Bass Blog

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

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Week 33

Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds
-the Bhagavad-Gita

RAVEL Menuet antique
LIEBERSON Neruda Songs
MAHLER Symphony No. 1

Bach Week Program

Concerto in D Minor for two violins, BWV 1043
Cantata: Non sa che sia dolore , BWV 209
Motet: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied , BWV 225
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G, BWV 1048
Richard Webster, conductor


10-12:30 rehearsal
7:30 concert (Wagner, Chin, Berlioz)

12-2:30 3:30-6 rehearsals

10-12:30 rehearsal

10-1 Bach Week rehearsal

1-3 Bach Week rehearsal

7:30 Bach Week concert

The lack of concerts in my schedule is no mistake. Even though it was not my turn, I volunteered to be on call this week to avoid the Mahler 1st Symphony. Over the years I’ve come to loathe the piece and so take advantage of every opportunity to get out of playing it. Unfortunately for me it is one of those things that comes up at least once a year. If I’m not mistaken, the orchestra played it at subscription concerts less than 12 months ago. What is the deal with that? I wonder if listeners get as tired of it as I do. Anyway, the frequency of programming makes for some tricky maneuvering in order to avoid it. Nevertheless, I think I’ve missed four out of the last five. This week came as something of a mixed blessing however. Since the Mahler will be played in New York in two weeks I had to attend ‘tour rehearsals’ so I am prepared step in should any colleague become unavailable. I’ve got to say, having to play four tour rehearsals for such a warhorse was ridiculous. So, in spite of my best efforts, I ended up playing through the piece three or four more times.

One interesting feature of this iteration of the Mahler is the conversion of the famous (or infamous) passage at the beginning of the third movement from one bass solo to all basses, tutti. According to Haitink, a bassist in the London Symphony (?) had some proof the passage was originally intended to be played by the group, but due to very poor results at the first performances Mahler cut his losses and figured he would be better off letting one guy go it alone. I’m curious to know if the bassist who brought this up to Haitink was a principal or section player.

The Mahler solo has always been something of an oddity in my mind anyway, a perfect time for the section player to clean off strings or apply an extra swipe of rosin. When played poorly, the solo is an obvious embarrassment. But even when played ‘well’ it often comes across as overly expressive, an odd little flourish by an attention starved prima ballerina, out of place at the outset of a solemn piece of music. It is a bit sad to think the standard of bass playing has taken more than a hundred years to match the composer’s original intention, but there it is.

Bach Week is always a pleasant gig, the perfect after dinner mint after a week of (at least rehearsing) Mahler 1.


Brad said...

I love Mahler 1 and never get tired of hearing it, especially when played be the superb orchestra located in a large midwestern city near Lake Michigan!

The third movement can get a little tedious, though. At least listening to the bass solo at the beginning can be an adventure!

testtube said...

Why exactly do you loathe the piece?

Michael Hovnanian said...

Good question.

The first two movements: OK, maybe very nice even.

Third movement: after seeing how the bass solo passage turns out, a bit blah and repetitive.

Finale: Sturm follows Drang, preceded by more Sturm. Volume level: earsplitting. Sturm und Drang winds down to an admittedly beautiful slow (and mercifully soft) section. Sturm enters again, followed by his friend Drang. Now they turn to a brief section of D major triumphalism which winds down again. Now comes the endless ‘C’ – about five minutes of holding a single note while quotes from the first movement return. Brief contrapuntal section quickly degenerates into that ‘ol Sturm und Drang thang, followed by a second, and this time final helping of triumphalism.

Programming department schedules piece every season…

Angrybassist said...

I remember reading somewhere that Mahler wanted the beginning to the piece to sound like someone broken by grief singing the dirge. So he scored it for bass in what was thought an "unplayable" range -- guaranteeing poor tone, bad intonation, and abnormal expressiveness.

That seems a little far-fetched to me, but it makes a great "urban legend." What do you think?


Gabrielle said...

at least you're not playing 4th oboe, which is tacet until the last movement. who is singing the neruda songs?

Brad said...

In any case, Saturday night's performance was brilliant! The sometimes glacial tempi in the Mahler really allowed for a probing and atmospheric account. Balances across all sections were amazing, and kudos to Mr. Haitink for even gesturing to the audience to get a few people to cough at more of a mezzo piano dynamic instead of the usual forte during a crucial pianissimo phrase in the last movement.

Also, the basses sounded great in their movement 3 opening solo.

nocynic said...

I think your hatred of Mahler 1 might have a lot to do with the five-minute-long C pedal in the last movement. I am not a bass player so I think it is an astonishing work, ranking with Brahms, Berlioz and maybe Sibelius among the great first symphonies. I don't think the third movement is meant to be "solemn" at all. I think it is a parody, why else use a dumb tune like "Frere Jacques" in funereal garb? And then the Klezmer and trashy brothel music which follows must have been shocking at the time to be found in a symphony...I love the "boom-chuck" bass drum and cymbal! So opening with a prima donna bass solo fits right in. I thought Haitink did it brilliantly. All week, in rehearsal, I found the slow tempos excruciating, but they worked in concert. Instead of vulgar triumphalism, Haitink achieved a true nobility that I had forgotten this work possessed. It occurred to me in the passages that effect nostalgia that Haitink is about our last living link to the world that Mahler foresaw disappearing, Europe prior to WW 2. But the highlight for me in any Haitink concert with the unnamed orchestra is when he shakes hands with the concertmaster. Haitink bears an uncanny resemblance to Dwight Eisenhower, and it is amazing how much the concertmaster looks like a young Mao. When they shake hands, it is like a newsreel that never was.

Brad said...

Welcome, Mr. Muti!! You'll soon be leading the finest unnamed orchestra in the known world!

Matt said...

I skipped the Mahler for many of the the same reasons you mentioned. I suppose we are a bit spoiled in this with the way we can pick and choose the concerts to attend. Don’t get me wrong I have gratitude and appreciate that I can hear such a great orchestra. At times I go and hear the symphony play a piece I do not like or do not think is good just because I know it will be played well. An example was Shostakovich 7. It sure was amazing to hear the orchestra let loose on that piece. Never the less, I ducked out of Mahler 1. (I’ll be at 8 this summer and 10 next year!!!)

By the way, no one commented so as long as I’m writing I’ll say this. The Berlioz a few weeks back was crazy and cool. The bass part seemed difficult. The section sounded fantastic So there.