Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

High Fidelity

High Fidelity audio is another thing to get nostalgic about, what with the now ubiquitous I pods and compressed audio winning the day.

When I first joined the orchestra the thing to do (or so I became convinced) was to shop for an expensive audio system. Reasonably, it seemed an essential accessory for the serious professional musician, not to mention a sizeable tax-deduction. I consented to accompanying a colleague to one of those stuffy audio places – where they take you into a soundproofed room, offer something to drink, sit you down in a comfy leather chair and proceed to push thousands of dollars worth of audio equipment.

I confess to being something of a skeptic when it comes to high-end audio gear – maybe you could call me decidedly lo-fi – probably how I’ve managed to tolerate playing the double bass all these years. Anyway, the preoccupation with minute details of the performance of various audio components always struck me as somehow antithetical to the spirit of music making, a worship of the simulacrum in place of the original. Not that I celebrate the Ipod-ization of the world either. The audiophile sitting alone in his soundproofed room, curtains drawn against the day, glass of scotch in hand, listening to a long dead conductor’s account of an even longer dead composer is as alarming as the urban hipsters on the subway who stumble over one another, each wrapped in a private world of sound, oblivious to the life passing before their glazed eyes. Each signals the act of listening to music in a group as a shared cultural experience might be in some trouble. But whatever, that merely goes to show I approached the process of buying a stereo with a bit of cynicism.

The salesman had an agenda. I don’t remember the models, but he was pushing a certain brand of amplifier, mostly by denigrating the less costly ones. During his presentation I continued protesting I couldn’t really hear the difference so I might as well go with the less expensive item.

After going back and forth a few times he invited me to make a choice. In part to rankle him, I pointed to one of the cheaper models.

“That is actually very well selling,” he said with calculated derision. “It suits the popular taste.” And then to the barely contained mirth of my colleague and me, he began digging his own grave, so to speak. “It’s like the XSO.” (Using the name of the orchestra I play for) “Oh, they may have a lot of Grammys,” he dismissively waved a hand, “but their sound is crass, unsophisticated, like this.” He pointed to the amplifier I had chosen while my colleague and I bit our tongues. “This is something a man off the street might mistake for quality, just like the XSO. But this,” indicating the more expensive model “is like the Concertgebouw, much more sophisticated. People who don’t know anything might not be able appreciate the polish, the tradition…”

I’m not sure of everything he said, but the salesman proceeded to lay it on thick, bashing the XSO, uplifting the Concertgebouw in comparing the two the amplifiers while we remained silent. My colleague later confessed to growing angry somewhere along the way, but I wanted to see how deep a hole the guy would dig, and also because I wasn’t sure I could have opened my mouth without laughing.

Perhaps mistaking our silence for tacit approval, he moved in for the kill, asking me if, knowing all that, I sill wished to throw my lot in with the crass, the unsophisticated, the man-on-the-street, with the XSO!

I think I blurted out something along the lines that none of the items on offer recreated the sound of the concert hall anyway, which only brought on a tirade. Eventually, he ended up with a finger in my face. “You,” he said “you don’t sit and listen to a live orchestra every day of your life, do you!”

I’m not even sure how we broke the news we both played for the XSO. By then I felt a little guilty having let the charade drag on so long. But my guilt proved entirely misplaced as a really astonishing thing happened. Only a brief shadow crossed his face, a wisp of cloud passed before the sun. Like the inner party member in Orwell’s 1984 handed a slip of paper in mid speech informing him we are now at war with East Asia, not Eurasia (I may have that reversed), the salesman turned on dime.

“Well,” he said, “the XSO is a wonderful ensemble, I’m sure you have many fine players there, it’s just so horribly mismanaged!”

1 comment:

Matt said...

I’m behind on my comments and questions. I hope you’ll excuse this “omnibus” approach.

Neeme Järvi
I had hoped that the position ultimately given to Mr. Barenboim. would have been offered to Järvi. I think Detroit sounded as good as any of the “big 5” with Järvi on the podium. Just imagine the types of programs you could have done over the years. I hope you will have him back often.

David Schrader
I think I would pay to listen to him practice scales and arpeggios. He amazes me and I look forward to every opportunity to hear him. (next chance for me is Wednesday night – Baroque Band)

Would you have some comments on the Berlioz Faust performances – especially the bass parts. I am really curious about the bass parts particularly in the last ten minutes or so. I’ve been looking for a score but so far have only been able to find a piano reduction. Not that I’d want to criticize Berlioz’s orchestration, but the bass part at the end seems extraordinarily busy and difficult – which is ok if it is audible but it seemed like a lot of work for something that ultimately was lost underneath everything else that was happening at the climax. I contrast this with the Romeo from last year where the bass really cut through, and really added to the excitement and intensity. I wonder if this is Berloiz, Dutiot, or a combination of multiple factors. I’d have to see a score to have a better idea. What is your view from the bass section? On a side note – was interesting to see a 2nd tuba part – with nothing to do except for the last moments. Again, not to knock Berlioz’s orchestration, but you’d think he could have thrown the 2nd tuba a bone on some of the earlier climaxes at least. Everyone else got to play. Apparently Berlioz didn’t have to foot the bill.

Bride of Frankenstein
What a great program. I don’t usually go to these performances, but could not pass up Waxman. I’m glad I went. It was a fantastic experience to hear the score played by your orchestra.

Really looking forward to the next couple of weeks. The Haydn/Beethoven/ Lutoslawski especially. That is a fantastic grouping of pieces and I expect it will be one of the highlights of the season