Bass Blog

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

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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Meet the Gunnelpumpers

A group I have played with for the past seven years, one I can actually name, has a few performances of note coming up. In fact, it seems as if the '09 ' - '10 season might mark the beginning of a 'golden age' for the Gunnelpumpers with more performances than we have done in quite a while.

Brainchild of bassist Doug Johnson, the Gunnelpumers are best described by the subtitle on the band's myspace page: music by accident. Other band members include bassist Mathew Golombisky, percussionists Randy Farr, Douglas Brush and Quin Kirchner, along with Guitarist John Meyer. The group has also included a host of stellar guest artists over the years. One of the most interesting things about the group is seeing who will show up for any given performance. One of the best things is that we almost never rehearse. We might have had one, maybe two over the past seven years. More info about the Gunnelpumpers, including music and photos, may be found here.

The Gunnelpumpers will be playing a live set on WNUR 89.3 FM, Saturday, January 2nd, from 4-5 on the Airplay program. WNUR is out of Evanston Illinois. For those out of signal range, I think the programing is available on the internet. For those still too hung over on January 2nd to tune in, I think they also archive the shows. More info is on their website.

On January 5th, the band will play live at Martyrs' (3855 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago, IL) rounding out a show that begins at 8 PM. Any bass blog readers who happen to be at that show are welcome to say hello. Answering 3 bass blog trivia questions might even earn you a free beer, on me.

Monday, December 21, 2009

From Russia With Love

TCHAIKOVSKY The Storm [L'Orage], Op. 76
TCHAIKOVSKY Selections from The Snow Maiden, Op. 12
Alex Balestrieri, Narrator
TCHAIKOVSKY Selections from Swan Lake, Op. 20
Alexander Polianichko, Conductor
Redmoon Theater
Frank Maugeri, Artistic Director
Alex Balestrieri, Narrator

All of the concerts I've played since the week of Thanksgiving have been in the dark (sometimes both literally and figuratively) with stand lights and visual aids. I had the week conducted by Nicholas Kramer off, so I have no idea if they had pole dancers and a laser light show for those performances. It certainly seems as if we are resorting to a lot of smoke and mirrors of late. Also, since my night vision really sucks, I find playing in the dark kind of a drag. The stand lights never seem bright enough.

One place I could have done with less light was on the podium. Polianichko pitched a couple of no-hitters in the four performances. I think it was the Selmer Musical Instrument Company that used to provide folders for school bands and orchestras. On the inside of those folders were diagrams of the conductor's beat patterns – reminiscent of the Arthur Murray dance step charts, with the footprints and the dotted lines. I wish somebody would copy those beat patterns and fix them to the mirror in the conductor's dressing room as a kind of refresher, one last thing to look at before going on stage, after fixing hair and making certain trousers are zipped up.

The Redmoon Theater collaboration was interesting, as much of it as I could see, and the Tchaikovsky music certainly appropriate for the season. For a number of years Boulez used to conduct the weeks leading up to Christmas, when we would treat the audience to such holiday favorites as The Miraculous Mandarin, Sacre du Printemps, Notations, Le visage nuptial, Livre pour cordes.

The email sent by a colleague and the Russian music this week had me thinking about the tour to the Soviet Union back in 1990 – the open bottles of vodka at every table for each meal, the emaciated dietician from Jewel, the rat running through Thanksgiving dinner, the black marketeers installed in the Moscow hotel room, the unique and peculiar headache brought on by the Russian champagne, 'Chuck' running through the train with his gun. All sorts of happy memories for the holiday season!

The Gunnelpumpers show at Miskas on Friday night managed to salvage the week.

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?

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.

Friday, December 04, 2009

If I were a rich man

November 27-29

ADDINSELL Prelude from Blithe Spirit'
ARNOLD Excerpts from The Bridge on the River Kwai'
JARRE Excerpts from A Passage to India
BAX Three Pieces from Oliver Twist
JARRE Excerpts from Dr. Zhivago
JARRE Excerpts from Lawrence of Arabia
WILLIAMS The Magic of Harry Potter
Holland Taylor, Narrator
WILLIAMS Flying Theme from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (encore)
WILLIAMS Marion's Theme from Raiders Of The Lost Ark (encore)
WILLIAMS Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) from The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars Episode V) (encore)
WILLIAMS Wide Receiver , (Theme from NBC Football) (encore)
John Williams, Conductor
Michael York, Narrator
Holland Taylor, Narrator

Well, we went from an unflinchingly rude conductor to an unfailingly polite one. The orchestra always seems a bit cowed by John Williams and he responds with the utmost cordiality. You might chalk it up to to celebrity, but I think a large part of it has to do with his net worth – inside every orchestra musician is a petit bourgeois struggling to get out. If these concerts had been conducted by a lowly assistant conductor from somewhere, the usual sort of sacrificial lamb brought in to lead a pops show, after four rehearsals things might have turned quite ugly. As it was, we never strayed far from appearing to be in a mutual love-fest with our conductor of the week. I'm not sure it is possible to convey how unusual that is. The autograph seekers waiting in the alley after the show added to oddity of the whole thing, as was having the audience immediately recognize (and enjoy) the music we played for them.