Bass Blog

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

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Marcello sonatas recording project, part 14

It is difficult to get anything done in the summer, with the infernal temperatures and interminable rehearsals. However, the recording project continues to creep along.

The second movement, Allegro, begins with a similar 'theme' to the other sonatas in the minor keys, no.s 2 and 3.

It is interesting to see how Mr Marcello took the material and went off in different directions with it. This movement has more legato to it than the others and, rather than ending with a flourish, sort of dissipates with the descending chromatic figure. Perhaps I'm betraying the paucity of my musicianship, but that's about all I have to say about it, other than that the continuo player got an unusual workout in the movement and was not at all happy about having to (try to) play this passage.

click below to listen

Friday, July 22, 2011

Endless Summer

Last week, we played two programs at Ravinia.

A) Brahms, Piano Concerto no.1; Symphony no.2
B) Brahms, Symphony no. 3; Piano Concerto no.2

Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano

(There were six two-and-a-half hour rehearsals for these two concerts.)

In preparation for the two programs of familiar pieces, we managed to squeeze the work of three rehearsals into only six – any efficiency expert who happened to look in on the proceedings, including listening to the final result, would have gone away seriously scratching their head. If the point of rehearsals is the preparation for a concert, I can't say the majority of the time was well spent. However, if it is to indulge the urge, latent in many who fancy themselves 'leaders' of one sort or another, namely sadism, then the week must be chalked up as a roaring success. The Marquis, peering down from heaven (or wherever he ended up), must have looked at the fifteen (15!) hours of rehearsal time with a horrific kind of glee.

Arriving at certain rehearsals is akin to stepping into the doctor's office, hearing the snap of the gloves going on at the same moment one realizes the jar of Vaseline is long ago empty. Any positive reasoning about what is about to happen in the next two-and-a-half hours might understandably be replaced with a kind of dread. And after fifteen hours of probing, merciless, relentless, and ultimately pointless - “You were here for a headache? Terribly sorry!” - if the patient, when asked to sashay down the hall, proves a bit unsteady on his feet, it should surprise no one.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The {redacted}SO season at Ravinia got underway last week. As all things Ravinia go to short term memory only, I can't say if it is unusual or not to begin a season without the music director on the podium, but it seemed like it. At the stroke of the new year, you're supposed to grab your SO for a kiss, not your ex.

Things went as well as could be expected through the first two concerts. A decent rendition of Symphonie Fantastique (except that the sluggish second movement could have been renamed from Un Bal to Medicine Ball) followed an all Lang Lang first half, which I did not play – comments about his hairdo from players coming off stage at intermission made me even more happy with my lot. The following night, omens (like the piano soloist having to stamp his foot to keep things together in rehearsal) foretold of rhythmic accuracy being on the sacrificial altar later that evening. But the gods smiled on us, and the Rite went better than it had a right to.

On the third day of Ravinia, things changed.

In the NFL, one of the most important elements under the control of the head coach is 'clock management', knowing how many minutes are left in the game, how many timeouts are left and when to use them, which plays eat up the clock and which save time, etc. Conductors have similar issues in the way they allot rehearsal time when schedules are made and, more importantly, how they actually spend the time once rehearsals begin. This is true especially in a situation like Ravinia, where tight schedules make it always seem like the fourth quarter of a close game. The clueless coach who squanders timeouts early, sending in the old Statue of Liberty play, or the Flea Flicker, only to watch helplessly as the clock runs out in the final quarter, down by 2 points, with no time to get the field goal unit onto the field, this hapless time-manager is like the conductor who works too long on the pieces that don't need rehearsal, lets players out early at one rehearsal only to run out of time at another.

There is a provision in our contract to bail out the chronologically challenged conductor, but at a price. (Come to think of it, if a conductor is not so good at managing hours and minutes, how are they doing with beats and measures?) 'Extraordinary Overtime' is supposed to put pressure on the time managers and schedulers to get their act together. The criticism leveled at players is often that since the management side are all people of good will, a little more flexibility on our part might be in order. I have no objection to stipulating to the good will. However, good will, too easily overridden by bad planning, sometimes needs the help of a fiscal incentive to fully manifest itself. So, in cashing my overtime check, I feel content in the knowledge I'm helping some folks realize their better nature.

