Bass Blog

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

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Now, where was I...

[an additional apology is in order here: the first attempt to post this had the second paragraph inexplicably deleted: I guess I'm a bit rusty after all. So if the old bass blog seemed to make even less sense than usual, that is the excuse...]

No excuses, but a number of reasons kept me away from the blog. Skipping a few months has left me with a nice backlog of anecdotes to draw on during the lean weeks that are surely coming. The member of the orchestra who brought up the option of breaking my thumbs if I didn't start writing again made the decision easy.

Leave it to one of my favorites to provide material to write about. Pierre Boulez seems to have rigorously pared down the art of conducting to its barest essentials – a flick of the wrist here, a curt nod there. Pithy remarks to the orchestra often combine the didactic with the hilarious in masterful fashion. “That was, in fact, horrible...” I believe I heard him say recently – the sort of thing that gets you chuckling until you realize maybe you're supposed to be indignant. When he is in town, I'm always watching pretty closely for signs of hidden or underlying meanings, like someone from the ancient world might have watched the flight of birds, or examined sheep entrails in an attempt to fathom the divine order of the world.

The other day, unhappy about how we had executed some tempo change in the Glagolitic Mass, the Maestro showed what at first glance seemed to be uncharacteristic exasperation. “Did I really conduct so badly?” he asked, rhetorically, showing us again the simple wave of the wrist sufficient to wrench an orchestra out of Moderato and into Presto.

The rest of the rehearsal had me puzzling over that one. I wondered if having thrown a a wild pitch, a major league hurler had ever called his catcher to mound and asked, “Did I really throw the ball over there!?” pointing to the dugout. Strange how with conducting, the basic rules of cause and effect seem less than straightforward. In the minds of the public, to be sure, they are turned completely on their heads most of the time. Leave it to Boulez to challenge a bit of received knowledge in creative fashion.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

panem et circenses

My apologies for not writing sooner. I felt the need to get at least a couple of the season opening extravaganzas under my belt first.

We have often started seasons with a tour of one sort or another. The itinerary – Wheaton, Pilsen, Millennium Park – did not take us to the Czech Republic and back. I wonder what the folks at Wheaton College thought about a bunch of gringos showing up to play a concert of Mexican/Spanish favorites {along with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streich} to honor the appointment of their new president. Then again, I've brought guacamole to many a backyard barbeque without giving it a second thought, and I'm about as Mexican as Richard Strauss. We repeated the same program in Pilsen the following day (September, 16 – Mexican Independence Day) with the sensible omission of the Spanish El sombrero de tres picos. For those out of town folks who might be wondering, Pilsen is formerly Czech, currently largely Mexican-American neighborhood in our city.

All of this served as a warmup to the grand “Free Concert for [insert orchestra/city name here]” in Millennium Park. I admit to a somewhat (OK, hopelessly) jaded attitude that makes me cringe any time I notice the words gala, festive, celebratory, special, or other superlatives attached to a concert. Usually I'm hoping for little more than to escape from one of these events without humiliation or a profound feeling of degradation.

Much to my relief, the “Free Concert...” and its attendant drumbeat of publicity seemed to do a good job of building up the hype surrounding the orchestra and its new music director without becoming an embarrassment. The advance PR blitz had 'the man on the street' aware something was happening to our normally marginal organization. Muti seems to have pretty good instincts when it comes to dealing with the public. The program

Verdi Overture to La forza del destino
Liszt Les préludes
Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet
Respighi Pines of Rome

seemed to be right in the wheelhouse of mass taste in what a 'classical music' concert ought to be. I found myself sitting on stage during the concert imagining our orchestra doing this type of performance a number of years ago, perhaps offering Elliot Carter's latest commission, followed by some lengthy, static scenes from Parsifal; or else a 'celebrity' would have been engaged, with the orchestra relegated to playing backup. All in all, it was very nice not finding ourselves on the wrong end of a fumbled opportunity for good PR.

Muti made an interesting choice for his first subscription concerts – Berlioz, Symphony Fantastique paired with its sequel, Lélio, together billed as The Berlioz (uh, oh) Spectacular. Our previous music director (forgot his name already) put on the Mozart/DaPonte operas in his first season. The change of music director is something that probably doesn't happen nearly often enough, so nobody has much basis to compare one transition to another. But it seems as if the position wasn't already similar to running a three ring circus, a new maestro feels the need to make a statement of authority, like the lion tamer who shows the audience (and, probably more importantly for his health, the lions) he can bring not one, but six! ferocious beasts to heel all at once, or the strongman, who lifts not only the barbell with one arm, but the bathing beauty with the other. Although more modest in scale than an opera, Lélio employs a large orchestra, chorus, vocal soloists, narrator, and includes directions for stage and lighting effects. In fact, it seems more of a Spectacle than a piece of concert music – over an hour in length, I think the orchestra plays less than half the time.

The 19th century Italian physician Giovanni Morelli developed a system for correctly attributing the works of master painters. To put it briefly, his method concentrated on supposedly minor details in a painting – hands or ears of background figures – things things the painter had thrown off more spontaneously and which forgers would less likely reproduce faithfully. The notion that minor details and spontaneous gestures might hold important clues to identity were of interest to criminologists. The great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes (the creation of another physician) uses Morellian attention to minor details to arrive at his often startling deductions. Morelli's method also interested Freud, who saw analysis of the minor details of his subjects' thoughts and actions as a window into the unconscious.

