Bass Blog

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

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Week 20

Ars Viva
Beethoven Creatures of Prometheus
Corigliano Elegy (for Samuel Barber)
Barber Violin Concerto
Beethoven Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”)
Alan Heatherington, conductor
Ilya Kaler, violin

The other orchestra
BERIO Quatre dédicaces
BERLIOZ Les nuits d'été
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano

9:30, 10:30, 12:30, 1:30
In-school concerts

10-12:30 rehearsal

12-2:30 3:30-5:30 rehearsals

10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

3-6 Ars Viva rehearsal
8 concert

3-6 Ars Viva rehearsal
8 concert

2-5 Ars Viva rehearsal
7:30 Ars viva concert

Boulez returns this week with a classic sort of Boulezian program. (Sorry if that sounds either Armenian or, to quote the Maestro himself, ‘deliciously wrong’.) I admit to a slightly irrational fondness for Boulez. He seems to enjoy a pretty good rapport with the orchestra, so maybe I’m not alone. Among my favorite things about him are some of the faces he makes when things are not going quite according to plan. For some reason, he had plenty of opportunities to use them during our read through of Petrushka on Tuesday. Anyhow, the face I enjoy most has to be the look he sometimes gives the orchestra, I imagine exactly like a man discovering his pate de foie gras had been switched with a small scoop of merde. I can honestly say I enjoy that look as much when it is directed at my own section as any other, perhaps more.

Boulez also has a charmingly offhand way of dismissing the sort of know-it-all questions from players that tend to crop up when a so-called ‘important’ conductor takes the podium. For the uninitiated, those "teacher’s pet isms" tend to follow the format of: “Maestro, would you like us to…” or “Do we have…” followed by something obviously not in the score. Ever the literalist, Boulez leafs through the score, shrugs, and gives the inevitable negative response. That particular ritual has been going on for years.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Week 19

STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms
KNUSSEN Violin Concerto
MOZART Mass in C Minor
Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor
Leila Josefowicz, violin
Camilla Tilling, soprano
Isabel Leonard, mezzo-soprano
Lawrence Brownlee, tenor
Eric Owens, bass

7:30 MOB concert (Mozart)

10-12:30 orchestra rehearsal

1:30-3:30 4:30-7 orchestra rehearsals

10-12:30 orchestra rehearsal
8 orchestra concert

8 orchestra concert

8 orchestra concert

3 orchestra concert
7 CBE rehearsal

This week’s program is sort of an odd sandwich of choral works around the Knussen violin concerto. Although I’m not playing the piece, one player in the orchestra (who must read this blog) made certain to point out the musicians approved of the Knussen. To date, that is the only comment I’ve heard either way, besides the fact the bass parts are difficult. (Knussen’s father was principal bass of the London Symphony.) To be fair, the audience reaction sounded very enthusiastic from my comfortable seat in the lounge, which makes one wonder why we play his music only about once a decade.

Knussen came here a number of years ago to conduct a concert of his works. Although I don’t recall the pieces specifically, I remember enjoying those concerts. Knussen also made what for me has to be one of the more memorable utterances from the podium.

Obviously feeling the pressure of putting together a concert of new works on short rehearsal time, the maestro showed signs of fraying around the edges at the final rehearsal. With time ticking away, a prickly, pesky, principal player, peppering him all week with trivial questions finally drove the composer over the edge. Knussen snapped, “Your constant questions are driving me right round the bend!” That is reason enough for me to want us to play more of his music.

After playing Mozart with MOB last week, the big orchestra’s HGH enhanced sound comes as a bit of a shock to the ears. Still, the Mass is a wonderful piece.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Orchestra Plays Flat!

on the floor…

The past two weeks found the un-named orchestra in a large midwestern city playing without the risers we are accustomed to using. It should come as no surprise that opinions are divided as to whether or not this constitutes an improvement. The majority of players I overheard discussing the matter seemed to think the orchestra sounded better without risers, but that is far from a scientific survey.

To me, the basses sounded clearer, more articulate on the floor if a little less resonant, and all in all, the orchestra sounded a little less muddy to my ears. I’m curious to know if audience members experienced the difference and had any opinions about it.

Sightlines to the podium were no worse than usual from the second row of the bass section since the conductor was above us, rather than below. Thinking about the symbolism implied by our customary arrangement with the Maestro below much of the orchestra reminded me of something from my student days.

One of the schools where I did undergraduate work had a multi-tiered rehearsal room with a layout similar to the concert hall where I now make my living. (Incidentally, the rehearsal room had the unfortunate number 101, home of ‘the worst thing in the world’ in Orwell’s Novel, 1984) One of my comrade bass students who happened to be reading The Divine Comedy at the time drew up a little chart, comparing the concentric rings of risers to Dante’s division of the underworld (Inferno) into many descending levels. At the top, outermost edge, the bass section corresponded to the virtuous heathen. Going round the orchestra and descending, the other sections grew increasingly wicked, culminating at lowest and most central position of all, wherein dwelled the archfiend, Mephistopheles, the Conductor Himself.