You might think of extraordinary overtime as something like that scene in the Batman movie where, as the Joker, Jack Nicholson and his merry band parade through downtown Gotham City showering the amazed citizens with cash. (I think they then spray everybody with poisoned gas, BTW.) EO is not a demand by greedy, avaricious musicians. All somebody higher up the food chain has to do is say 'no' to the conductor and both money and time are saved. The $16 bottle of Bud Light in the mini bar looks ridiculous when you check in. In the middle of a sleepless night, it may even begin to seem like a reasonable solution to a problem. Opening the bottle demonstrates a failure of will. These, and other boondoggles tend to stick in the mind during contract negotiations when the quadrennial pleas of poverty come out.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project, part 13

After taking some time off, then coming back to listen to what I'd done before, it struck me I had probably messed around, trying to 'engineer' too much (tweaking the EQ and levels, etc.) with Sonata no.3. I also was experimenting with placing the microphones a little farther away from the instruments. I'm not so happy with the sound of that, so for no.4, I went back to the close mic placement, and other than a very slight reduction of high frequencies on the room mics, which seemed to pick up some hiss, most probably due to sub par preamplification, I did nothing but pan the tracks left and right.

A brief note on how I've gone about making these recordings. The image above is the tempo track for this movement. A click track came in handy at the beginning, as well coming out of the fermata. The midi version of the continuo part followed the various nuances in the tempo track and provided a guide while recording the solo part. The continuo part was recorded listening to the click track as well as the pre-recorded solo part. That probably sounds needlessly complicated...

click below to listen

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Marcello sonatas recording project, part 12

halfway done!

In addition to the folly that is trying to play anything of musical value on the double bass, this movement added the extra layer of trying to play imitative counterpoint on instruments with different tunings, which meant I had to learn the same passages in two different keys and then try and make them sound the same. Every plan has its flaws, I suppose, although doing a little extra work certainly didn't kill me, and this is a pretty cool movement, so maybe worth the effort.

click below to listen

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Marcello sonatas recording project, part 11

Please forgive the lengthy gap between the 2nd and 3rd movements of this Sonata. I really needed a vacation.

The 3rd movement, Largo, a simple affair at first glance, with almost nothing to it, nonetheless gave me some food for thought. Largo should be faster than the first movement, Adagio, or so I have read, but what to make of the long note values? Just looking at something written all in minims make me want to play it slowly, perhaps out of nothing more than some sort of 'received musical wisdom'. Also, the simplicity of this movement left it wide open to all sorts of ornamentation. But when it came time to play it, I just couldn't do it. Maybe the fact the orchestra was playing Mahler 9th that week and I was desperately longing for something understated to play had a role in my decision to jettison all ornaments.

click below to listen

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 10

Since, in my experience, few things a have proved more malevolent than the musician with political aspirations, my heart sank when I discovered that in addition to his musical career, Benedetto Marcello practiced law and served on the venerable council of forty in the city-state of Venice, before becoming regional governor at Pola, Istria. Saving his reputation, in my estimation at least, is the fact that after a few years he retired to Brescia. The claim his health had been 'impaired' by the climate if Istria, which I think of as a kind of idyllic Adriatic resort destination, might indicate some dissatisfaction with political life, or at least the modesty to acknowledge the Venetian Republic could continue to function without him in office. Further evidence Marcello might not have suffered from taking himself too seriously is the satirical pamphlet Il teatro alla moda (The Fashionable Theater), a scathing commentary on the state of Italian Opera in his day.

The 2nd movement of this sonata all but did me in. At some point, I decided I had to take a fast tempo – fast enough to be considered Allegro even for a normal-sized instrument. The section below probably needs a few more decades of practice. The lightning bolts show the parts that gave me the most trouble. Harmonically, Marcello throws in a bit of a curve ball here as well, the Neapolitan 6th chord. I don't know how many theory lectures I slept through (why are they always at 8 AM?) to get to the point where I could actually spot one of those.

The bass blog will now go on holiday for a couple weeks. Expect the rest of this sonata and the others to follow.

click below to listen

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 09

Sorry to disappoint anyone who might have hoped I quit after two sonatas (there are six in this set). This is a busy time of year, musically, so it has been difficult finding time to get time in the room where I'm making these recordings, not to mention practicing. As it was, the amount of noises, interruptions, and distractions during the recording of this sonata became almost unbearable. Numerous takes were ruined by people barging in “Uh...sorry..” and slamming the door on their way out. Someone seemed to be joy-riding in the freight elevator, and then a radio started up in the next room. On top of that, I discovered the continuo player had not adequately prepared his part, so after recording the solo line, I decided to fold up my tent and come back another day.

