Bass Blog

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

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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.