There has been some talk about continuing to play without risers in the future, although this week we are back to using them due to the chorus. It will be interesting to see if anything changes and how the decision making process is handled. Pro and anti riser feelings are pretty strongly held, and I imagine fairly intractable, so any sort of ‘debate’ on the issue might easily take on certain head banging characteristics. This might be due in part to the fact that the use of risers began during the regime and at the behest of our former music director. (His name still escapes me.) Many who opposed him and the changes he brought probably find it difficult to be objective about it. I imagine for them climbing onto risers every day must feel akin to settling onto a sofa purchased together with a now hated ex spouse.

One odd thing about playing flat on the floor is the distance up to the terrace seats. (Our concert hall has seating around the back of the stage, added during renovation.) The height of the terrace seating was probably designed with the risers in mind. Risers raise the back and sides of the stage several feet higher, closer to the terrace seating. Without them it feels like the orchestra is at the bottom of some deep mosh pit. I’ve noticed audience members leaning over the rail, craning their necks to get a look at us. Having recently visited Rome, the other image that comes to mind is of walking through the city and suddenly coming upon a railing around a deep pit where, leaning over the side, it is possible to observe in quiet awe and astonishment a few relics of faded Roman glory moldering in the warm Italian sun.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Week 18

Winter chamber Festival
Friday, January 18, 7:30 PM

Johannes Brahms, Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114
Sergei Prokofiev, Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano in D Major, Op. 94a
Louis Spohr, Nonet in F Major, Op.31
Alan Chow, piano
Mathieu Dufour, flute
Scott Hostetler, oboe
Steven Cohen, clarinet
Lewis Kirk, bassoon
Gail Williams, horn
Gerardo Ribeiro, violin
Catherine Brubaker, viola
Stephen Balderston, cello
Kenneth Olsen, cello
Michael Hovnanian, bass

Music of the Baroque

Symphony No. 34 in C Major
Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major
Jane Glover, conductor
Imogen Cooper, piano

The other orchestra I play for

LIADOV The Enchanted Lake
SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Concerto No. 2
RACHMANINOV Symphony No. 2
Antonio Pappano, conductor
Han-Na Chang, cello

9:30 In-school education concert

10-12:30 orchestra rehearsal
4-6 Spohr Nonet
7:30 concert (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky)

12-2:30 3:30-5:30 orchestra rehearsals
7-10 MOB rehearsal

10-12:30 orchestra rehearsal
1:30-3:30 Spohr Nonet
8 orchestra concert

1:30 orchestra concert
4-7 MOB rehearsal
7:30 Winter Chamber Festival concert

2-5 MOB rehearsal
8 orchestra concert

2 In-house chamber concert
7:30 MOB concert

Last week Polianichko, this week Pappano. The answer to the question how replacement conductors are chosen seems to be that someone had their big conductor directory open to the ‘P’ section. In truth, I have no idea how last minute substitutes are engaged. Depending on the lead-time, there is probably a fair amount of panic involved.

This ended up as a very busy week. Why is it when you sign on for extra work it all falls in the same few days? I almost feel as if, for a brief moment, I’m part of the musical life in this city. But don’t worry; things will all go back to normal next week when I can go back to practicing scales again.

The In-house chamber concert is a benefit for Bach Week in Evanston with flutist Anita Miller-Reider.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Max Factor

The comments by Max were important enough to deal with in a separate post. Does anyone besides me read comments? Just curious.

Insouk asks if musicians have some input into programming. Some in Mr. Hovnanian's unnamed orchestra have urged their representatives, the Members' Committee, to push for a committee of musicians to offer input into repertoire and scheduling. The Committee has regarded these requests as an elegant dinner party guest might regard a turd in the punch bowl. They have protested that another committee would somehow cripple the Members' Committee to represent the orchestra, although we have had Audition and Tour Committees for years. An uncharitable view of this strange state of affairs is that the Members' Committee is jealous of their standing in the orchestra. An alternative, less uncharitable view eludes some of us at this time.

Kudos to Max for opening Pandora’s can of worms, letting the cat out of the bag, or whatever. The issue of input into programming and choice of conductors is indeed on the minds of many musicians. His commentary precludes me from dancing around the topic with a few superficial and sarcastic non-sequiturs.

[Full disclosure: I recently resigned from the Members’ Committee. Actually my letter, submitted in December, took nearly a month to make the long arduous journey from the mailboxes, down the hall, and around the corner, and so was only recently acknowledged.]

The starting point for this issue in my mind is the fact that there is a decent amount of dissatisfaction among musicians with choices in programming and repertoire. If more people were satisfied we wouldn’t hear calls for musician input.

