Bass Blog

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

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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.


Unknown said...

Fantastic post. This is why I love your blog.

nocynic said...

I never thought of Jarvi as stiff. He is a big guy who is light on his feet, like a great heavyweight boxer (On that subject, there seems to be a rather long scar on his head, from almost his eyebrow to back behind his receded hairline...I have often speculated on how he came to acquire it.) He had a stroke some years back, I believe, and he has perhaps lost some of his extraordinary technique, but he is still better at his craft than almost anybody else. He is a gentleman and an adult, and a pleasure to play under. He has a wonderful natural style. One thing that he can do better than just about anybody is move the music forward, in an utterly natural almost imperceptible accelerando. It is a scandal that he has never moved higher than Music Director of Detroit while pygmies who can't carry his jockstrap have presided over Cleveland, New York, and Philadelphia.

Alex Ross said...

A very nice tribute to an underrated conductor! Järvi conducting a certain Midwestern orchestra in the final minutes of Franz Schmidt's Second Symphony is one of the most exciting things in my record collection. The Chandos recording style really allows you to "hear the room," experience it as if you were there; nothing artificial.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Max, you are right, stiff isn't the proper word - probably something more like deadpan.

Next time he's in town let's take him out for a drink and get his thoughts on the ASOL.

Geo. said...

Yup, Chandos is still alive and kicking after a fashion, per this link. In fact, you may get a kick out of their "Disc of the Month", Sergei Taneyev's Suite de Concert, with Neeme Jarvi and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. But then conductor, orchestra and label go back in history quite a way, to when Jarvi was principal conductor at the RSNO.

nocynic said...

Alex, your comment on the Schmidt reminds me of one of my favorite Jarvi moments. We were just coming back from a tour when we took on the Schmidt, we were jet lagged and almost nobody had had a chance to look at it much. This was unfortunate, because Schmidt's Second Symphony makes extraordinary technical demands on every musician in the orchestra. The first run through was a catastrophe--we were all falling by the wayside like Napoleon's troops headed home from Moscow. After finishing the first movement, Jarvi got that little amused glint in his eye you see from him sometimes, tapped the stand with his baton, and said, "Now once more--with nuance!" We pulled it together for the recording, but there was a lot of frantic practicing in midwestern homes that week.

Colin said...

Michael: Great to have you back. Your always amusing and insightful discussions of orchestra life are always quite enjoyable.

This is probably old news to the bass community by now, but I found this on YouTube last week and I have quite enjoyed it. To be honest I'm not sure if I've ever seen the bass played quite like this.

Plush said...

Hovnanian wrote: ". . . it struck me that my chosen profession is based almost entirely on obsessive infatuation with an idealized, unrecoverable past."

I say a worthy pursuit indeed!

Lisa Hirsch said...

Lovely posting and comment thread! And where did the beautiful photo come from?

Michael Hovnanian said...

I wondered if anyone would be curious about the image of the abandoned Cistercian abbey of San Galgano and its relation to the title of the post. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky used the abandoned church in a very striking scene in his film ‘Nostalgia’. The image haunted me for years, so much so I once dragged my family halfway across Italy to see it.

Thanks for asking.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I was haunted for many years by photos of Glastonbury Abbey, and finally visited in 1993 on a day trip from Bath. I would like to go back; I didn't have nearly enough time there and the day ended with me spraining my ankle quite badly.

I am going to put "Nostalgia" on my Netflix queue, and perhaps I will visit San Galgano on my next trip to Italy, because I can tell that the photo is going to haunt me.

Geo. said...

You might enjoy this post from another blog about Neeme Järvi.

David said...

Ah, I see George - who has cross-referenced us - got there before me. You cite more fascinating chapter and verse as a player, but I agree with it all - and, as you'll see, my own nostalgia for Jarvi is very strong. We had not only Taneyev but also Kalinnikov - now that Jurowski's Tchaikovskyfest is over, I'd put that performance alongside Iolanta and Manfred as the greatest (and certainly the most revelatory we've had of a work I'd never previously thought of as first-rate).

Rozhdestvensky closed the festival on Friday. He did some masterly things, but was too laid back. Jarvi's love of most things he does bubbles away under the surface. Thank you for this!

David said...

Ah, so that's San Galgano. I was willingly dragged there many years ago by Sienese friends who wanted me to see 'Italy's premier flautist' Severino Gazelloni in concert. I'd never heard of him then - to horrified cries of, 'what, you don't know our great Gazelloni?'. Nor do I remember what was played. But the setting was, of course, beautiful.