Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Week 25

out with the new!

SHOSTAKOVICH Chamber Symphony for Strings in C Minor
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish)
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Robert Levin, piano

7:30 Ars Viva concert

10-1:30 rehearsal

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

10-12:30 rehearsal
8 concert

8 concert

8 concert


A principal whining about his section in front of the entire orchestra (not the bass section – we’re mostly beyond reproach), players breaking out in song, one of the more bizarre and pointless arguments over the length of a single note, equations of musicology to gynecology – all in all an entertaining week in the orchestra.

If composers of atonal music are public enemy no.1 around here, period instrument specialists have to come in a close second, so it came as no surprise when rehearsals with John Eliot Gardiner veered towards the bizarre. Sir John seemed to arrive as prepared to battle the orchestra as conduct it. As usual, the clash between a crotchety conductor and a stodgy orchestra took on all the charm of a couple of gummy old vets arguing over who has the more ill fitting dentures. If Gardiner was treated less than cordially, he dished out in equal measure to what he received.

It might be advisable to keep the early music specialists on split weeks when only half of the orchestra plays. That way those who don’t want to deal with something ideologically repulsive to them can usually opt out. The more intimate connection to the conductor with the smaller group tends to attenuate the latent hostility of the mob.

Sadly lost in the fracas was the fact Gardiner had some good ideas. At least I thought it might do the orchestra good to experience an alternative to the calcified notions of musicality currently in force. For years, the mantra around here has been that sostenuto is the only way to play expressively. Gardiner had some interesting alternatives, particularly with regards to the Schumann, which were mostly lost due to the acrimonious atmosphere of their presentation. The result was, at best, a jumble.

Robet Levin had some different takes on the Beethoven. His improvised cadenzas seemed more of a bangy parlor trick than musical performance, but they were absolutely in tune with his onstage demeanor. I all but promised to quote the joke going round the musicians’ lounge comparing the improvised cadenzas to a dog (or was it a pig?) walking on its hind legs – nobody cares about the quality of the thing, what matters is that the beast can do it at all.

Topping it all off, due to some unfortunate circumstances I found myself in the principal chair this week. Normally that is, if not something to look forward to, an opportunity to devote a little more than the normal cursory interest in what is going on. Due to things beyond my control, and largely alien to my comprehension, the experience was less than satisfactory this time around – more like repeated visits to a proctologist with hook for a hand, in fact. I can only turn to my faith in Karma at this point.


Unknown said...

I have to ask Michael, what kind of response to you get from conductors, solists, and fellow players when they read what you write? I laugh...but I can't see them having the same reaction!


Michael Hovnanian said...

It's all love and kisses...except for the guy with a hook for a hand, then it's all business.

spk said...

Since I don't have experience with orchestras, I have to ask: Why are certain players afraid to do what the conductor asks? I realize orchestra players are very conservative, but none of them have heard period performances? And if they have, they still think their way is better? Also, on the rare occaisions when Boulez conducts Hayden or Mozart, does he ask for way of phrasing or playing different from the norm?

Finally, was the principal you mention complaining about his section?

Unknown said...

It did seem that the orchestra had not bought into Gardiner's conducting. I was a little disappointed. I happen to love Gardiner's approach but it seemed that the orchestra only half bought into his ideas. I can see what you mean about Levin's cadenzas however...

What I think is the most obviously regrettable thing is that the music suffers. I enjoyed the shostakovich a great deal but the Schumann was not enjoyable at all and the Beethoven was saved really only be Levin's showmanship. But when Schumann's third is pedantic and Beethoven's 4th piano concerto is saved by dog tricks....something isn't right....what happened to synergistic music making?

I guess we won't be seeing Sir Gardiner back?

Was Levin a Gardiner selection for soloist? I know the two are chums...

Lillian said...

Ditto to Eric's comments above. The inhospitable environment implies that some are allowing their egos to get in the way of exploring new and different interpretations that could refresh and enliven the music. “Early music” doesn’t necessarily equate to “outdated style”. My friends and I who attended enjoyed the performance and really hope JEG will return. The audience and critical responses seem to agree. I like your suggestion. Those in CSO who don’t agree with his style can sit it out.