Bass Blog

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

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Friday, October 31, 2008

The concert I tried to hate…but couldn’t

The Inca Trail

(Name Redacted) Symphony Orchestra
Jessica Warren-Acosta, Andean flutes
Kenneth Olsen, cello
Miguel Harth-Bedoya, conductor

It may come as a surprise to discover a number of orchestra musicians less than perfectly satisfied all of the time. For some, displeasure with the goings on at hand is an essential piece of equipment, akin to the gunslinger’s six-shooter. For them, it is best not take to the open range (or the stage, as we call it) without an ammo belt fully loaded with invective, holster flap unbuttoned, ready to fire from the hip an ill-considered complaint, a fusillade of perfunctory condemnation at the first sign of trouble.

Right off the bat, I confess to joining up with many a hastily assembled angry posse, riding down an innocent composer, conductor, program, concert venue, or what-have-you, and stringing them up from the nearest tree without a second thought.

In that spirit, I took notice of the Inca Trail program – a collection of South American music performed with a video projection – and immediately took a disliking to it. My knee-jerk objections were not to the continent of South America or its music, but more to my own dislike of playing another ‘concert’ in the dark, background music to a slideshow. My reaction to seeing one of those on the schedule is usually to tear my hair out. Unfortunately, the increasing frequency of these multimedia type shows has forced me to sport a crew cut year-round, literally to save my scalp from repeated, ravaging manual depilation.

As it turned out, the concert proved an entertaining evening, at least from my seat. Harth-Bedoya’s arrangements were mostly well done and a couple of the original modern works were captivating. Both soloists acquitted themselves admirably. Visual content in this type of programming can easily overwhelm and distract from the music. In this case, I thought the visuals were tastefully understated, as were Harth Bedoya’s (mercifully) brief comments between pieces.

The Ars Viva Mozart program proved a collection of pure gems. David Schrader is something of a local treasure, if I may say so. The delicate sound of his fortepiano made the audience (and even certain members of the orchestra) prick up their ears to listen, and it stood as a reminder of how much louder music has gotten in the last couple centuries. The concert, a strenuous affair to begin with, dragged on a bit for my taste – more than 2 ½ hours, including fully thirty minutes of speaking.

Ars Viva symphony Orchestra

Mozart Symphony No. 1 in E-flat, K. 16
Mozart Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat, K. 456 (“Paradis”)
David Schrader, fortepiano
Mozart Ch’io mi scordi di te – Non temer, K. 505
Michelle Areyzaga, soprano
David Schrader, fortepiano
Mozart Symphony No. 36 in C, K. 425 (“Linz”)
Alan Heatherington, conductor

Saturday, October 25, 2008


It was certainly nice to see Neeme Järvi back on the podium after many years away. True to form, he brought some interesting music to town – Taneyev, Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, not a bad piece really, and much more enjoyable than playing the same three Tchaikovsky symphonies over and over again. The first rehearsals began in somewhat muddled fashion and I wondered if my fond memories of Järvi were all wrong. But at the Saturday evening concert he seemed to be having a good time, doing one of his trademark overlong grand pauses while giving a little smile to the orchestra, bowing to the audience member who clapped enthusiastically between movements. A little wavelet of nostalgia overtook me – something I felt horribly self-conscious about until it struck me that my chosen profession is based almost entirely on obsessive infatuation with an idealized, unrecoverable past.

Anyhow, Järvi was a frequent guest here when I joined the orchestra and I always looked forward to the weeks he conducted, which more often than not included something new or unfamiliar. Large of frame and somewhat stiff in his mannerisms, a sly sort of playfulness always seemed to be bubbling away just below the surface of his stolid countenance, which made his playful antics all the more enjoyable. Unafraid of trying different things in performance, he could often get the orchestra to do more with a wink or a shrug than a lot of other conductors could achieve after hours of lecturing from the podium. Rumor has it (and I’m only too happy to spread it) he became unwelcome here after siding with musicians in a labor dispute somewhere (Philadelphia?). Our loss, really.

Järvi made recordings with us for (I think) Chandos. London Decca and the mighty Deutsche Grammophone always brought in loads of equipment, but Chandos seemed to be a smaller operation. Most notable to me as a newcomer were the red lights and telephones set before the podium during recording sessions – the phone for the maestro to confer with the recording engineers offstage and the red light to indicate when the tapes(!) were rolling. DG in particular had an expensive looking phone and mounted their red light on a burnished wooden box – stuff you might expect to see in commissioner Gordon’s office as he lunged for the Bat Phone. On the other hand, Chandos used what appeared to be an ordinary 100-watt light bulb with red cellophane taped around it. In the old green room, a lone engineer huddled over a DAT recorder about the size of a toaster.

I wonder if any of those outfits are still in business? Now, there are a few things to really get nostalgic about: recording sessions, records, CDs.

The orchestra used to assemble during the daytime and perform for the microphones, often repeating passages until things were just so. The recordings were imprinted on discs, things you could actually hold in your hand, which were sold in bright, cheery shops dedicated to the sale of music.

Well, the shops were mostly bright and cheery, that is until one ventured back to the classical section.

You could almost hear the vacuum seal of the airlock, the giant sucking sound as the glass door swung closed behind you. Here in the funeral parlor, music no more than a whisper. Mahler, Montiverdi, neither louder than acolytes, distant in their underground catacombs, chanting some grievous loss. A cymbal crash, barely audible – Wagner is dead. The lonely clerk looks over the top of half-rimmed glasses, eyes following you warily from behind a back issue of Audiophile Magazine. The CD cases rattle like bones as you flip them one by one – the moribund, the dead, the forgotten dead.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bass Blog Back!

Well, I finally heard from all five of my readers. There may be 68,000 odd hits on this page, but to be honest, about 57,995 of those were me obsessively checking to see if the page still existed and if anyone else had viewed it. Thanks to those who inquired about my health, which is no better, but certainly no worse than usual – I simply needed a break.

The performances last week of the Bruckner 5th Symphony have a great deal to do with my decision t start blogging again at this time. Letting a Bruckner 5 pass without comment would be like sitting at the breakfast table one sunny morning and watching the Hindenburg silently drift by without at least nudging one’s companion to look up from the newspaper. Fortunately, under the baton of replacement conductor Jaap van Zweden (filling in for the permanently absent Riccardo Chailly) Bruckner’s bloated masterpiece fared better than the similarly tumid German airship.

The Dutch violinist turned conductor spent more rehearsal time than normal dealing with the strings; in a work such as the Bruckner an endeavor akin to lifting up a stone at the beach, watching the various small crabs and other multi-legged creatures scuttle off in all directions, and then trying to coax them into marching single file across the sand. In spite of the ultimate futility of the effort, it was entertaining to watch. Needless to say, the stone was replaced at the performances with increasing force each night. Still, these were some of the better accounts of the piece I can recall. Too bad the audiences were consistently and depressingly small.