All of this is in response to the frequent questions I've fielded about Muti recently, most of which seem to be something similar to “So, Muti, what's he like?” questions probably best answered by each in their own way. For me, the grand gestures and spectacle are most interesting as collections of details rather than as statements outlining a new approach or a different artistic vision. In fact, the musical spectacle seems the perfect milieu in which to make these sorts of observations, when the maestro's authority and control are stretched somewhat thinner than normal. Perhaps the hidden subtext of spectacle is really self-revelation after all.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The 23.8% solution

Many thanks to those who came to the Gunnelpumpers CD release show. Also, many thanks to those who wrote heartfelt comments about the Ravinia Festival. For those who haven't given up on it entirely, I would encourage you to make your feelings known to someone higher up in the organization (which is just about anybody but me, honestly). Hopefully the opinions of past, present, and possibly future ticket buyers might carry some weight.

My apologies for the dearth of posts this summer. I really couldn't bring myself to do what might be taken as the moral equivalent of strolling through a hospital ward and making snarky comments about the patients: “Geez dude, you're looking a little pale there.” However, since today (Saturday, July 31) is my last at the festival this summer (the Operas next week and the Musical the following use small orchestras) I struggled mightily, trying to come up with some sort of closing remarks to put the whole thing in perspective. Last night I woke in a cold sweat (the best sort of sweat, really) and hurried to my computer to check a few things and make a couple calculations. If my numbers are off, blame it on a lack of sleep.

Here are some Festival Fun Facts:

Percentage of our concerts this summer featuring Patti LuPone: 23.8 (5 of 21)
[A caveat is in order here: I have not looked closely at the rosters for the Mozart Operas next week. I'm assuming them to be LuPone free, but who knows....] I've got nothing against Patti LuPone, in fact, she's great, but that seems excessive.

Number of concerts without a soloist: 0

Number of concerts on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday: 13 (including two matinees, see below)
All {name redacted} concerts used to be on weekends. Now when somebody asks me when we're playing next week I can only shrug, “Tuesday?”

Number of concerts lead by our music director: 12

Number of concerts on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday lead by our music director: 4 (including the two matinees)
The Saturday and Sunday Mozart Opera concerts are at 1 PM in order to make way for the Temptations/The Four Tops, and the BoDeans. I wonder if one lawn ticket covers both shows each day, or if truncheon wielding, Segway riding security guards will clear the park of classical music buffs after the Opera is over.

Number of concerts canceled: 1.
The Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy show died as a result of our contractual limit on the number of 'Pops' concerts we can play in a summer.

Number of disappointed FanBoys slinking back to parents' basements: unknown.

After the cancellation of the video game music show, we were interested to see an extra rehearsal for the Sondheim: 80 show (with Patti LuPone!) pop up on the schedule. This could only be described as a 'punitive' rehearsal – sticking in an extra service where none was needed, bringing the scheduled rehearsal time for the 90 minute Gala performance to seven and a half hours. (The 3-hour long Operas the following week each get eight and a half hours of rehearsal, BTW.) The poor fellow on hand to conduct the Sondheim show found himself looking down the barrel of a pretty testy orchestra at the first rehearsal. After the break he came out and hastily announced a 'deal' had been struck, canceling the punitive rehearsal. I once struck a similar deal with dubious character on a darkened street: I agreed to give him my wallet and he agreed not to beat me. Sometimes you have to cast something aside just to save your skin.

Monday, July 19, 2010

the nth wave

Gunnelpumpers CD release show
Tuesday July 20, 8 PM
(3855 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago IL tel. 773 404 9494)

The Gunnelpumpers will perform this week to celebrate the release of our first CD, the nth wave. The CD is available on iTunes and CD Baby. A few videos of us in performance are also available on YouTube. I believe we have Facebook and Myspace pages as well, although I'm not really in touch with the social networking thing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Kick in the Crown Jewels

Monday evening had to go down as one of the strangest opening concerts of the Ravinia season I can recall. As the number of concerts we play at our summer 'home' has dwindled over the years, the amount of times I've heard us referred to as the 'Crown Jewel' of the festival (or other similar things) has gone up exponentially – the sort of endearments a guy who wants to continually step out on his wife but is fearful of having her leave him might offer up.

The slightly goofy scenario began with a heartfelt and I have to believe sincere welcome from the chairwoman of the Ravinia board, who seemed to be going out of her way to assure everyone the orchestra was appreciated, welcome, essential, and all that. The line that 'summer does not begin until the {insert orchestra name here} comes to Ravinia' had an interesting counterpoint for me earlier in the day when a neighbor who saw me getting on my bike asked me where I was going. When I mentioned (erroneously, as it turned out) I was going to Ravinia to play the opening concert, she dismissed me with a wave of her hand. 'No way, the festival has been going on for weeks,' she said.

After listening to words of welcome and assurances of our importance to the festival, the smallish orchestra on hand to play the two Chopin piano concertos bravely performed our national anthem (without trombones, the piece seems to represent some lesser vision of our once-great nation). Then we all vacated the stage (which we were told to do 'quickly') to make way for the opening selection of the concert – a solo piano piece. The audience actually laughed at that point, making for sort of a cringe-worthy moment. The second half of the concert began with more solo piano music while the mighty orchestra waited in the wings.

