Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Number 9…

Ein Heldenleben, undoubtedly a masterpiece, nevertheless rubs me the wrong way. I know as a (working) bassist I’m supposed to like it, love it even, since it is chock full of popular audition passages, but I can’t get past the things I don’t like about the piece, its gigantism, all that bombast, to name a couple. Not my cup of tea, as they say. I wonder if any hero ever dared to play softly? Anyhow, when the option to take those concerts off presented itself, the choice seemed obvious.

As mentioned, Heldenleben contains more double bass audition passages per page than almost any other piece in the literature. The passage at (rehearsal) number nine has probably ruined more dreams of an orchestral career than any other.

Sometimes you might see a few gummy old bass players, veterans of auditions long past huddled toward the back of the bar. Over a stale pint or two they recount in hushed reverent tones disastrous failures, successes won at terrible cost. Their Ypres, Verdun, The Marne, unknown beyond their circle, sound strange in our ears; Number 9, the Battle Scene, 49, 77. “Nine measures after number 15, there I stood, alone, without a mute…”

So friends, next time you go to a performance of Ein Heldenleben, cast a sympathetic eye towards the bass section. Number 9 comes up only a few minutes into the piece – top of the second page. Then you will see the page turned, a deep breath taken, perhaps an eye rolled heavenward in memory of a colleague who didn’t make it. And as they begin to play, without doubt, you think to yourself – what a delightful passage for the horn.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Never in my life have I received such treatment. They threw an apple at me!
Well, watermelons are out of season.

Lasspari and Otis B Driftwood
(The Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera)


Starting softly and getting louder, the gentleman got in three boos before the rest of the audience knew the piece had finished. Definitely not one of our fans who calls out Bravoooooo, these were unquestionably expressions of displeasure. But whether directed at the Lutoslawsky 4th symphony or our rendition of it under Haitink’s baton, nobody could tell. A brief scan of the composer’s biography makes me wonder if our pro Stalin fan (yes we have one) had returned.

I don’t know if it comes as a surprise or not, but the general reaction among orchestra members to audience boos isn’t very disapproving. Perhaps this comes from a sense of smugness about our self worth and the ability for each of us singly to fall back on the belief that the composer, conductor, soloist, or somebody else, is the true object of displeasure. But there is also a sense of relief that at least somebody out there cares enough to go against the grain and express themselves. One of the more disheartening things about this profession can be to see obvious signs of displeasure among audience members during the performance (i.e. yawning, sleeping, the rolling of eyes, head buried in the program or other reading material, or the ubiquitous 20th century music scowl) only to receive the same polite applause at the conclusion. Was that a standing ovation, or were those people merely donning their coats and shrugging? (I once saw a man sleep soundly through a piece only to jump to his feet and applaud.) At least a good hearty Boo shows somebody had an honest opinion.

We’ve had few memorable ones during my time here. The Enescu Symphony (sorry, can’t remember which one) ends conclusively. So when we performed it at the University of (the state in which the city I work in is located) the gentleman who got his boo off (say that fast three times: very funny) a split second before the rest of the audience erupted deserves special commendation. He (booing seems to be a male-dominated activity) obviously sat on the edge of his seat for a long time waiting for his big chance. Probably most famously, a local member of the 4th estate loudly booed the son of a prominent dissident for a lackluster reading of the Grieg piano concerto. That demonstration involved the spontaneous conversion of the program book into confetti.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

This Post Rated XXX

The other day somebody complained to me about the amount of selling on the Internet, what you might call the pornography of self-promotion – buy my gear, buy my CD, my method book, whatever. I thought it high time I dip my foot briefly into those waters.

The Chicago Bass Ensemble will be performing on Monday, December 15, 7 PM at Heaven Gallery, 1550 North Milwaukee, 2nd floor. Information about the CBE may be found here, and the Heaven Gallery, here.

I am also happy to announce, at long last, the re emergence of Discordia Music –publishers of music for the double bass. We’ve spent the last year or so reworking our editions, and five are now ready. Look for more soon.

Information about Discordia Music may be found here.

A few words about the editions:

Bach - 3 Sonatas
BWV 1027, BWV 1028, BWV 1029.
For Double Bass and Cembalo(originally for Viola da Gamba)

The three Gamaba Sonatas are now combined in one volume. This edition is an arrangement for double bass, based on research of several sources, most notably the Neue Bach Ausgabe and the Peters Edition, edited by Lawrence Dreyfus. The double bass parts are at the original pitch rather than the usual one octave lower.

Brahms - Sonata in e-minor, Opus 38
For Double Bass and Piano
(originally for Violoncello)

This edition, also at the original pitch, remains true to Brahms’ slurs, articulations and dynamic markings.

Rossini - Duetto
For Violoncello and Double Bass

An arrangement of the Duo, with the double bass in solo tuning. Many of the composer’s simplifications of the double bass part have been eliminated.

Schubert - Sonata, D.821 “Arpeggione
For Double Bass and Piano

This edition is based on the composer’s autograph score. The double bass part is in orchestral tuning, taking advantage of the similarities in tuning between the Arpeggione and double bass. All of the original slurs, dynamics, and articulations are maintained.

Tchaikovsky - Canzonetta
from the Violin Concerto, Op. 35
For Double Bass and Piano

Some violinist may laugh at this… One of my colleagues, now retired , once sheepishly admitted having played this as a student. Make for a nice little bon bon.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thar She Blows!

Sorry, but due to non bass blog activities, I’ve managed to fall way behind again…

Mahler 2 is one of those ‘special’ events on the season schedule although it comes up almost every other season, or seems like it anyway. I’m always happy to see Mahler 2 programmed though, mainly because it reminds me of one of my favorite pieces, the Berio Sinfonia, which doesn’t come up nearly often enough unfortunately.

Haitink’s laissez-faire approach certainly has its merits, especially when applied to the large forms. When signing on for a long sea voyage you want a captain whose feet are firmly planted on deck, eyes forward, piercing the fog, steering a steady course towards the distant shore, not a man who frets and throws tantrums over every last rivet, or wastes time reshuffling the deck chairs while the ship drifts idly with the current. Then again, Mahler 2 has a lot of rivets holding it together. During the performances I found myself a little nervous about how many could pop before we all ended up in Davy Jones’ Locker. Fortunately, it seemed like we got home safe and dry every night.

There were a couple of complementary factors at play necessitating I sit behind the low brass for this concert. In the final analysis, it turned out to be an enjoyable, enlightening vantage point looking over their shoulders, although, to be fair, you could say the same thing about a firing squad. Nevertheless, I was able to observe firsthand some of the delicate valve-work involved and precision playing on display. As a bass player, I can certainly appreciate how moving something a matter of inches might still qualify as a minor adjustment. As always, the results were impressive.