Bass Blog

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

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Monday, September 28, 2009



Travel from Luzern to Vienna, uneventful. The Musikverein is the same old place, which is what is nice about it. Some of the end pin holes in the stage look like they might be a hundred and fifty years old, the kind of tradition you can put your foot on. The hall has a fantastic resonance that, if we aren't careful, we can fill with a fantastic jumble of sound. At rehearsals Haitink asked us repeatedly not to (surprise) overplay. Performing Bruckner in the Musikverein feels very appropriate somehow, although I can't say I came away from the concert liking Bruckner or understanding what he was up to any better. But if you put a pig in mud I suppose he's happy even if he can't tell you why.

There is a story floating around that Bruckner, a shy and possibly troubled man, asked that the bare breasted caryatids in the Musikverein be covered. I have no idea if this actually occurred (the request and/or the covering) but I think of it whenever I play there.

We performed both programs (Mozart/Shostakovich, Haydn/Bruckner) in Vienna with a day off in between which I used to pay homage to another reviled, discredited, and dare I say misunderstood, historical figure. I spent a few pleasant hours at the all but deserted Arnold Schoenberg Institute – well worth the € 5 price of admission IMHO.

The dingy blockhouse that is Vienna's Hütteldorf train station left a lot to be desired. The decrepit waiting room reminded me of places I'd seen in the old Soviet Union – uncomfortable seats, peeling paint, bright, crackling fluorescent lights. All in all not the kind of place to spend the time between concert and midnight train. At the last minute the track for our train changed and we all lurched and jostled our way through a grimy, fetid passageway before emerging onto the correct platform – like a scene out of Dr. Zhivago, perhaps 1984, I thought. Wondering if the little dis-utopian scene I found myself caught in, the nightmare vision of a Europe that might have been, could possibly be some sort of penance for my foolish beliefs, I promised to make no more visits to Marx Engels statue. Just then the station loudspeakers began playing Pierrot Lunaire.

Thursday, September 24, 2009



Getting to Luzern turned out to be one of those magnificent ordeals arising from an almost obsessive desire to travel separately from my colleagues. At midnight, the view of Berlin from the elevated train platform was magical. The train arriving half an hour late and falling 45 minutes behind before reaching Dortmund, not so magical considering the scheduled connection time of 47 minutes.

A city on a large lake in need of a new concert hall sounds oddly familiar. Only Luzern did something modern, and in my opinion, quite spectacular. Not all my colleagues like the acoustics of the concert hall as much as I do, but everyone is entitled to be wrong, I suppose. We played two programs, Mozart/Shostakovich repeated from Berlin, and then and Haydn 101 paired with (yes, again) Bruckner 7.

Sunday morning, I set out to climb nearby Mount Pilatus whose summit was, as usual, hidden in clouds. I don't know the mileage of the hike – the sign says '4 hours' – but the elevation gain is about 5,200 feet. A few times the clouds parted to offer views of the scenery below, but for the most part, I trudged through dense fog. After about three hours I entered a series of steep switchbacks crossing a rockfall. The summit could not be far above me, but where? My feet were sore, my spirits flagging until, from still high above, came the plaintive melody of a single alp-horn. The lone voice, at length joined, became a chorus. I stopped to listen, briefly disoriented that the sound of a horn could produce in me something quite strange, a feeling I can only describe as the absence negativity. Rallying, I stumbled upward.

Saturday, September 19, 2009



Speaking of Hindenburg, for once the German capitol city is warm and sunny. We used to have a conductor (name escapes me) who dragged us to Berlin every Easter where it seemed perpetually rainy, cold and gloomy. And that was before leaving the concert hall.

Haitink is “Mr. Sunshine” in more ways than one, I guess. He seems to be back to form after suffering some sort of leg or back ailment that had him using a cane last time we saw him. The orchestra came out of vacation sounding understandably ragged at the opening rehearsal but more or less pulled together to put on a fine concert (Mozart 'Jupiter', Shostakovitch 15) at the Philharmonie, thanks in large part to the Maestro's steady hand.

The Philharmonie has been underwhelming me the last few times we played there. Not sure why – the sound is clear and certainly more resonant than what we are used to, but I can't help feeling there is something a bit flat about it. The backstage canteen continues its fine tradition of offering cheap eats and drinks – about € 4 for a sandwich and a beer. Honestly, the availability of beer within 20 or so paces of the stage makes up for any number of shortcomings.

I devoted a free afternoon to my usual pilgrimage to Marx Engels Platz for a glance at the statue. Hardly a thing a beauty – the huge clunky figures would not find themselves out of place in one of the Planet of the Apes films – nevertheless, whenever I am in town I am drawn to the sad spectacle of those two somber figures forced to watch their dream is slowly, inexorably crushed as the Unter den Linden becomes just another shopping street. Perhaps as a classical musician I have a degree of empathy for those who, in spite of their best efforts, wind up on the 'wrong side of history', become ossified, caricatures of their former selves, forced to watch the march of so-called progress heading off in the wrong direction. Whatever. My visits to the statue began soon after the wall came down. Several times I discovered someone had left flowers at the feet of the great socialists – sometime an old bouquet, wilted weeks ago, lying in the rain – but that hasn't happened in years now. Clasping hands with Engels, Marx rises stiffly, shedding a few rust-colored flakes as he takes a first, faltering step. Bronze shoes thudding on stone, I watch the two giants stride off down the Unter den Linden in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate. Engels shrugs, 'accidentally' taking out a Starbucks sign with his shoulder. Marx, lost in conversation, gestures idly with his free arm, swiping away a pair of golden arches. My shoes slide on broken glass as I run to catch up to the great thinkers disappearing down the street. “Wait for me,” I call out, weakly.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


An inauspicious beginning

Usually the tour starts when the plane wheels hit the ground, that little bump signaling the end of one chapter, in this case, vacation , and the beginning of another, the tour. This time is a little different, however. First, there is the business of cleaning up the past, making a few excuses so as to move on with if not a clear, at least a whitewashed conscience. The stolen violin and some other hijinks during the summer disrupted my Haiku-a-day plan, which was probably over ambitious to begin with anyway. But, in case nobody noticed, the Bass Blog has turned out to be more or less an account of failure – the large, ongoing type, as well as a series of smaller episodic shortcomings that seem to dog my every day. Think of that well known film clip, the Hindenburg disaster, played continuously in slow motion. So in those terms, failing to write a few Haiku is hardly anything to get upset about, is it? But it is time to rewind the filmstrip and begin the process once again.

The day before my flight to Berlin, acting on a premonition, I took the (for me) unusual step of telephoning the airline (named after a large German city) to confirm my flight only to discover my reservation had been canceled weeks ago with me none the wiser. Re-booking a ticket on short notice turned my intended thrifty gesture into one of extravagant financial excess. Not a great way to begin.