I'm interested to know what readers think about Ravinia – the number of concerts we play there, the days of the week and times we play, as well as the repertoire, soloists, and conductors, or anything else while you are at it. Of particular importance to me is what everyone thinks about the (in my opinion God-awful) white coats we have to wear.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hear the CBE

The Chicago Bass Ensemble will take part in an interesting collaboration with artist Cheri Reif Naselli this Friday, June 25 from 6 to 9 PM at the ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation (832 W. Superior St. #204 Chicago, IL 60622 Phone: 312.733.2787) More information about the performance and the the artist can be found here.

Anyone attending this performance who can prove they are readers of the Bass Blog might receive some sort of prize, or at very least, a hearty 'Thank You' from the author.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The tail-end of the fest

During my student days I once went with a friend to look for a cheap apartment in a sleazy area of Los Angeles. A few minutes in the dingy place were enough to tell us we had no intention of living there. So merely out of politeness we listened while the landlady went through the details of first and last months' rent, when the garbage went out, and so on. With her back to the arch separating the living room from the kitchen, she was completely unaware of the large brown rat, about the size of a small dachshund, nonchalantly strolling across the kitchen floor while she address us. For some reason neither of us called her attention to the creature. In fact, we seemed reluctant to discuss it with each other after we left the place. An uncomfortable silence pervaded the car on the way home until some minutes later when we were crawling along the Santa Monica freeway and my friend and I blurted out in unison, “Holy crap, did you see THAT?!”

The preceding has nothing to do with anything, except perhaps a reflection on the tendency to fail to comment on the rat-in-the room while it is still there – in this case the Beethoven Festival, all of which has disappeared from the archway of the present and is safely in the past as I write this, except for the tail end, two more performances of the mighty 9th Symphony, paired with the not-so-mighty Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The comparison of the Beethoven Fest to a rat crossing room might strike some as untoward, or perhaps a sign of dissatisfaction. Quite to the contrary, I view the rat story as something that turned out well for me. It's not like I ended up living with the rat, after all.

Maestro Haitink has been in excellent form throughout the festival. A while ago, he suffered some sort of back ailment that slowed him down and, to be honest, had me a bit worried for him, but he seems to have bounced back and has been about as spry as I can remember seeing him. I have enjoyed his approach to all of the symphonies – particularly the not-too-slow slow movements (3rd and 6th symphonies most of all).

Another source of pleasure is the new set of parts we are using for these concerts – the Bärenreiter Urtext edition edited by Jonathan Del Mar. It has been enjoyable to observe the composer's markings, which is not the same a playing them, but at least we can see what he wrote. Another good thing about these parts is that the bass part is separate from the cello part. The old set had the two combined. To be honest, I'm not that interested in what the cellos are doing, and I feel pretty good about not having them know what I'm supposed to be playing. Some mysterious bowings have been marked in all of the otherwise brand-new parts, mysterious because since we are without a principal player right now, nobody can really say where they came from. Some of them look cribbed from the old Kalmus parts we've used in the past, which is a pity – sort of like trading in your old clunker for a a shiny new model only to discover the dealer has welded on the used, rusty muffler.

The pre-concert musician announcements exhorting patrons (and I suppose orchestra members) to turn off cellphones and whatnot have changed for the Beethoven festival. Gone are the little bits of humor or witty turns of phrase. I guess it is well known that Beethoven, like all the great classical musicians, had no sense of humor whatsoever and would have approved of our efforts to maintain the solemn dignity of these concerts.

Another change instituted for the festival is the setup of the orchestra, flat on the stage rather than atop the risers we normally use. I'm curious to know what audience members think about it. The orchestra is fairly well divided on the issue. Haitink must like it this way, hence the original request. Also, originally the risers were to be used for the concerts of the 9th Symphony (due to the presence of the chorus, I believe) but after the first week of concerts we learned the idea had been scrapped.

One minor regret is not to have played any of the rarer pieces: Creatures of Prometheus, Christ on the Mount of Olives, hell, Wellington's Victory (never played it). Missa Solemnis (OK, not so rare) would have made an excellent season-ending concert instead of the over-played 9th. Not a big deal though.

All in all, the atmosphere has been, in a word, festive. Audiences seem pretty excited about what is going on, which is always nice to see. My favorite audience member seems to have bought several tickets to these concerts – I'm speaking of the gentleman who yells out something very positive and encouraging at the end, usually a single-word adjective (Beautiful! Powerful! - one of my colleagues dubbed him Thesaurus Rex). Keep up the good work, sir! We'll keep trying our best to earn your praise.

Friday, May 28, 2010

there there

One was quite certain that for a long part of his being one being living he had been trying to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he was doing and then when he could not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing, when he had completely convinced himself that he would not come to be certain that he had been wrong in doing what he had been doing he was really certain then that he was a great one and he certainly was a great one. Certainly every one could be certain of this thing that this one is a great one.

Some said of him, when anybody believed in him they did not then believe in any other one. Certainly some said this of him.

