activity as in other European cities, the station in Torino looked gloomy, deserted save for a few people huddling under cover like half drowned rats. Construction barricades forced hapless pedestrians from under the covered archways into the rain. It took two crossings of the street in ankle deep water to find the taxi stand.

The first cab waiting held two ladies arguing (?) loudly in Italian, something about the airport. Another soon pulled up behind but the passenger who got out proceeded to carefully examine and question each and every coin the driver returned to him in change. The rain was falling in sheets.

Ten minutes and E. 10 later, arrival at the hotel. It is now midnight. At the desk the man in line before me gets into a long, involved discussion with the manager about Internet access. In the room by 12:10 AM.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A final gasp of fresh air

Tuesday, September 25

The previous post contains a glaring mistake I should correct right away. And since, miracle of miracles, I have free Internet access at least for the moment I can set things to rights.

The schedule for the first four days of the tour should read:

Depart Chicago

Arrive Torino


10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
9 CSO concert (A)

How can somebody not know when they are leaving for Europe, you ask?

The answer is simple, and even spawns the subject for a new post. What appears above is the ‘official’ tour schedule for the orchestra. I left a day early (Saturday) and went someplace else. So I’m not paying much attention to what the orchestra as a group is up to until we all convene for the rehearsal on Wednesday morning.

One of the things about touring I have come to appreciate more and more over the years is that besides rehearsals and concerts an orchestra member is free to come and go as he or she pleases. In fact, making separate arrangements becomes almost an imperative for maintaining sanity.

Of course I love all of my colleagues dearly, but I have found being in an orchestra becomes like a cross-country bus trip with about a hundred of your closest friends. The thing funny yesterday becomes today’s grating annoyance. Eventually everyone needs to get up to use the toilet and the whole thing starts to take on a certain funk. Touring tends to exacerbate those conditions. No matter how nice the scenery, it is often preferable to take a different bus.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

CSO tour September 23 – October 7

Tour programs
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 3
FALLA The Three-Cornered Hat: Suite No. 2
RAVEL Rapsodie espagnole
RAVEL Boléro
(VERDI Overture to La forza del destino)

TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique)
HINDEMITH Nobilissima visione
SCRIABIN Poem of Ecstasy
(VERDI Overture to La forza del destino)

Depart Chicago

Arrive Torino



10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
9 CSO concert (A)

Travel to Verona
8:30 CSO concert (B)


Travel to Rome
9 CSO concert (B)



Travel to Essen
8 CSO Concert (A)

Travel to Munich
8 CSO Concert (A)

Travel to Paris
8 CSO concert (B)


8 CSO concert (A)

Off (or travel to London)


Travel to London
7:30 CSO concert (B)

7:30 CSO concert (A)

Return to Chicago

This tour has too many travel and concert days. Four or five hours travel time plus packing and then unpacking again all in one day before playing a concert is taxing for the orchestra. Both programs are strenuous. We will see how it goes.

I intend to keep a journal of the tour and post it whenever I can, which may not happen until I get back.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Lathe of Heaven

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.–Chuang Tzu

Some time near the beginning of the season is the appropriate time to mention what is still my favorite perk as a member of the CSO. It isn’t our salary, printed in the newspapers again this week as it is after every contract settlement, our concert hall, or even getting to share the stage with our brass section. No, my needs are much more modest, my pleasures far simpler. I’m talking about the grinding wheel.

First, a little history of my experience with the wheel. Before the latest renovation of orchestra hall an inconspicuous door beside the musician mailboxes opened into a small ‘utility room’, a dingy little space crammed with odds and ends – tools, wires, a furnace, if I recall. In that room, bolted to a greasy workbench stood a small grinding wheel, perfect for sharpening endpins.

I’m not sure who introduced me to the wheel. During the summer months, the stage at orchestra hall is often refinished, resulting in a hard, slick surface. At the first few rehearsals of the season endpins tend to slip, making a nice sharp spike desirable. I’m sure one of my colleagues noticed my slipping and sliding and introduced me to the wheel. Strange that I don’t remember the details.

There was something of a ritual about removing the endpin and solemnly taking it down to the dark little room where the wheel resided, the hellish shower of sparks like the devil’s own workshop, the smell of sulfur.

After renovation, the little room had vanished. I believe it became part of a musicians’ lounge and for several years we were without access to a wheel until the bass section took up a collection and a new one was purchased. One of my colleagues, handy with tools, built a small pedestal for it, and the shiny new wheel sits in a corner of the bass locker room.

I used it again today in preparation for the tour. You never know what kind of stages you might come across and it is best to be prepared with a diamond-sharp point. Even stripped of its ritual, the wheel is still about my favorite part of being in the CSO.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Week 01

September 17 – 23

This week’s CSO program

Riccardo Muti, conductor
Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique)
Hindemith - Nobilissima visione
Scriabin - The Poem of Ecstasy

7:30 MOB concert

10-12:30 1:30-3:30 CSO rehearsals

10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
6:30 CSO concert (Afterwork Masterworks, Hindemith, Tchaikovsky only)

11-1:30 CSO rehearsal
8 CSO concert

1:30 CSO concert

CSO European tour until October 7

CSO players and management settled our contract negotiations on Saturday. After spending countless hours in meetings over the summer I’m not inclined to spend too much energy thinking or writing about our new contract at the moment. Anyone interested in details should look for them elsewhere. The one thing I will say now is that I am particularly proud of our committee for maintaining scale for substitute and extra musicians. A number of so-called ‘major’ orchestras have cut deals where subs and extras are paid less than regular members. This shameful practice runs counter to unionism and has the unsavory aspect of players with secure incomes screwing local freelancers and lining their pockets with the spoils.

