Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

This is what he meant to say….

Lincoln Bicentennial Tribute
Root - The Battle Cry of Freedom
Payne & Bishop - Home, Sweet Home
Harris - Symphony No. 6 (Gettysburg)
Bennett - Selections from Abraham Lincoln (A Likeness in Symphony Form)
Copland - Lincoln Portrait
Beethoven - Symphony No. 5

James Gaffigan, conductor
James Earl Jones, narrator
Kevin Gudahl, speaker
Gerard McBurney, speaker

I think the last time our orchestra performed the Lincoln Portrait the junior senator from our state did the narration. Since he went on to bigger and better things James Earl Jones stepped in and schooled everybody in the meaning of star power. Still, having the current junior senator do the honors might have made for an entertaining evening. Program notes or a post-concert press conference could have clarified and revised the senator’s narration. Besides, we might have been able to boast hosting one of his final public appearances.

Not sure what Beethoven 5 was doing on this concert – Lincoln’s favorite piece? Fate knocking at the door? Music that brings on a headache?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Blog of the tour – part seven

The Forbidden Concert Hall

Friday, February 13

We may have finally found a venue on this tour to match the massive inhuman scale of our repertoire. While exploring Tianamen square I kept bumping into the ghost of Anton Bruckner. Out for a stroll, hands clasped behind his back, the venerable composer nodded in silent approval, dreaming of ways to subjugate another string section beneath his musical fist of iron. It seems as if regular-old socialists and their ‘national’ brethren share some taste in architecture.

The scheduled 2-hour morning rehearsal was converted to one of the 45-minute pre concert warm-ups so I did not arrive in the vicinity of the ‘Egg’ (National Center for the Performing Arts) until about 4 in the afternoon. I enjoy arriving at a new concert hall alone, not with the group, in part to see how these architectural marvels yield up their secrets to a more or less ordinary person encountering them with the modest goal of entering, perhaps finding a bathroom, my instrument, and finally the stage. The ‘Egg’ proved a tough nut to crack, if I can scramble up a tasty hash of metaphors.

Most concert halls have stage doors or performers’ entrances at the back, or the side. Being round and surrounded by a defensive moat, the ‘Egg’ did not present an obvious point of entry for a footsore double bassist. A preliminary circumnavigation revealed two subterranean entrances 180 degrees apart. Looking decidedly more ghetto, one of them seemed the obvious choice.

Approaching the guard on duty, I produced my orchestra photo ID card and said (Blah, Blah) Symphony Orchestra, musician. I made the universal symbol – playing air violin and tapping my chest – but the guard shook his head and smiled sheepishly at my antics before summoning over a gentleman in a suit who had been chatting loudly on a cell phone a few feet away. This fellow seemed genuinely put off at having to end his call. When I presented my card he made a face as if I had just waved something extremely foul smelling under his nose. He shook his head violently and said in English, no, No, NO! and then something in Chinese that sounded like ‘getthehellouttahere!’ (but in all fairness could have been anything) while waving me off in the direction of the other entrance.

At the other side I was able to penetrate two sets of doors before arriving in what seemed to be a lobby for audience members. The guard at the roped off entryway was already shaking his head before I had my ID out, but I repeated my air violin performance for him anyway. Noticing a large photo of Bernhard Haitink hanging above his head I added what I hoped would be clarification (but probably only made me look irredeemably silly) by pointing to the photo, making motions of shaking the Maestro’s hand, and him warmly reciprocating by patting me on the back. (Incidentally, there is a photo of this very spot in the New York Times of February 16, page C3, where you can see the guard in ominous silhouette, the photo of Haitink in the distance.)

Beside the guard sat an officious looking lady at a small desk. When asked if she spoke English, she responded ‘a little bit’ and so I repeated my attempt at self-identification, downplaying the visuals somewhat. She gave a look of what I mistakenly took to be understanding until she led me to what appeared for all the world to be the ticket counter and left me there. Again, I repeated the charade for a group of bemused young ladies who had no idea what I was about. After I rejected the ticket they pushing in my direction, three of them huddled in conversation for a long time before one of them turned back to me, beaming. You, she said, finger pointing to the ceiling, are an actor! Her smile froze. Apparently that was the end of the line as far as she was concerned.

Heading back towards the guard and the lady at the desk, I noticed one of my colleagues, who appeared to be taking the first steps down the same rode I had started off on, now some forty minutes ago. The presence of two babbling foreigners in the lobby was enough to spur somebody to action. We were eventually taken to a room where my colleague spoke to somebody on the phone and I handed over my passport (?), which was returned along with a pink slip of paper. Whatever was written on the paper proved to be pure gold, because the formerly recalcitrant guard waved us through without another look. All that remained was the metal detector, a frisking, and a couple more locked doors that could only be opened by the person whose job it was to open them, but we were on our way!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part six


If someone on the street in Shanghai offers to take you to a tea ceremony or an art gallery, my advice would be to respectfully decline, that is if you value the contents of your pocket book. Unfortunately, anybody who wants to ‘practice English’ is probably up to no good. Having made a brutally honest assessment of my appeal to members of either sex, I have to conclude the countless offers for more personal sorts of attention attracted while walking alone were nefarious as well.

