Bass Blog

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

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Boulez times Deux

Stravinsky - Symphony in Three Movements
Stravinsky - Four Studies for Orchestra
Carter - Réflexions
Varèse - Ionisation
Varèse - Amériques

Janácek - Sinfonietta
Szymanowski - Violin Concerto No. 1
Stravinsky - Pulcinella
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin
Roxana Constantinescu, mezzo-soprano
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone

Boulez came to town with a heap of ‘modern’ music. Maybe that should be amended to ‘scary’ modern music seeing how the concerts were so poorly attended, both here and in that somewhat larger city to the east. Too bad really, since I’m quite fond of Ameriques – the savagery of the piece is right in our wheelhouse!

The Stravinsky pieces were all recorded for our (Grammy winning!) in-house label [Redacted] Resound. (That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) Sometimes Boulez’s nonchalance and understated approach has had a very positive, calming effect, the perfect antidote to Solti or that other guy who followed him. But now that we have two elderly uncles as caretaker music directors, both of whose podium personae tend towards the soporific, I’m not quite so sold on the effectiveness of the mere flip of the wrist and the shrug. We seem to require a bit more to play together nowadays. The Stravinsky pieces felt pretty loose, to the point of mushiness. I will be curious to see what sort of recording they got from those concerts, although I’m not sure I’ll ever have the heart to listen to them.

The highlight of the two weeks had to be the backstage announcement by our personnel manager that took an unintended turn towards the sci-fi when he requested “All musicians on stage for ionization!

About a week after my last blog post poking fun at our (hopefully) interim junior senator, I ended up finding myself in a strangely parallel situation – complete with all the backstabbing and other niceties of the political world that seem to find a welcome home in the concert hall. Talk about karma!


nocynic said...

I would argue that M. Boulez's "Soporific" podium manner (as you put it rather well) has at least as much to do with the poor attendance that you noted as does the "scary modern" repertoire. I have no hard data, but in recent years it seems to me that the same music conducted by others tends to get a bigger audience than when we sleepwalk through it with Pierre. Is it possible that our audience isn't stupid?

Matt said...

I attended both concerts. I thought Ameriques was fantastic. I actually think it would have been a much cooler program to do Ionisation and Ameriques on the first half and then repeat Ionisation and Ameriques again on the second half. They are so rarely done and should be heard, and there is so much to hear. A second performance on the same night would have been illuminating. I also don’t think anyone would miss the two Stravinsky pieces that were played in the first half. Kind of insubstantial pieces.

I understand your overall criticisms of the concerts and generally agree but as an audience member I feel that it was a rare treat to hear the full Pulcinella and was glad you played it regardless. It does not come around too often. (bass solo was great too!) I also thought the tenor was excellent. His voice and approach was totally appropriate, so much so, that I can not imagine anyone else now on the part.

Michael Hovnanian said...

I found the Varese most satisfying. There was some dscussion that Boulez might still be somewhat ambivalent about the Stravinsky pieces he booed in his youth.

The complete Pulcinella was enjoyable to do. Some of the best material didn't make it inot the suite.

TDF said...

I have only seen Boulez once, conducting Mahler's Third in Berlin a few years back. He was quite "soporific" in that sold-out concert, too. The question I asked myself was about his rehearsal technique. Does he get it all done there verbally, and then let the orchestra do its thing in concert, unimpeded? Or did he just want to give the string section a chance to be heard by not encouraging the brass?

nocynic said...

I can't believe I left a comment without saying what most needed to be said on this of all blogs: Bravo, Mike! The "Pulcinella" bass solos were superb, arguably the highlight of the Boulez residency. Utterly secure technically, with humor and a rare coloristic sensitivity. You play that thing like a finely tuned musical instrument!

Michael Hovnanian said...

OK, Max, you can have that $20 now. But seriously, thanks.

Tim, he is pretty dry and efficient in rehearsal. I wouldn't call him Mr. excitement though. I happen to be very fond of Boulez and I find his smallest gestures quite entertaining. I particularly enjoy the faces he makes when things don’t go according to plan – when he stops the orchestra and says “that was deliciously wrong!”

Daniel said...

"All musicians on stage for ionization!"-- if only we'd played the Varese in Hong Kong, after using the "Self-Sterilization Station" backstage!

Unknown said...

did you give up?

Brad said...

Looks like this blog has gotten way out of date...

sdjackson said...

this has always been one of my favorite blogs michael. You haven't updated in 2 months, just checking to see you're ok. You're going to keep blogging, right?

Andrew Patner said...

Listening to the CSO broadcast now (Sunday 02 August). The full "Pulcinella" is astonishing and a great deal of that is due to your solo and section leadership work, Michael. Hurrah! -- Andrew P.