At first glance from a musician standpoint, having more input seems like a no-brainer. But it is inaccurate to assume ‘musicians’ are of like mind. The logistical issues of which viewpoints will be considered, and how, need careful consideration. As I have written about earlier, there is a fairly strong anti modern music sentiment among players, one I do not share. I am not convinced a tyranny of the majority on that issue is in the best long-term interest of our art. If performers throughout history had as much influence as some of my colleagues would like to wield now, I wonder if we would be enjoying the works of Hummel and Dittersdorf rather than Beethoven and Mozart. Who can say? (I know as a bass player, maligning Dittersdorf, who gave us two concertos (!), is tantamount to treason, but there you have it.)

On the other hand, large swaths of the repertoire go unperformed for years or decades, much to the chagrin of many players who chafe at playing many of the same pieces too often while others go unheard. It would be as if the famous museum across the street from our concert hall closed a wing or two and left them dark until somebody raised a fuss and demanded to see inside. In the musicians’ hallway (what passes for a lounge here) there hangs a lengthy repertoire ‘suggestion sheet’, which seems little more than a sop for musician complaints. What it reveals however is a heartfelt interest by players as well as the existence of a valuable store of knowledge concerning repertoire that seems to go largely untapped.

Opinions about the wisdom of forming a committee to deal with these issues are divided. I’m not sure if a poll has been conducted to see how many favor the idea. Also, I haven’t seen a detailed proposal about how such a committee would function – who would serve, for how long, and to whom would they be accountable. Max is correct in pointing out the arguments against ‘dual unionism’ are disingenuous considering the existence of the other committees he mentions, to which I would add most conspicuously the music director search committee, who seem to be answerable to no one. (IMO they are either going to triumph or lay an egg, by which time it will be too late to discuss the details of how it all came to pass…) The issue of musician input into repertoire, programming, etc. hasn’t been debated on its own merits by the musicians as a group, to my knowledge.

One thing I know for certain: I’m never drinking punch again.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Déjà vu

all over again

Sometime before dawn Sunday morning I woke up in a cold sweat. A quick check of my schedule confirmed my fears; we did play the Tchaikovsky 4th symphony last season.

Due to his tragic early demise we know Tchaikovsky only left us with three symphonies. But that is still no excuse for playing the same one repeatedly. My cold sweat came on recalling a discussion with a subscriber who elected not to renew. This person attended concerts for a number of years – sitting in pricey box seats, I might add – but grew disillusioned with the experience after hearing the same piece three seasons running. I’m wondering if there is somebody else sitting out in the audience this week, gritting their teeth through the Tchaikovsky 4th and muttering, “Strike Two!” Even if classical music is indeed a dying art there is still a whole cemetery to choose from before we need to repeat ourselves.

Alexander Polianichko led some interesting performances of the Tchaikovsky this week, to say the least, but not interesting enough to justify the orchestra taking a called second strike. In general, the Maestro used a pretty straight-ahead approach I can appreciate. However, some of his hard to follow mannerisms resulted in a few Solti-esque moments of confusion of the type easily mistaken for excitement.

Beyond the Score expanded its scope to include an actress cavorting behind a shadow screen along with the customary image projections, narrator, and actors. All in all, the explication of the symphony ran about fifty percent longer than the work itself. The thrust of it (if that is an appropriate term to use) seemed to focus on the anxiety Tchaikovsky felt facing up to his ill-considered marriage. The whole production was captured on film and will probably be available at some point.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Deep Dish Bowings?

Right off the bat I should make clear this story does not refer to the orchestra I now play for. This is about the first time I had the opportunity to play the Tchaikovsky 4th professionally, with what could reasonably be described as a ‘major’ orchestra. Strangely, I’m sure that other organization would normally have no problem with my using their name, but as you will see, prudence dictates otherwise.

At the first rehearsal I found myself seated beside a hoary bassist, the grizzled veteran of many an orchestral campaign. For the non-musician, I should say that the Tchaikovsky 4th bass part is a bit tricky. Far from impossible, but you need to be awake to play it. Soon after we began the first read through it became apparent my stand partner was completely at a loss. Either he had never learned the piece or else forgotten it so long ago as to make the printed music now as alien to him as the hieroglyphics of a lost civilization. If his bow moved at all, it went in the wrong direction. If he made an audible entrance, it was at the wrong moment. He kept it up throughout the first movement.

Obviously noticing my sidelong glances during the run through, he turned to me when we stopped playing.

“I’m not used to these bowings,” he said.

I nodded, noting to myself that the bowings were the standard ones I’d seen everywhere.

“I don’t like this style of bowing.” He went on, aiming a dismissive nod at the principal.

“I like New York style bowings,” he concluded.


