Bass Blog

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

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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:

1 comment:

Samlata said...

Having played the bass from grade school through college (no call for a piano in the school orchestras, and being the right height for the 1/2 size bass at the elementary school), I appreciate the "dumbing down" - thumb position was not a favorite of the public school instructors (not to mention the less than perfect plywood basses offered in public schools with their horrendous action and fiberglass instruments at the Usdan Center which made it impossible to get any sound - don't get me started on tenor clef). In any event, after 26 years I am starting to get the "itch" to play again - this time with an instrument that might actually be playable (but I'll still stick with the dumbed down parts.