He certainly very clearly expressed something. Some said that he did not clearly express anything. Some were certain that he expressed something very clearly and some of such of them said that he would have been a greater one if he had not been one so clearly expressing what he was expressing. Some said he was not clearly expressing what he was expressing and some of such of them said that the greatness of struggling which was not clear expression made of him one being a completely great one.

Some said of him that he was greatly expressing something struggling. Some said of him that he was not greatly expressing something struggling.

He certainly was clearly expressing something, certainly sometime any one might come to know that of him. Very many did come to know it of him that he was clearly expressing what he was expressing. He was a great one. Any one might come to know that of him. Very many did come to know that of him. Some who came to know that of him, that he was a great one, that he was clearly expressing something, came then to be certain that he was not greatly expressing something being struggling. Certainly he was expressing something being struggling. Any one could be certain that he was expressing something being struggling. Some were certain that he was greatly expressing this thing. Some were certain that he was not greatly expressing this thing. Every one could come to be certain that he was a great man. Any one could come to be certain that he was clearly expressing something.

Some certainly were wanting to be needing to be doing what he was doing, that is clearly expressing something. Certainly they were willing to be wanting to be a great one. They were, that is some of them, were not wanting to be needing expressing anything being struggling. And certainly he was one not greatly expressing something being struggling, he was a great one, he was clearly expressing something. Some were wanting to be doing what he was doing that is clearly expressing something. Very many were doing what he was doing, not greatly expressing something being struggling. Very many were wanting to be doing what he was doing were not wanting to be expressing anything being struggling.

There were very many wanting to be doing what he was doing that is to be one clearly expressing something. He was certainly a great man, any one could be really certain of this thing, every one could be certain of this thing. There were very many who were wanting to be ones doing what he was doing that is to be ones clearly expressing something and then very many of them were not wanting to be being ones doing that thing, that is clearly expressing something, they wanted to be ones expressing something being struggling, something being going to. be some other thing, something being going to be something some one sometime would be clearly expressing and that would be something that would be a thing then that would then be greatly expressing some other thing then that thing, certainly very many were then not wanting to be doing what this one was doing clearly expressing something and some of them had been ones wanting to be doing that thing wanting to be ones clearly expressing something. Some were wanting to be ones doing what this one was doing wanted to be ones clearly expressing something. Some of such of them were ones certainly clearly expressing something, that was in them a thing not really interesting then any other one. Some of such of them went on being all their living ones wanting to be clearly expressing something and some of them were clearly expressing something.

This one was one very many were knowing some and very many were glad to meet him, very many sometimes listened to him, some listened to him very often, there were some who listened to him, and he talked then and he told them then that certainly he had been one suffering and he was then being one trying to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he was doing and he had come then to be certain that he never would be certain that he was doing what it was wrong for him to be doing then and he was suffering then and he was certain that he would be one doing what he was doing and he was certain that he should be one doing what he was doing and he was certain that he would always be one suffering and this then made him certain this, that he would always be one being suffering, this made him certain that he was expressing something being struggling and certainly very many were quite certain that he was greatly expressing something being struggling. This one was knowing some who were listening to him and he was telling very often about being one suffering and this was not a dreary thing to any one hearing that then, it was not a saddening thing to any one hearing it again and again, to some it was quite an interesting thing hearing it again and again, to some it was an exciting thing hearing it again and again, some knowing this one and being certain that this one was a great man and was one clearly expressing something were ones hearing this one telling about being one being living were hearing this one telling this thing again and again. Some who were ones knowing this one and were ones certain that this one was one who was clearly telling something, was a great man, were not listening very often to this one telling again and again about being one being living. Certainly some who were certain that this one was a great man and one clearly expressing something and greatly expressing something being struggling were listening to this one telling about being living telling about this again and again and again. Certainly very many knowing this one and being certain that this one was a great man and that this one was clearly telling something were not listening to this one telling about being living, were not listening to this one telling this again and again.

This one was certainly a great man, this one was certainly clearly expressing something. Some were certain that this one was clearly expressing something being struggling, some were certain that this one was not greatly expressing something being struggling.

Very many were not listening again and again to this one telling about being one being living. Some were listening again and again to this one telling about this one being one being in living.

Some were certainly wanting to be doing what this one was doing that is were wanting to be ones clearly expressing something. Some of such of them did not go on in being ones wanting to be doing what this one was doing that is in being ones clearly expressing something. Some went on being ones wanting to be doing what this one was doing that is, being ones clearly expressing something. Certainly this one was one who was a great man. Any one could be certain of this thing. Every one would come to be certain of this thing. This one was one certainly clearly expressing something. Any one could come to be certain of this thing. Every one would come to be certain of this thing. This one was one, some were quite certain, one greatly expressing something being struggling. This one was one, some were quite certain, one not greatly expressing something being struggling.

-Gertrude Stein

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Old Brown-Shirt

Thanks to all who sent comments and emails in response to my questions about pre-concert activities. A quick trip to the lobby to snag a program revealed the startling information that there really are fellows named 'Max' and 'Brant' in the orchestra. The things I learn writing this blog...

The almost unanimous support for the onstage warmup and the recorded announcements came as a minor surprise. Usually at least one person hates almost anything and loves to tell everyone else about it. I'm not sure what to make of all the positivity.