I’m not sure how much blogging will go on during the tour. I’ll post the tour schedule before leaving Chicago and see what happens. I have a thing against paying for expensive Internet access at hotels.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Week 53 (?) at the CSO

September 10 - 17

This week’s CSO programs
Friday and Sunday

Riccardo Muti, conductor

Prokofiev - Symphony No. 3
Falla - Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat
Ravel - Rapsodie espagnole
Ravel - Boléro

Opening Night Gala

Riccardo Muti, conductor
Barbara Frittoli, soprano

Verdi - Overture to La forza del destino
Verdi - Tacea la notte placida from Il trovatore
Puccini - Vissi d'arte from Tosca
Cilea - Io son l'umile ancella from Adriana Lecouvreur
Falla - Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat
Ravel - Rapsodie espagnole Ravel – Boléro

This week’s Music of the Baroque program
Sunday and Monday

Music of the Baroque chorus and Orchestra
Jane Glover, conductor
Arianna Zukerman, soprano
Shawn Mathey, tenor
Nathan Berg, bass-baritone

Die Jahreszeiten


10-12 1-3 CSO rehearsals

10-12 1-3 CSO rehearsals


10-12:30 CSO rehearsal
2-5 MOB rehearsal
8 CSO concert

10:30-1 2-5 MOB rehearsals
7 CSO concert

3 CSO concert
7:30 MOB concert

7:30 MOB concert

A few eplanatory noters are in order. The 53rd week is a necessity to adjust the start date of the season, sort of a ‘leap week’. Also, our contract expires at the end of week 53, midnight on Sunday.

This past Monday, due to a misunderstanding, I missed the first MOB rehearsal. At some point it had been recheduled from Tuesday and I never got the information. So on Friday I will need to approach the conductor with the utmost humility and apologize while adroitly shrugging off responisbilty for my absence.

The loathesome Bolero once again finds its way onto a CSO program...

Monday, September 10, 2007

King Kong v Godzilla

Sorry to say, I’ve been a bit busy with negotiations lately so this is all I could come up with.

The passing of Luciano Pavarotti one day after the 10th anniversary of Sir Georg Solti’s death brought back memories of when the two of them teamed up here in Chicago for Verdi’s Othello in 1990. The brick-like CD box set of the live recording molders unopened on a shelf somewhere in my house. I think it was probably a decent performance but I’ve never had the heart to listen to it. What I remember more vividly are all of the extra curricular activities surrounding the rehearsals and performances.

I recall the Solti/Pavarotti Othello as an epic, often amusing clash of titans who shrieked and stamped their way across the musical landscape like a miniature Tokyo film set.

Solti appeared pretty put off by Pavarotti, his entourage, late arrival for rehearsals, and other hijinx. I remember one passionate exchange, all in Italian and I wondered what earthshaking musical issue they might have been arguing over until a colleague made a rough translation.

Solti: (stopping the orchestra) Luciano, why do you talk so much? You are always talking!

Pavarotti: Every time you stop the orchestra, you start talking. You’re talking all the time. I have as much right to talk as you do.

Solti: It’s my orchestra; I can talk whenever I want.

etc. etc.

Pavarotti sat on a specially built throne while the other soloists made due with normal chairs. The seat consisted of a BarcaLounger type recliner tipped forward at an angle to propel the tenor into a standing position with only the smallest shift in weight. I recently heard rumor that the chair might have had some sort of spring loaded feature as well but I have no direct knowledge of that. The arms of the chair were widened by the addition of wood and duct tape. I know this so well in part due to the indelible impression the throne made on me, but also because the contraption spent the next few years cluttering up a corridor in Orchestra Hall.

Beside the throne sat a small table, amply stocked with food – apple slices, maybe a few chocolates – along with drinks. The great tenor snacked constantly through rehearsals and, much to my astonishment, during the concerts as well. At the first performance, I was surprised to see Pavarotti drinking out of a large purple and gold ‘LA Lakers’ plastic cup, the kind you get those bladder busting 32 oz. drinks in at gas stations or a 7-11.

Another interesting thing I discovered during intermission while sneaking up for a closer look at the throne, the Lakers cup, and the snacks, was the ‘music’ Pavarotti read off of. His ‘score’ consisted of the words only, printed in block capital letters about an inch high. Adding to the mystery, certain words were in red.

If all that wasn’t enough, we arrived at rehearsal one day to find a small plywood structure constructed in haste by the stagehands in the midst of the orchestra, wherein crouched a shadowy figure – the great tenor’s personal prompter, I guess. As the soloists were positioned behind the orchestra, I never got to see what sort of hand signals or other exhortations emanated from that small, uncomfortable looking enclosure.

The whole circus was performed in Chicago then carted to New York for a repeat performance at Carnegie Hall.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

This week

This should have been posted on Labor Day. The CSO players and managers still have not reached an agreement in our on-going contract talks. Negotiations ended back on August 10 and start up again at the end of this week. The first orchestra services are this weekend, a ‘members of’ concert at Millennium Park on Sunday, September 9, which I was only too happy to turn down. I need every bit of my vacation, and then some. The ‘regular’ season begins with rehearsals on Tuesday, September 11.

Since I am on the negotiating team, I can probably reveal even less about the state of affairs than anyone else in the orchestra. All I can say about it is that negotiating is kind of like waiting for a bus – one that never arrives. But as our current contract expires in about ten days, maybe somebody will finally step on the gas.

Here is the program for the (free!) Millennium Park Concert:

Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Edwin Outwater, conductor
Savion Glover, tap dancer

Mozart - Overture to The Magic Flute
Ellington - Selections from The River *
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)
* Featuring Savion Glover