Another depressing fact: the 300 kph (!) train ride from the airport is more than 10x faster than the creaky, lurching transit system in my hometown.

Tuesday, February 10

Breakfast: thank heaven for the in-room coffee maker! Another rehearsal this morning, devoted to Bruckner and Haydn. Graciously acknowledging the presence of many Shanghai musicians and students, Haitink changed his usual rehearsal routine and offered up a read-through of the Bruckner 7 Finale before hitting the same old spots again.

Wednesday, February 11

More free in-room coffee to start the day! Freedom until the short pre-concert rehearsal of Mahler 6.

Drivers in Shanghai are pretty well insane as far as I can tell. Two-wheeled vehicles, motorized or not, seem to be exempt from obeying traffic signals altogether. To a four-wheeler, a red light is merely a suggestion that may be nullified by sounding the horn and flooring it. Pedestrians, like ninepins, are best knocked over in groups. In fact, watching people cross the street proved enlightening.

From a huddled mass of pedestrians waiting to cross a street somebody begins by making a leap of faith and steps bravely, maybe foolishly, in front of oncoming traffic. It could be anybody, and not always the one you would expect to grasp the mantle of leader – the little old lady who just about spat on my shoe a moment earlier, the twenty-something guy on his cell phone who doesn’t seem to be paying attention to anything at all. The important thing is that somebody gets their foot out in front of the onrushing cars first, then safety in numbers takes over and everybody else seizes the moment by piling across. Even if a few are crushed, the odds of any one person making it are increased. The similarity to playing in a string section is truly uncanny.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part five


Friday, February 6

Hong Kong. Breakfast of fruit in my room, compliments of the hotel. Afterwards, another rehearsal 11 – 1 devoted to Mozart and Strauss. Same passages covered as at previous rehearsal in Tokyo. On my way out the door after finishing, I glance at my watch. It’s 11:23. There were some warnings about the acoustics at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. It’s sort of a smallish place and the sound was not too clear, although I’m not convinced we did our best to adjust our playing to the room. There is no backstage there to speak of, so much of our stuff had to be stored at the hotel, which was a bit of a drag.

After the brief rehearsal, while soaking up some of the nice warm sunny weather, a man in a turban approached me, introduced himself as a ‘Yogi from India’ and began telling me I had a lucky face, along with a number of other insightful observations about my personality – all of them way, way off. This shifty-eyed gentleman was impossible to get rid of, and I waited for the moment he would try and pick my pocket while he read my palm, where he failed to notice I have unusual markings that get most palm readers attention right away. Next, he gave me a small folded up piece of paper to hold in my fist while he asked me for a number between 1 and 5 along with the name of a flower. I’m still kicking myself for picking the obvious – 3 and Rose – but was still pretty impressed when I unfolded the paper and, sure enough, it hade 3/Rose scribbled on it. He then asked for 300 Hong Kong dollars (about 40 US) and warned it might be unlucky for me if I didn’t pay up. Not noticing any accomplice around, I felt confident in giving him only 10 HKD (about 1.20 US), already kicking myself for making such obvious choices but acknowledging a nice magic trick on his part. At that point the mood turned a bit ugly and he demanded more money. When I refused, he cursed me (literally: “I curse you!”) and walked off muttering probably much worse in Hindi.

Saturday, February 7

Breakfast of coffee at Starbuck’s. (They have them here too!) Nothing scheduled until the evening when we had a 45 minute rehearsal, 90 minutes before a 90-minute performance of Mahler 6.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part four

Breakfast of Champions

Tuesday, February 3

Today, the titular breakfast – diet coke and a handful of aspirin before heading off to rehearsal, already the fifth one of the tour. Haitink certainly love to rehearse! Today the task at hand was the Bruckner 7th, which for me is kind of like a trip to the dentist – in the wrong hands truly painful, and even with the most skilled practitioner avoiding discomfort becomes an end in itself. Kudos to Haitink for scraping off some of the tartar.

Wednesday, February 4

Breakfast at Starbuck’s again and another one of those, creamy, dreamy sandwiches. Today I ate in Shibuya, at the famous Starbuck’s overlooking the intersection where every time the light changes about ten thousand people swarm across.

