Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, December 06, 2009

The man who knew too much

December 3 - 6

MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto
MAHLER Symphony No. 4
Markus Stenz, Conductor
Viviane Hagner, Violin
Nicole Cabell, Soprano
Gerard McBurney, Narrator
William Brown, Actor
Laura T. Fisher, Actress
Elizabeth Buccheri, Piano

The Friday and Sunday matinees are Beyond the Score performances devoted to the Mahler. I have to confess to finding these concerts uncomfortable to play. Sitting in the dark listening to lengthy dialog tends to make the mind wander, and then, before you know it, you are called upon to play some touchy little snippet taken out of context. Some further editing might help. The BTS presentation goes on for over an hour while its subject, the symphony, is more concise at about 55 minutes. On the other hand, if I saw this on PBS (or some late night cable outlet) I would probably keep my hands off the remote for a few minutes at least. I'm in no position to judge if this all works as a live performance. To me, the most interesting things are the piano rolls of Mahler playing. Probably some historic recordings would make for quite an interesting documentary, leaving the live performers to do what they do best, perform.

I'm really ambivalent about BTS. I don't buy the argument that BTS is somehow anti music – the 'if Mahler had meant his piece to be talked about he would have written a novel instead of a symphony' sort of argument. I'm all for educating an audience. Not wanting listeners to be well informed about what we are presenting seems akin to wanting to keep your wife barefoot and pregnant. However, there are lots of things to do with your wife that don't entail yakking her head off for an hour at a time. At any rate, these BTS shows always get me thinking about something or other. This past week I found myself remembering an incident from years ago.

In college I suffered through an 8 AM functional harmony course. Adding to my irritability at the unholy hour and insuring each and every school day began in an ill humor was a certain 'foreign' student, a young lady hiding total ignorance of functional harmony (and in my opinion a general lack of intelligence) behind an alluring physicality and a supposedly beguiling french accent. This young lady sat in the front row and played perfectly the part of teacher's pet, irritating us denizens of the back row. One day the instructor called upon her to identify something glaringly simple written on the chalk board, much to dismay of the stoners leaning their chairs against the back wall, chagrined at seeing another softball lobbed to this annoying poseur. When increasingly futile attempts to tease the correct answer out of her began to draw titters and schoolboy guffaws from behind, she rose to address her fellow classmates as well as our instructor. “You know,” she whined, “this is difficult for me because I have to translate everything from a foreign language,” flapping arms no less shapely for their utter helplessness.

And then something unexpected happened. Our instructor, that cold automaton of the 8 AM roll-call, the soul crusher, proud of his ability to reduce any Bach chorale to a series of roman numerals, a man not above shrugging off the most sublime moment in Debussy as an answer on a pop quiz (c. pentatonic scale), like the Grinch, that man's heart seemed to grow three sizes that day.

Perhaps our laughter embarrassed him, exposing cracks in his intellectual rigor, awakening a last frozen shard of a forgotten humanity. Whatever the reason, rather than directing an angry rebuke at the rest of the class as we all expected, he glared back at the hapless young lady. “Well, so do I,” he snapped, knuckles rapping the blackboard covered with chord symbols, brackets and dotted lines. “This all starts out as music!”

A gale of laughter followed, accompanied by foot stamping, knee slapping, and a minor storm of shredded papers (among them, my useless notes) tossed in the air from the back of the class. From then on I dedicated myself to becoming a better student. It is hard to enumerate the number of times the things I learned in that functional harmony class have helped me in my career as a professional musician, mainly because that number has remained stuck on zero for the past thirty years. But I'm still ready and waiting.


sjid said...

Your blog reads like "A sincere musician's response to unjustified harassment," to paraphrase Shostakovich. It should be required reading for every conservatory student.

I think you would appreciate Mengelberg's live performace of Mahler's 4 with the Concertgebouw. He and Mahler were close, together played piano reductions of the symphony, and the performace reflects Mahler's concept and musical personality. It is unique and wonderful in ways that modern conditions of the business of music-making would not permit, even if there were someone with such an intimate relationship with Mahler.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks. Stenz mentioned Mengelberg several times during rehearsals. That recording and other historical ones would make for a very interesting presentation, IMO.

sjid said...

I'm not surprised that Stenz referred to Mengelberg. I attended the Sunday performance. His approach reminded me of Mengelberg's. It seemed he'd considered the 4th from different perspectives, with much focus on Mahler's ideas about interpretation. Other than the single movement on piano roll, Mengelberg's recording is the only source that is personally linked to the composer. I sensed that Stenz would have gone further had circumstances permitted and that the orchestra would have willingly accompanied him.

Unfortunately, your example of contamination of healthy musical instinct in theory classes is not unique. Musicology can take it to another level. I took a course taught be a senior faculty member of such renown that we considered ourselves privileged just to attend his class. He routinely but unsuccessfully encouraged students to participate in the lectures. Until one day when a student finally joined the presentation. During a lecture on the Diabelli Variations this courageous student spoke up, politely informing the prof that he had his facts wrong. The ensuing castigation clarified acceptable limits of student participation. To his credit, the next day the scholar began by apologizing for his error. He confessed that he had been factually incorrect, but hastened to add that his error in no way altered his conclusion which remained valid nonetheless. It was an eerie feeling, as if he were taking us into a meta-musical realm that was intellectually divorced from its musical roots. Like Flannery O'Connor's perplexing notion of a Church of Christ without Christ, we pinched ourselves as we were coaxed into this World about Music despite Music. This was an unwelcome epiphany, and like your theory class experience, it is as real and bizarre as if it happened just this morning.

Musicians who are gifted verbally and possess lively imaginations and commitment often do a superb job of heightening audience interest. There is no better example than Lawrence Rapchak, presenter of many CSO pre-concert "talks." He always has interesting, well thought-out ideas with clear musical relevance, presented enthusiastically, and illustrated by excerpts played on the piano or by recording. The BTS Mahler 4 presentation was another example, integrating Mahler's personality and biography as reflected in the score. It did much to enhance the interesting performance that followed. Many people have little background in the music, they follow their musical instincts when attending concerts. That which informs them while respecting their spontaneous pleasure in the music strikes me as a plus.

eric said...

More importantly, how did the concerto go? :-) j/k

Michael Hovnanian said...

Not bad!