Bass Blog

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

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Marathon Man

November 19 - 22

BARTÓK Divertimento for String Orchestra
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 12
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 2
Christoph von Dohnányi, Conductor
Paul Lewis, Piano

A visit to the dentist sometimes turns into a painful ordeal. Acknowledgment that this is for our own good mollifies us enough to submit to the uncomfortable procedure. Perhaps just as crucial in overcoming the natural reluctance to place ourselves at the mercy of a potentially pain-wielding professional is the belief our dentist is doing his best to minimize our suffering, and that furthermore, he derives no secret sadistic pleasure from all the painful picking, prodding and poking.

A conductor actually has a few ways to positively affect an orchestra in rehearsals, although more often than not the opportunities to employ them are bungled or misused. In brief, one of those is didactic, embodied in the maestro who comes to town with a number of interesting musical ideas which, if not presented in an insufferable manner, are available for the entertainment and maybe even enlightenment of all whose ears are not yet permanently calloused over. Another approach is the corrective – the maestro who performs the necessary and laudable services of scraping away at the orchestral tartar, filling the musical cavities, reigning in the rhythmical overbite, and maybe even addressing chronic institutional halitosis. This conductor has the chance of leaving the orchestra in better shape than when he found it.

Obviously, the lure of sadism sometimes proves too much, and what begins as constructive turns cruel and capricious. Cleaning the gums turns into a relentless pricking an poking, looking for blood, then gleefully pointing it out, holding a mirror up before the hapless, chair-bound orchestra. “You see! We have a problem here, such a pity. Let me get another pick. Nurse! No, the longer, more cruelly formed one please...”

To stipulate a need for the old-school type Great Maestro, one might argue that the ends justify the means (in our modern era, so long as they conform to the union contract). However, the end aimed at by barking “Watch it!” a split second before someone makes an entrance remains obscure to me, among a number of other things. Sadly, the performances this week had a somewhat flabby, dull, and uncomfortable aspect to them, a kind of Middle-European precision goosestep performed in stocking feet.