Bass Blog

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

Feel free to email your comments.

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.


eric said...

I haven't seen that certain orchestra (or actually anyone) at Ravinia in years; the last concert I saw there was Shosty 13 years ago. The white coats are obnoxiously old fashioned and they make me feel like I'm watching a group trying so desperately to hold onto the mid-1900's.

Ever since that other group started playing at that $500M park downtown, it's tough to justify traveling up north in the land of the obnoxiously pretentious concert-goer when I can get nearly that same effect only 20 minutes away.

I do like the train ride though; maybe you could put small chamber groups in each car on the Ravinia Express? There's plenty of drink coolers in the aisle to sit on.

A question: since the xPSO concert season seems to be rather short compared to the length it could be, could we ever see that orchestra you frequent with playing downtown in an extended summer season at a certain pavillion?

M said...

Sorry, but the white coats look nice from the pavilion. That's about the only thing I can say about the Ravinia Festival that's not scathing. The brochure proclaims, 'CSO does it all this summer!' What is that supposed to mean? I so miss the days of really good programming- I practically lived at Ravinia to hear all the great orchestral and choral works. Now the Chorus is there for maybe one program. They hire a community chorus for some works but charge full ticket prices.

Unknown said...

I'm over Ravinia. For the same money, I can hear the same music and guest artists at Orchestra Hall among better acoustics without the ambient noise of wine-swilling picnickers (and bugs). The aforementioned $500 million park downtown delivers great programs with a superior sound system for free. I'm looking forward to Muti's official first concert there in the fall--I only hope you're not wearing the white coats.

Andrew Patner said...

See my Sun-Times review today:

Unknown said...

I was last at R for the Gurrelieder with Eschenbach. I never went there much anyway, but the programming has been boring since Levine left. At that time, there was actually a feeling of a festival (at least at times) rather than a series of under-rehearsed concerts. The sound is not all that great (not that I long for the Orch Hall sound, but in this case, OH is better). The current administration at R seems to promote 9th rate stage and pop music over what R should stand for. I don't have an opinion on the white coats, as I would be fine if the orchestra wore blue jeans all year round.

thepurefool said...

Am I mistaken in thinking most (if not all) other orchestras who have summer festival things like Ravinia wear white jackets?

I like Eschenbach - not so much the concerts as much as your blog posts about him. Dates/times seem fine to me (except the Sundays at 5 - too early for a night out and too late to be a matinée).

The ambient noise is far worse in GP, at least in my experience.

It seems a lot of people (myself included) complain about programming, I'd like to see a schedule of the good old days. I'm curious just how different things were.

Lillian said...

There are blogposts out there by visitors–and, gasp, locals—with the misperception that it is (your orchestra) they are praising for a fantastic concert at the park downtown in our great city. Granted, the resident orchestra there is terrific. So this does both organizations an injustice. What do R’s benefactors think they are supporting? What they will eventually have left? IMHO it seems other orchestras are still the ‘headliners’ at their summer venues, even with substantial pop and jazz offerings. What an injustice to an orchestra of this stature to be treated as second-rate. The home venue’s marketing and programming downtown do very well leveraging its first-tier world status. The summer concerts SHOULD BE PACKED. Do other orchestral associations own or run their summer venues? They seem to be in charge of their own marketing.

Perhaps you could play downtown late Aug/early Sep as a prelude to the start of the fall season.

I like the white jackets and the shirtsleeves both. If only the jacket colors would match. R should take some of the pop-concert profits and provide you one consistent wardrobe set.

Unknown said...

Ravinia mgt needs to wake up. A few years ago I used to try to go to as many orch. concerts at Ravinia as I could, but the way things are looking I would never go back to Ravinia. The season keeps getting shorter, the programing is worse each year. Unimaginative and BORING! How many summers in a row do we need to hear some inadequate soloists playing the complete Beethoven piano concertos. And LOL good luck playing Mahler 10 Adagio over the crickets and the train. I mean, who comes up with these programs?!