Not everyone all over the world approves of our pre-concert routine, to be sure. Once while in Salzburg I caught sight of a sour-face old gentleman scowling at the orchestra during our onstage warmup. I'm not sure what made me notice him – perhaps the laser-beam of his disapproving glare drew my attention (I'm a pushover for negativity). When the orchestra finally quieted down, I happened to be looking in his direction as he loudly (and if I may say so, with extreme sarcasm) slowly clapped four times. Clap!...Clap!...Clap!...CLAP! His disapproval rang out in the now quiet Festspielhaus. I remember thinking that old fart probably hadn't brought hands together so vigorously since the Anschluss.

On the subject of repressive regimes, my favorite audience control technique observed to date has to be the ushers in Beijing outfitted with laser pointers, which they used to blind anyone they caught taking a photograph.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Hello People

Recently our orchestra changed the recorded pre-concert announcements. I'm curious what people think about it.

Some history for those not in the know. A few years ago, the orchestra began using a recorded announcement before each concert to remind audience members to turn off cellphones, refrain from taking photographs or making recordings. The announcements ended with the wish that people enjoy the performance (oddly, this last item outraged at least one of my colleagues – yes, we are home to some weird points of view). These recorded messages, played when the lights went up and the orchestra quieted down, before the emergence of the concertmaster, featured voices of various musical 'celebrities'. The quality ranged from witty, perhaps chuckle-worthy (Ax, Bronfman) to the cringe-inducing (Lang Lang). Whatever agreements were made to allow the use of these recording must have run out, because earlier this year (maybe before that, I can't remember) they were all replaced with one standard message read by someone on staff

A few weeks ago new recordings featuring orchestra members appeared. After introducing themselves and making some sort of witty or engaging remark, the musicians go on to make necessary reminders about cellphones, recording, and concert enjoyment. I admit to complete cluelessness about how people are chosen for this – as part of a New Year's resolution I stopped checking my orchestra mailbox months ago – but I have a feeling it is being done on a volunteer basis. I don't think I've heard all of them yet, and perhaps more are being produced as I write, but so far there have been two string players, two or three woodwinds, and a percussionist. I have a feeling if the 'musicians' had been put in charge of finding people, we would have had three bass players and a librarian to start with, so in the beginning at least, the balance seems pretty good.

As with anything, there is some debate as to the value of these announcements. I think I've heard people (well, musicians anyway) claim they undermine the dignity of the concert, but I have a feeling some of the same folks who make that argument will switch sides and battle against our Music Director when he asks us to warm up offstage and then file on, letting the music emerge from a very dignified silence. This is an idea I've opposed in the past, more for my own sense of comfort than any thought to the audience experience. I like to get onstage a bit early, line up my cough-drops, catch up on a bit of the practicing I didn't do at home, and see what sort of audience we've managed to draw that evening. But I suppose if I considered the audience perspective, I might feel differently. It would be strange indeed to arrive at a theater half an hour before curtain to find the stage roiling with activity. Hamlet and Polonius strut about, trying their lines. The ghost, adjusting his sheet, chats with Ophelia, who is clipping her nails. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern obviously have more substantial roles in the next production because they are loudly reciting lines from Henry V. Completing the scene, a few of the soldiers have formed a line and are bellowing, BAH! BAH! BAH! repeatedly at the top of their lungs. Where's the dignity in that?

Anyhow, I'm curious to hear if anyone has thoughts about pre-concert rituals.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Random Post

Pleasant conductors are all alike; Every insufferable conductor is insufferable in his own way.

My apologies to Tolstoy, but that is certainly how it seems when I'm sitting through an interminable rehearsal under an insufferable maestro. As time rolls along, I find myself more often preoccupied with the bad and not noticing the good, especially when dealing with conductors, where it has gotten so that the maestro who can avoid irritating me one way or another is like the thumb-tack I didn't step on – completely unremarkable. It sure feels as if I've been pulling a lot of tacks out of my toes lately.

What I really wanted to write about is obliquely related and amounts to little more than a few random thoughts I wish someone better equipped than I would expand upon.

Several weeks ago now we played concerts with Mitsuko Uchida, who led two Mozart piano concertos from the keyboard. Also on the program was the Mozart Divertimento in F major for strings, which we played sans conductor. The piece is such a part of the gigging musicians' repertoire – weddings, receptions, etc. - I'm not sure I ever played it fully sober before.

Playing without a conductor is kind of like taking the training wheels off your bike. At one point in time it seems a dangerous impossibility. Later, with the training wheels rusting in the corner of the garage you realize they have gone from an object of shame to the subject of a harmless and wistful nostalgia. The history of the orchestra is something like that, only in reverse.

The really interesting experience was not performing, but rehearsing without conductor. Many of us string players are so conditioned to our place in the chain of command that when the shackles finally come off, it feels very odd indeed. I imagine any group situation where the normally rigid structure is suddenly removed ends up with the same set of issues. The majority, having strongly conditioned inhibitions, take no action. A few brave souls participate in decision making. Those lacking a healthy amount of inhibitions seize the opportunity for inappropriate displays of personal aggrandizement.

Someone with no firsthand knowledge of the classical music business recently asked me how much discussion about the music making went on at a typical rehearsal. His surprise at the answer (none) got me to thinking that the layperson doesn't have much knowledge of the process of making music in an orchestra, where the decisions tend to flow in one direction only. There is a fairly prevalent misconception that the music business is some bastion of freedom.

