Bass Blog

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

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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.


Unknown said...

Don't know if you know this, Michael, but apparently when Thesaurus Rex chose to call out "joyful" after some movement or other early in the festival, Haitink heard it but thought the man had yelled "dreadful". He was slightly disturbed by this until someone set him straight during the intermission.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks Brant. Back in their heyday, the Bulls had a player named Luc Longley, an Australian. Supposedly when his mother came to see him play for the first time, she mistook the fans calling out Luuuuuuc! every time he touched the ball for boos and left the stadium in tears...

Unknown said...

I was expecting (hoping?) to see Mr. Haitink conduct while wearing a Blackhawks jersey--you know, continuing in Solti's tradition of honoring the rare Chicago championship--but the maestro probably had Beethoven's sensitivity in mind. Mr. Rex, however, sat a few seats away from me for 1 ("Sparkling!") and 7 ("Powerful!"), and proudly wore his Hawks championship t-shirt and hat.

For the record: I like the toned-down cell phone requests, and I thought the lack of risers didn't hurt the sound at all. Congratulations on a great series of performances!

Unknown said...

I vastly prefer the sound of the orchestra without the risers. The bass sound from the cellos and basses has much more resonance than it does otherwise. There doesn't seem to be much presence lost from the winds or brass, either. I've sat in the lower balcony and main floor (both in front of the overhand and behind it), and haven't wished the risers were in place from any of those vantage points. The sound is much more vivid and three-dimensional.

David Royko said...

From my usual spot somewhere in the lower balcony, I've never noticed any differences in sound between playing with versus without risers. And I had no preference for warming up on-stage vs. everyone coming out at once. Guess I'm one easy-to-please guy, though I'm probably a little bit more opinionated about the performances themselves. I hope you were able to enjoy the cycle -- I sure did:
Big thanks to you and your fellow pluckers, bowers and blowers (and the stick-waver) for a terrific season finale.

Dave Royko

eric said...

The orchestra sounded fantastic for 1 and 7, and the lack of risers really did help.

Brad said...

The Beethoven Festival really was impressive. Thanks to the efforts of a remarkable Orchestra and conductor, we were treated to very special, memorable concerts. I can't wait to buy the whole set (please?) on disc someday.

I also was thinking about the sound and how the risers affect it. To my ears, there is a little more warmth with them, but without, the sound seems somewhat clearer and more distinct between sections. The difference isn't huge, but it's noticeable. Regardless of risers, my guess is that most audience members are satisfied with the acoustics of that hall, and perhaps the musicians as a whole are too. I'm generally left with the feeling that the Orchestra, the finest on Earth, is playing in a hall that sounds way too dry and without a balanced frequency response. The bass response actually seems pretty good in every place I've sat in the hall, which helps the incredible low string (and low brass and woodwind) players of the ensemble project well and with good richness and impact. For the other instruments, though, some of the brilliance seems stripped away, as if the hall is somehow absorbing rather than reflecting the upper frequencies. This is probably the wrong comment to make on the Bass Blog, but where is the treble in that place?

willynn said...

I love the sound without the risers. From where I usually sit, gallery center-left, without the risers, the sound is transparent, with no loss in its weight. I can hear the cello and bass sections much clearer, and the violins do not "sound" strident or harsh. Maybe this is due to how Haitink wanted the orchestra to sound, because Muti attained comparable transparency (and pianissimo, too!) with the risers. If possible, I prefer not to have the risers in the future (these words may be a bit too strong).

Finally, please let me take the moment to thank you (and all lower strings!!) for your fantastic playing in this festival, especially in the 6th and the 4th. I would say that words like "fantastic", "wonderful", "fabulous" are serious understatements of what this great orchestra did. Maybe just "deeply satisfying"?

Andrew Patner said...

Re: Brant and Michael's comments:

In the late '60s I was taken to my first White Sox game at the old Comiskey Park on the South Side. The Sox were playing the Orioles whose star first baseman then was Boog Powell. I was a bit taken aback when it sounded as if the fans were going after Powell at his first at bat as he was pretty universally respected and admired. Then it was explained to me that this is what several thousand people shouting "Boog" sounded like.

(I was there at "Joyful!" and I sort of liked it. I obviously enjoyed the entire festival immensely. I'm no acoustics expert, but I'll vote for the additional clarity without the risers proposition.)