Bass Blog

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

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Friday, December 18, 2009

The Never Ending Story

An orchestra member sent me an email regarding the appointment of Yo Yo Ma as some sort of creative consultant with our organization. Originally I was speechless, not necessarily with delight, and thought to let the matter slide until it occurred to me that Bass Blog readers might benefit from this insightful and passionate email. Certain words and initials have been redacted to conform with Bass Blog standards.

With the author's permission:


What’s the deal? Is it necessary to believe that you possess godlike power to be appointed {redacted} Music Director? Back in the late 80s, Sir Georg Solti saw a film of Vladimir Horowitz performing back in the disintegrating USSR after a life in exile from his native land. The audience was rapturous, many in tears as they cheered the prodigal native son. It never occurred to Sir Georg that, not being Russian himself, he might not get the same reception. Not at all. “We must go!” he insisted, arranging a hastily planned {redacted} tour to Leningrad and Moscow in 1989, just as his tenure at our helm was ending. He told the orchestra, and I am not making this up, that when the Russian people saw what a great orchestra a free society could produce, they would be inspired to rebuild their nation along the lines of the great western democracies. He would conduct a few Mahler and Bruckner symphonies and magically transform a land that had been suffering under tyrants for all of its history. But I guess Putin didn’t come to any of our concerts.

Our next Music Director, Daniel Barenboim, was very excited when Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. He told the orchestra’s Members’ Committee, on which I served at the time, that if only he could bring the {redacted} to play in Washington, Clinton would understand how transformative the arts are and commit his administration to supporting them in the same way they are funded in France or Germany. Again, I am not making this up. One concert would do the trick, and we duly shoehorned a runout concert to Kennedy Center into our next New York tour. Unfortunately, it turned out President Clinton was occupied with other affairs of state, and was unable to attend our concert. Sadly, then, he missed out on his great epiphany.

Now we have a new Maestro, Ricardo Muti. His rehearsals and concerts have been wonderful thus far, and we have high hopes for his tenure. But here we go again. We have just learned that Yo Yo Ma has been appointed our new Creative Chair. In the language of the press release: “Maestro Muti and Yo-Yo Ma will act as inspirational catalysts for the {redacted} community, advocating for the transformative power that music can have on individuals, regardless of age or socioeconomic background.” Among other things, Muti wants us to perform in prisons, to inspire the denizens therein to turn their lives around. Of course, neither Yo Yo nor Muti have the time to do any of this. They are both globetrotting superstars who will confine their time in {redacted} to at best 10 or so overbooked weeks a year. But hey—Maestro Muti doesn’t need a lot of time. Just like our previous Music Directors, his magical presence all by itself will be transformative.

I have been on the front lines for our two most ambitious outreach initiatives of the past decade or so. I was involved in the creation of the Eloise Martin Center, which was a high tech interactive installation designed by Caroline Kennedy’s husband Edwin Schlossberg. It was up on the second floor of Symphony Center for a year or two, and then the money ran out and it was junked. The big desk in the shape of a bass viol that is used to serve coffee at the Bass Bar before concerts in the rotunda is all that survives of it. Then there was the Armonia project. A string quartet (I was in it) and a brass quintet of {redacted} players each collaborated with a different Latin ensemble. We were paired with an Afro-Caribbean percussion ensemble, and the brass guys with a mariachi group. They spent a ton of money on equipment, commissioned music so we could play together, and we performed maybe ten or fifteen concerts at a few schools and community centers, before the money dried up and the project was abandoned.

So now we are going to redeem the underclass in {redacted}. And to accomplish this modest feat, we are hiring perhaps the most overbooked instrumentalist in classical music today, Yo Yo Ma. Forgive my skepticism, but I think I’ve seen this movie before. And I know how it ends.


Programming Hitler's favorite composer in Leningrad (as it was then called) struck me as an odd choice. My first day there, I came across a bomb damaged structure, preserved for going on 50 years, bearing a plaque that read: Monument to Fascist Aggression. I had the feeling our performance of the Bruckner 8th was doomed.

The next music director (what's his name) seemed more concerned with achieving peace in the middle east, a pity when you can almost throw a stone from our concert hall to neighborhoods in our city where kids are afraid to walk the streets to get to schools in a shameful state of decrepitude. A friend of mine who taught music to underprivileged kids at the time told me they were all very excited when our former Maestro was scheduled to visit the school until it was revealed to be little more than a walk-through and they were told, in no uncertain terms, that none of the kids were to play anything for him.

At least Muti and Ma (or their spokespeople) are saying the right things as far as keeping the focus on the people in (the city where we live). But I agree with my colleague that I don't see them getting their hands too dirty. My worry is that in the vacuum created by their absence, scheming minds will come up with ideas similar to the debacles described above. Sometimes our organization goes about things with all the subtlety of trying to comb your hair with a garden rake. I have a vision of us playing Scheherazade for the Guantanamo prisoners supposedly coming to our state, or some other falderal.

The one thing the Bass Blog cannot condone however, is defamation of the Bass Bar (a big violin actually, or three quarters of one anyway). Have you even tried their coffee?


Aaron Andersen said...

All the {redacted}'s are a little silly, given the news coverage around YYM's appointment.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I join you in skepticism. Honestly, I am sure there are some great musicians who live in redacted who would make fantastic creative consultants, and who know well the issues facing redacted and other large American cities.

Michael Hovnanian said...

I tend to agree, but rules are rules...

nocynic said...

My most vivid memory of our performance of Bruckner 8 in Leningrad was an old battle ax babushka lady in the third row center at the concert, frowning in disgust and holding her hands over her ears when the brass really cut loose. It was a gorgeous little music box hall, and for us to play Bruckner and Mahler there was like a whale thrashing around in a bathtub.

MacroV said...

Interesting business with Solti wanting to go to Moscow to show what kind of orchestra "freedom" can produce. Surely he couldn't have been oblivious to the fact that the USSR not only produced a lot of great musicians, but also had some terrific orchestras? While I'm sure the (redacted)SO rocked the house in Moscow in 1990 (I remember the broadcast), chances are there were performances that week in the same hall by several other very good Moscow orchestras that didn't have the benefit of freedom.

As for Bruckner in Russia; I have CDs of Rozhdestvensky conducting several of them with his Moscow orchestra du jour in the early 1970s. So while it may not have been carrying coals to Newcastle, Bruckner wouldn't have been that obscure in 1990s Moscow and Leningrad.

As for his successor and playing in DC: it's not like they hadn't heard good orchestras at the Kennedy Center (including the (redacted) SO) before.

Lisa Hirsch said...

So the orchestra's rule is that you can blog about being a player in the redacted Symphony Orchestra, but you can't name the city? Ahaha.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Well, something like that.

Gerontius said...

I believe the NYPO recently did the one concert conversion of the North Koreans..........under Maazel. Isn't working yet......

Members of the cello section of a certain major midwestern symphony orchestra had best be aware that Mr Ma has, in the past, been known to join the celli of the Philadelphia orchestra under Maestro Muti (back in the 80s) when he was appearing as soloist in the first half of the concert - he would join the celli with his own desk - just in front of the basses (!) - for something like, say the Dvorak 6th. It looked like he knew what he was doing.

Michael Hovnanian said...

He's done that here too, but not since the early 90's. I got to sit right next to him. He stayed out of the way quite nicely, and so did I.