The random thoughts I had came in the form of a wish that somebody would write a book about the history of the orchestra, comparing it to the political systems developing simultaneously, and also relating all that with developing concepts of individuality and freedom. If anybody is up to that (or if something like that is already extant) let me know. I'd gladly fork over about $5 for the paperback.

Before the emergence of the institutions of maestro and orchestra as we know them today, the music business was under the church and the nobility, hardly bastions of freedom themselves. I'm interested in the connection between the rise of concepts like liberty and equality alongside the rise of the orchestra, with the conductor as leader. Another interesting relationship is the development of romanticism and the accompanying ideas of personal freedom of expression and the ways this was reflected in the increasing size and regimentation within the orchestra itself, almost as if at the moment when the music itself music began to represent an ideal of freedom, the means of production (if you will) became more tightly controlled, compartmentalized areas of local authority – section leaders, assistants and the rest of the hierarchy within the group – with authority flowing in a one way direction only, down from above. I'm pretty fascinated by the symbolism implied by the orchestra as a social structure. Sometimes I worry that we are perpetuating some unhealthy ideas, particularly with what I see as a troublesome relationship to authority in the art form and the profession surrounding it. We are probably championing the industrial revolution more than the enlightenment by preserving the 19th century orchestra in all its glory.

I certainly don't see the era before the modern orchestra as some sort of utopia for musicians. When Lully had his unfortunate accident, I'm sure there was some bitter, scowling cellist, the sort of fellow who would be perfectly at home in the modern orchestra, muttering “Good riddance!”

As much as musicians might chafe under the centralized authority emanating from the podium and radiating downward through various 'titled' players within the group, when given the chance at self governance, the structures rise up in depressing resemblance to the centralized authority of the orchestra itself. The tendencies toward centralization and authoritarianism seem to be deeply ingrained, perhaps inevitable byproducts of our work.

The bass section of our orchestra is going through something of a social experiment at the moment, with our principal player on an extended leave of absence. Since we have no assistant principal to step in and fill the post, the rest of us are sharing the leadership duties, such as they are. When the situation was first announced, I blush to admit to having some utopian, egalitarian, and dare I say even socialistic fantasies about the possibilities of what we might accomplish, demonstrating to the world, or at least the very tiny portion of it that might pay any attention at all to a group of bass players, how we might function outside traditional ideas of authority and subordination . Needless to say, my idealism has taken a pretty severe beating as a result.

Watching public television one Sunday afternoon long ago, I remember a classic old silent film, something about a peasant revolution,. The film's depressing denouement has been on my my a lot lately. After the heroic storming of the palace, a small group of peasants find themselves in the empty throne room, the scene of a hastily abandoned banquet and the narrow escape of the royal person. With no idea what to do next, the peasants descend into anarchy and debauchery. As the screen dims, a pair of simpletons roll on the floor, struggling over some shiny but useless bauble while others gorge themselves on the royal leftovers. In another corner, a Rasputin-like character combs his filthy beard with the queen's jewel encrusted comb. A couple of wily individuals, with some some inkling of what power is all about, sneak away with the keys to the armory.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Evil of Banality

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
GOLIJOV She Was Here
COPLAND Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson
GOLIJOV How Slow The Wind
COPLAND Suite from Appalachian Spring (chamber version)
Robert Spano, Conductor
Jessica Rivera, Soprano

Once while on tour in a German speaking country (well, OK, Germany) we were all invited to a swanky reception, the sort of thing that looked too good to pass up in spite of some nagging doubts on my part. After a circuit of the buffet table, an ordeal in and of itself – I've stopped going to orchestra functions, so I'm not sure if anyone has picked up the torch, but some of those old timers could turn it up a notch or two in the presence of free food – having paid for every moment of hesitation with a friendly blow to the ribs from a member of the violin section, I managed escape with a full plate, grab a drink and secure a seat at an out of the way table. Finally having the chance to examine the bounty I came away with, I discovered everything before me was either creamy, creamed, or cream-colored pablum.

On paper, I'm sure this week's program looked quite interesting and varied, but at least from my seat (and admittedly, not playing the Appalachian Spring) the whole thing came off a bit fiber-less. In spite of the intriguing possibilities offered by the pared-down orchestra, Spano seemed intent on making as few waves as possible with his Schubert Unfinished. Golijov's She Was Here, an arrangement of Schubert songs, came across as some sort of turgid Straussian/John Adams mash-up. True, some of Schubert's harmonies seem to foreshadow late romanticism, and yes, if you turn a half-note into a pulsating series of sixteenths, it sounds like minimalism, but I found myself longing for the simplicity of the originals. The way Schubert did so much with so little makes the long-dead, bespectacled Austrian come off as more the modernist in my ears anyway. As always at these concerts, the wine glass playing was beyond reproach. I wonder what Schubert would have thought about that.

Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson has some classic Coplandesque moments, but otherwise struck me as not his strongest work. It didn't help that I couldn't hear the voice much of the time. Spano seemed almost shy about shushing the orchestra, but I imagine he wants to live to conduct here another day. After the title page, the headers in the bass part to the Copland songs bear the unfortunate abbreviation: Poems of E.D. By then, my mind wandering far from the business at hand, I found myself imagining Bob Dole coming out to do the Lincoln Portrait, getting to the line that often gets a snicker anyway (“when standing erect...”) saying 'ah geez!' and trudging off the stage.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Shameful Truth

My apologies for the dearth of posts recently. For one reason or another. the orchestra hasn't been drawing my interest of late. Last week Charles Dutoit came to town and conducted Shostakovitch 11 (The Year 1905), along with the Rachmaninoff 2nd piano concerto. I generally like what Dutoit does, but something about his antics on the podium bring to mind the lion tamer, or perhaps the matador – something to do with subduing supposedly 'wild' animals anyway. Suffice it to say, we did our beastly best for him.

Some reprehensible offstage antics (nothing to do with Dutoit) evoked 1924 more than 1905 and put a pretty bad spin on the whole week for me.

The rest of this post I imagine will prove interesting only to bassists. The layperson is warned to proceed at the risk of extreme boredom.

* * *
Playing the bass tends to bring to the surface any issues one might have with inferiority. These are often successfully sidestepped at 'bass only' events such as the solo recital or bass ensemble type of concert. On the other hand, in the course of commingling with other musicians the orchestral player gets his or her nose rubbed in it on an almost daily basis.

As mentioned in a previous post, I opted out of the recent orchestra trip to New York to perform with a local chamber group. The Rossini Duetto for violoncello and double bass on that program stands as something of a highpoint in the repertoire of our lowly instrument, the rare case of a brand-name composer going out of his way to feature a musical oddity. Here is an example of the nose rubbing I mentioned earier.

In the opening section of the Rossini Duetto, the cello plays the following bravura passage
answered soon after by the double bass with

The bass part is obviously a simplified version of what the cello played earlier – bravura for dummies I suppose you might call it. Rossini goes out of his way to avoid giving the bass anything in thumb position, something common in orchestral writing of the time, as the dumbing down of the bass part continues throughout the piece. (In case any non bassist has made it to this point the post: 'thumb position' refers to the upper register of the string instruments held vertically, about the place where the neck joins the body of the instrument. The thumb is no longer held behind the neck, but is is brought up onto the strings. Once upon a time some adventurous player must have discovered it was possible to actually use the side of the thumb to depress the string, so it is called thumb position, not thumb-less position.)

One might argue that as the Duetto was written for an amateur player, such simplifications are understandable. More than other instruments, the bass seems to attract the brash, if under-prepared dilettante, the player who, oblivious of his personal shortcomings and those of the instrument he proudly lugs about, ill-advisedly shoulders his way onto the stage as recitalist, ersatz virtuoso, or (horrors) clinician, all while his better trained and justly self-conscious colleagues watch from the wings, cringing. Unfortunately, the amateur for whom the Duetto was written turns out to be the cellist. The bassist, none other than the legendary Dragonetti, was arguably the greatest player of his day, and depending on who you ask, any other day as well.

In fairness to il Drago, his own compositions for the bass are more ambitious. So in that spirit I made my own arrangement of the Duetto, if not fully restoring the dignity of the instrument in the process, at least hoping for some hard-earned respect.

While preparing for the performance, I completely forgot about the tradition of adding a couple of cadenzas to the first movement. The cellist arrived well-prepared, with cadenzas in hand while I had to pull something out of my (uh) hat at the last minute. Here's what I came up with, in the hopes it might prove useful or interesting to anyone finding themselves in a similar predicament.

(N.B. These cadenzas are intended for solo tuning, as is the rest of my arrangement, which is available from Discordia Music.)

between mm. 75 and 76:

between mm. 149 and 150:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Food for Thought

Sometimes, if you choose the right right concerts for a leave of absence they come with a bonanza of time off. Such was the case for me in January when I took a leave for the two concerts in New York and ended up with three weeks off. Months ago a local chamber group invited me to play with them and I jumped at the chance to be a big fish in Highland Park Illinois rather than just another krill in New York. Of course I ended up missing out on much of the hoopla, ceremony and pageantry surrounding the eighty-fifth birthday of Maestro Boulez, which was too bad, because I really am fond of him. I'll do my best to stick around for his hundred and seventieth, which might be the year I finally qualify for a full pension anyway.

So instead of touring to New York, I stayed home and played some bass music, including the Rossini Duetto for cello and double bass, a silly but charming piece of fluff, if there ever was one – in the double bass repertoire there are plenty, by the way. For me, there is link burned into my brain between Boulez and silly bass music anyway and I found myself recalling it as my own personal tribute to the great Maestro.

Once upon a time there used to be a telethon to support the symphony. It might have even been called a 'symphony-thon'. I'm not sure if that still goes on or not. Orchestra players used to be welcome to sign up for slots to perform live on the radio during this event but I think after a while somebody wised up and decided to keep actual musicians as far away from the microphones as possible. However, while it was still in vogue, I signed up to play a piece by the legendary bassists/composer Giovanni Bottesini, whose operatic, showy salon music has to be about as un-Boulezian as you can get.