Every time I’ve played the Tchaikovsky 4th since then I’ve wondered about those New York style bowings.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Week 17

This week at the big orchestra

Beethoven - Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus
Beethoven - Piano Concerto No. 1
Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 4
Alexander Polianichko, conductor
Piotr Anderszewski, piano


10-12:30 rehearsal
7-9 rehearsal Spohr Nonet

10-12:30 1:30-3:30

8 concert


8 concert

3 concert (beyond the score)
7 Chicago Bass Ensemble rehearsal

This week's program is repeated again on Tuesday next week.

The Tuesday evening rehearsal is for a performance at the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Northwestern University on January 18. Somehow this mainstay of the double bass chamber repertoire has eluded me up to this point. I look forward to playing the piece for the first time.

There is a concert on Friday, a ‘members of’ (optional) performance in collaboration with the Hubbard Street dance company. As they say, ‘time is money’. In this case I opted for the time.

Myung-Whun Chung, originally scheduled to conduct the orchestra located in area code 60604, cancelled his appearance this week for personal reasons. I know nothing of his replacement but I am very sorry to not see Chung again. There were a few rumors swirling about before the holidays offering up various explanations for the cancellation. I can’t help but wonder if the rude treatment he received during his last visit here had something to do with it. However, since I’ve been scolded for expressing displeasure with anything short of being marched off to my death, and as someone always willing to take criticism to heart, I hasten to add I am happy to play for any conductor with a pulse and enough fingers to grip a baton. And yet, I wish Maestro Chung good health, wherever he is.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Youthful Enthusiasm

The start of a new year is an obviously a time for optimism, maybe even enthusiasm. The fact it falls in the middle of some time off certainly helps amplify those feelings. In the spirit of the season I present a couple questions submitted by a high-school aged bassist. In the interest of full disclosure, the questioner is my student. In spite of that, he has many reasons for optimism and enthusiasm. [The redactions are mine.]

I thought these questions might be good for another Q and A thread for your blog. When you first joined the […], what was your greatest obstacle you had to overcome while being a section member of a major orchestra? Lastly, I would be ever so curious to know what the very first concert program was you played with the […] once you moved to […] and started attending rehearsals as a full fledge […] member? What thoughts and or emotions did you have after the concert besides feeling like you “made it”?

-Robert Sleeper

There is probably some way to look up the program of the first concert I played with the orchestra I play in (jeez that sounds awkward), but relying on memory alone the short answer to the second part of your question is I don’t remember. Complicating matters, I started playing in the middle of our summer season, where we do three programs a week. Rehearsals can have pieces from any of the three programs all mixed together.

I do remember the conductor that week was Andrew Litton. For some reason Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso sticks in my mind as the first thing I played. I also remember Dvorak 8, and one of the warhorse (piano?) concertos (Rachmaninoff?). How’s that for a cloudy recollection? Things didn’t really get going until the fall when we began our regular season with a European tour – conducted by Solti. Of the first piece we rehearsed, Berlioz Damnation of Faust, I think I remember every note.

I do recall the feeling of having ‘made it’ mainly because I became very lost trying to find the orchestra for the first time. Before I was supposed to start I decided to try and get hold of some parts to practice. I remember driving around Highland Park completely disoriented until I saw a small building with a sign for the Ravinia Festival out front. I parked my car and went in to ask for directions to where the (orchestra) rehearsed. The ladies working there seemed put off by a musician wandering in off the street and told me, rather brusquely, that if I wanted to talk to anyone in the (orchestra) I needed to go downtown (in the city where that orchestra plays during the winter). They professed to not knowing anything more about it and showed me the exit. It took me a number of years to realize the implications of that little incident.

When I finally reached the correct location rehearsal was already in progress. The first people I met were the librarians, all of whom are gone now. They seemed harried and had little time to answer a bunch of stupid neophyte questions. When I requested music they immediately stumped me by asking for which stand. Of course, I had no idea and so took a few extra parts and beat a hasty retreat.

From a playing perspective, probably the biggest obstacle I had to overcome, something I still struggle with, is learning to play in a relaxed manner. Until I got a really full-time playing job – the orchestras I played in before had nowhere near the workload of the one I play in now – I never fully appreciated the importance of being able to do what needed doing while staying relaxed. I practiced a fair amount when preparing auditions so I could usually claim to have been in good shape physically, but I found playing for a living much more wearing. After all, I could always stop practicing when I felt like it and take it up again later. Playing in an orchestra doesn’t provide that option, making good fundamentals and efficient use of one’s physical resources extremely important. There is a fallacious assumption that the skills needed to win a job are much greater than those needed to keep one. Defined narrowly, this may be true, but my experience proved otherwise. I had to make a lot of changes in order to be able to play well (or as well as I could) on a day-to-day basis rather than whenever I felt like it, or on the day of an audition or recital.