Bass Blog

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

Feel free to email your comments.

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.


molly said...

that's pooey.

conductors that make people uncomfortable to play don't seem to ever do any good... unless you somehow read their minds at what they mean by "watch it" and then you're suddenly their bff or something.

can't baton man just tell us what he wants us to do as opposed to telling us what he doesn't want us to do?

nocynic said...

Nice to have you back, Mike. When something went wrong, Maestro Dohnanyi's eyes would light up like a cougar spotting a limping rabbit across the meadow--Ahh! Something to probe, somebody's confidence to undermine! I heard him say "Careful!" more frequently than "Watch it!" If there is one frame of mind guaranteed not to make music soar, it is a careful one. On top of it, he sucks as a conductor. The Bartok depends on the subtlest gradations of tempo; again and again he writes "Tornando"-- imperceptibly turning slightly faster or slower. Our boy just wasn't up for it. He would overshoot the mark and have to jerk into a tempo he hadn't prepared, or he would do the entire tempo change in the last couple of beats because he had botched the transition. From this he makes a living?

Anonymous said...

Good one Mike. I remember once during a rehearsal with Dohnanyi I was playing a rather exposed little xylophone passage in unison with the winds. At one point, I simply reached a bit too far to my right and hit a single wrong note. The Maestro quickly stopped the proceedings and pointed out to me that I had played a wrong note.(I WILL give him some credit for noticing it). At that point I simply said to him in the most dripping sarcasm I could muster..." Sorry MAESTROOOO, I hit the wrong target". The orchestra laughed and he actually turned a nice shade of red and said 'sorry'. One of my most satisfying triumphs. How do you spell putz?