When the 'on-air' light went on and I put bow to string I was dismayed to hear the pitch of my instrument had dropped about an octave and a half – the wheel of my bridge adjuster had stripped on one side and collapsed. Fortunately, the president of our organization at the time was an old radio man and he provided a nice ad lib as I screwed the thing back up to pitch, but with no assurance it was going to hold. As I played Bottesini's Sonnabula Fantasy I was really sweating bullets, wondering if my bridge was going to blow out again in the middle of the performance. I kept my eye firmly planted on it, as if that would stave off disaster. With a great sense of relief I made it through to the final flourish, not once having taken my eyes off the faulty bridge foot and so completely unaware that during my performance of that very silly piece, Maestro Boulez had arrived to do an interview and was standing about three feet away. I have no idea how long he had to suffer through what I was playing, but from the look on his face I could tell it was longer than he had wished. He looked like a man who had just been ceremoniously handed a dead fish, a polite man trying to maintain a veneer of graciousness over a deep inner revulsion. From that moment onward my affection for him has not wavered.

[To learn more about Bottesini, I urge all readers to visit this site: ]

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Question time

Every once in a while I get a question from a reader. Clive sent me the following, which I thought worthy of a post.

During the rehearsals I have watched, the orchestra plays through the work, apparently mostly to the conductors satisfaction. The conductor stops a occasionally, explains some points to the players, who seem to get it and make notes on their music, and then they move on.

I have been wondering how the orchestra gets to this point of near perfection (at least from the point of view of the conductor). Is the open rehearsal that we see the end result of several earlier rehearsals? Does each section rehearse separately with the section leader?

If there is a good book that describes the rehearsal process I would love a recommendation.

As far as I can recall, open rehearsals are always the final rehearsals before a concert. In a typical week, we have three or four rehearsals, so the perfection of which you speak (in so far as it is not illusory) comes as the result of what has gone on over the previous few days. Usually the first rehearsal is on Tuesday morning. On Wednesday, we might have two rehearsals, and then on Thursday have the final rehearsal in the morning, followed by the first performance that evening. Sections do not rehearse separately in any official capacity. Some of the wind sections might stay after and run through a few passages. In the string sections, the very idea might lead to some sort of violent mutiny.

As rehearsals go, the first one might reveal more about the orchestra than the last, but for a number of good reasons, I don't see those being opened to the public any time soon. There's a saying that goes something like, “If you don't mind people hearing you practice, you're probably not practicing the right things,” which is sort of self explanatory in this context. Another one goes something like, “A rehearsal's a rehearsal and a concert's a concert,” a bit of profound wisdom dressed up as tautology. Which is to say that as musicians, all we have of value, if anything at all, is our performance. We are happy to offer that to those who support the orchestra, but I think it is pretty important to maintain a sharp line between the two. Besides, a few conductors tend to grandstand in front of an audience and not get anything useful at all done in an open rehearsal. Certainly, getting out early becomes more problematic as well.

There does seem to be a fair amount of curiosity about how an orchestra goes about its business behind the scenes. I don't think a film could ever be made of the subject. Filming is horribly intrusive, as we see from the growing number of camera-people invading our stage these days, with their chattering headsets, squeaky wheels, and noisy gear. Filming an orchestra at work might be like stamping in a puddle and calling the water muddy. I don't know if a good book has be written about it - I leave that open to reader suggestions. Maybe someone in an orchestra should keep a journal, or perhaps write a blog about it.

One of our more beloved conductors made a funny comment a while back. We had just read through something long, loud, and complicated, but something we knew quite well. Placing his baton on the stand, he looked at his watch, probably realizing we had several more hours of rehearsal scheduled for the piece. “Now what am I supposed to say about that?” he muttered. I suppose you could read that several ways, but I think he was giving us a compliment.

The layperson might be surprised how well the first 'read-though' often goes. One way to visualize the orchestra's preparation for a performance might be to imagine the quality of the playing as plotted on a graph, beginning with the first rehearsal and running though all of the performances. A lot of times the plot might resemble something like the letter 'U', with the first read-through in the upper left corner, representing some arbitrary value. Once conductorial meddling commences, the value drops, sometimes precipitously, before eventually heading upward again. A truly great conductor might achieve results that when plotted resemble something more like the letter 'J,' with the performances rising to a level higher than the orchestra's innate ability. Of course, the opposite is also true – the reverse 'J', where the performances never quite add up to what was possible the moment that particular conductor mounted the podium.

In all seriousness, the better maestros tend to let the orchestra play, maybe a whole movement, or the whole piece, in rehearsal before making corrections, suggestions, or whatever. The orchestra tends to appreciate the conductor who can show with his hands rather than having to stop and tell us what he wants. A lot of problems can be solved by the players themselves if the conductor gives them the chance.

To pile on another analogy, you might think of the orchestra as a horse, and the familiar piece of music the well-worn path to the stable. The able maestro lets the animal begin to go its own way awhile before subtly exerting his influence. The reckless one might immediately spur and whip the beast into the nearest thicket. Of course, the worst sort, even before mounting his steed, arrives with a laundry list of instructions. “When you begin, I would like you to move your front right leg forward six inches, while simultaneously moving the left rear leg forward eleven and three to the side, all the while holding your ears firmly upright. And why do you swish your tail so? By the way, I notice you are brown in color. My other horse is gray, which I certainly prefer. Can you do something about that? OK, giddy-up!”