In the evening, another one of those little rehearsals, 5:30 - 6:15 before a 7 PM concert of Mozart 41 and Heldenleben. There’s a pattern forming to the way we rehearse Heldenleben – start at the beginning, then jump to (oops, forgot the number, 15?) the cackling woodwind passage, then check the offstage trumpets (flawless again!) and end with, well, the end. For those not playing Mozart, enough time for a nap before the performance.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part three

Coffee and Fish

Sunday, February 1

Breakfast at Starbuck’s again today, coffee and a sandwich with a deliciously creamy but unidentifiable filling – tasted vaguely like tuna, which is hardly reassuring.

Rehearsal and concert of Mahler 6 today at Suntory Hall, mercifully in walking distance from the hotel. I found the experience of playing Suntory much better than Minato Mirai – easier to hear the inner voices and not at all muddy. Rehearsal was scheduled from 11- 1:30, but Haitink wisely called an audible and let us out early, so there was time for a quick lunch and a quick nap before the concert at 4.

Monday, February 2

Due to excessive sake tasting Sunday night, I’m in no mood for breakfast today. Technically, if breakfast is the first thing I ate, I have to include the large quantity of kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi eaten at about 2 PM. The rest of the day was ‘off’ in every sense of the word.

(Internet service is getting more and more expensive so I am growing more creative trying to find free wireless. This post courtesy of Mr Default, resident of Hong Kong.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Blog of the Tour – part two

Saturday, January 31

The first post veered way off topic, I’m afraid. I’ll try and stick to the subject matter at hand – a group of Americans flying g to Japan and China to play German and Austrian music under a conductor from the Netherlands.

Breakfast today – Grande Latte at Starbucks. Returning to the Hotel, I stopped in the lobby to glance at the bulletin board set up for orchestra members and noted about half of the space was dedicated to breakfast in one way or another. I wonder if any Japanese folks curious about what is going on have had a peek at our board (it’s hard to avoid if you come in the front door, actually) and wondered if the Culinary Society of Ohio might be in town, with the primary mission of tasting the breakfast options available and an auxiliary function of putting on a few concerts.

Haitink is pretty adamant about wanting a lot of rehearsals on tour – more than we are used to. Today we had one of these ‘acoustic’ (or sound-check, or warm-up) rehearsals from 4:30 – 5:15 before the 6 PM concert in Yokohama. I’m not convinced we needed to do that since we spent the day before rehearsing there. For those playing the entire program (Mozart 41, Strauss Ein Heldenleben) 45 minutes seemed too short to get a square meal in a strange land, and those of us only playing Heldenleben had two hours to wander aimlessly around the Minato Mirai complex. Despite those minor annoyances, the concert was a smashing success.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Blog of the tour – part one

Order of Lenin, hold the Mayo

The last time the orchestra came to Japan I flew with the group and found myself assigned to a uncomfortable center seat beside two of my more talkative colleagues. About eight hours into a thirteen hour flight, when my interest in the shoes sizes of offspring, what was eaten for lunch on certain day, the cost of various consumer items and so on and so forth reached its nadir, I began hatching a bold plan about what to do should I ever be called upon to return to the land of the rising sun. Hardly worth mentioning now, at the time it seemed entirely reasonable to chart an overland journey across Canadian provinces, the frozen tundra of Alaska, fording the Bering Strait, before island hoping my way down out of Siberia, eventually arriving comfortably by bullet train at Tokyo station, twenty two months late. Eventually it struck me that what I ought to do is simply book myself on a different flight, so that’s what I did.

There are a few ‘jetlag days’ at the beginning of a tour, free of rehearsals or concerts, sorely needed to get over the time change. Things really began on Friday, January 29.

Breakfast came in two installments today. 7:30 AM, coffee at the Dotour coffee shop in the Shibuya train station. Later, the ‘Breakfast Set’ at Cafe de Crié in the Minato Mirai complex, consisting of coffee, toast, and some of the strangest scrambled eggs encountered to date – at least I hope they were eggs – served with lettuce tomato and a large blob of mayonnaise (!). After such an auspicious start, the two rehearsals at Minato Mirai Hall could not but go swimmingly. The acoustic, like most places, is more resonant than we are accustomed to, so ther was some sorting out to do. Haitink mentioned the jet lag and gave the orchestra a compliment – something to the effect that we could probably wake up in the middle of the night in Siberia and still play well – and I thought, to be honest, we’ve already done that. Back in 1990 (or was it ’91?) when we toured the Soviet Union, we made a recording of the Bruckner eighth symphony in (then) Leningrad the day after arriving. I recall waking up during the slow (actually in that symphony, the slowest) movement, realizing I had been playing in my sleep for an undetermined length of time. I have no idea if that is a good recording or not. If so, everybody involved should probably be awarded the Order of Lenin.