Anyway, it's just hard to justify going to Ravinia when the other orchestra downtown is playing free concerts and consistently decent programs. Additionally, and what I consider a dealbreaker is the soundsystem and sightlines. At Ravinia, not only can you not see (w/o the aid of new video screens) but you also can barely hear even if everyone is dead silent. In short, their soundsystem sucks.

Unfortunately - and this is the part I don't think Ravinia mgt. seems to grasp - the point of sitting on the lawn at an outside concert is so that you can hear the concert AND have some light conversation with your friends. It seems pretty simple that if you are going to the concert soley to watch and listen, you buy a ticket to the pavilion. If you want to hear the concert but you also want to do other things, you have a picnic on the lawn.

One of the points people will bring up is that the level of playing between the Ravinia orchestra and the one playing the big park downtown is a selling point for Ravinia. I disagree. Hopefully at no offense to the players who I adore, but the orch. just doesn't sound all that special during the summer. Everything sounds flat and underehearsed. I guess who can blame the orch. for not really caring, since the Festival treats them like they are unwanted and fails to show them any kind of respect. I feel bad for the orchestra that the Festival is drawing in low crowd numbers to the pavilion, but I also think maybe this is a long-deserved wake up call for the Ravinia mgt that they need to hear.

Anyway, just my two cents, I really appreciate this blog, and am always interested to hear how things are perceived from the other side. Please keep the updates coming...and I hope Mr. Patner keeps up the pressure, maybe change is possible.

Griff said...

Michael~ As a life-long fan of the [Redacted] Symphony Orchestra and Ravinia regular, it pains me to concur with the Ravinia dissenters.

From 1984 to 2005 I never missed a season--usually attending multiple times--ever-increasing ticket prices and ever-narrowing repertoire notwithstanding. My mom and brother and I liked to sit up front near the double basses, maybe because more vacant seats seemed to be available there, maybe because we sensed some sort of kinship with Michael and his colleagues.

A move to another state forced me to miss Ravinia in 2006, and I felt terrible. I made it back for the 2007 season, when the lunacy of AMPLIFICATION IN THE PAVILLION reared its ugly head. It ruined the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the retiring Beaux Arts Trio, but the last straw was amplifying two hefty opera singers and turning Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony into audibly distorted hash.

After spending 2008 and 2009 trying to evade the Amplification Nazis AND find concerts that weren't inconveniently buried in the middle of the week when I couldn't attend, I solved the problem most satisfyingly this year. I went to the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest instead. The repertoire was no more warhorsey than the [R]SO's, the tickets were less expensive, the air-conditioned comfort of Minneapolis's Orchestra Hall was a pleasant bonus, and (it slightly pains me to admit this) the MO played better than the [R]SO. I attribute the last item to (a) perhaps they were allowed more rehearsal time and (b) they may have felt more motivated because management actually treats them like they matter.

I plan to finish out the summer season with the Woodstock Mozart Festival. No doubt as the Ravinia management's strategy drives more and more of us away, they'll use declining attendance as an excuse to do more of the same.

I still have a soft spot for the [R]SO, like people who stay lifelong fans of the baseball team from the place where they grew up. I'm hoping the new music director kicks some administrative butt and gets the home team playing back at the top of its form, so it finally wins a World Series after over a century. Oh wait, I'm thinking about the *other* home team. But until Ravinia cleans up its act or the [R]SO finds a new summer home, I'm not going back.

P.S. Love this blog--the worm's-eye view of life in the orchestra is enlightening. As an audience member who actually gives a flip about music, I feel a new solidarity with the players.

willynn said...

Alas, this year's programming at Ravinia is even worse. I couldn't even find one [R]SO concert to attend (I usually go to about 20 to 25 downtown concerts per season). I have written to the management to ask them to withdraw from Ravinia altogether when their programs first came online, but no use. Very unfortunate.