A few people expressed disbelief at my assertion that it is often very difficult to hear oneself while playing in the orchestra. During the rehearsals for Mahler 9 this week, during the cacophonous Rondo-Burleske movement, I realized my D-string had slipped one whole tone below pitch. The thing is, I have have no idea how many lines (pages) I'd played after it happened and before I noticed. How about that?

I read somewhere that in the Baroque period, Adagio was a slower tempo than Largo. That little tidbit of information, whether true or not, has given me some guidance in choosing tempos for the slow movements. The rolled chord on the first and last notes of this movement was not written by Marcello, but cadged from a recording of the piece as played by a cellist.

click below to listen

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Why do they Laugh?

With Muti now safely through his latest residency and back home, or wherever he went, I can finally exhale, uncross my fingers, and put my voodoo doll and Virgen de Guadalupe back in the closet. The Marcello recording project has hit a slowdown due to scheduling difficulties at the venue. The next installments should begin again in a week or so.

Lately, I've been thinking about audience reactions and behavior during concerts, in part motivated by our Music Director's conspicuous negative responses to distractions from the audience, which seems to have made an unfortunate jump to certain members of the orchestra who feel they have the green light to smirk or scowl in the direction of errant coughers. The ill-timed cough really seems to get our Maestro's ire up, so much so that we stopped and restarted Death and Transfiguration in response to a particularly loud episode of phlegmatic ejection during the first measure. This was by no means precedent setting. During the Solti era, after the collapse of the recording industry, when most of his concerts were converted to live recording sessions, I recall him stopping during a take (previously called a performance) of the Háry János Suite in response to an unfortunately timed cough. Astonishingly, near the very opening of (I believe) Debussy Images, the great Maestro stopped the performance, turned and admonished a paying customer to either be quiet, or get out!

Although somewhat ambivalent, I am almost embarrassed to admit siding with the coughers – to a degree. Expecting a couple thousand people to sit for two hours in absolute silence is probably unreasonable, and from my perspective, a performance isn't 'ruined' by noises indicating the presence of live human beings. Then again, I'm not paying top dollar to sit where I sit, and chances are, I will be playing the piece again anyway, so I can sympathize with the person in the audience who might get peeved hearing a cough instead of their favorite passage on the one night in months they've shelled out hard-earned money to attend a live concert. But my fear is that making the concert hall, already something of a mausoleum, resemble also the domain of the stern, frowning, shushing librarian, won't do much to change our image as an 'elitist' and unwelcoming institution.

Another interesting bit of audience behavior was the reaction to Lélio, where judging by the maestro's expression, both the New York sophisticates as well as the local rubes laughed at inappropriate moments. Quite possibly, modern audiences simply don't identify with the hyperbolic romanticism of Lélio, or worse, find it funny. The WTF? looks Muti threw the orchestra brought to mind a number of similar instances when our former music director, bewildered at an audience reaction to something, would turn to the orchestra and ask, why do they laugh? In many of those instances, I could understand the audience reaction, in that it didn't necessarily surprise me, although I'm not sure I could answer why do they laugh? succinctly, which makes me wonder if there is some sort of cultural difference at work. There are a wide variety of things that make people laugh, many of which have nothing to do with humor. Stress, or nerves, surprise, relief, are all things which can cause laughter. And what makes people in groups laugh is probably even more complex. Another thing to consider might be that in certain demographics, laughter (along with applause) is the only socially acceptable sound an audience member can make. In some instances where laughter seems a puzzling response, I think the audience is so uptight, so unsure of what kind of reaction is permissible, the laughter is triggered by a kind of release of tension when everyone realizes they have 'gotten' something, or an intense emotional moment has passed.

For reasons still unclear to me, I once found myself at a screening of the film The Joy Luck Club at a theater in a part of the city far from where I lived. Even during the coming attractions, it became clear I was in the midst of a boisterous and vocal audience, quite different from the crowd I normally found myself part of when going to the movies. As I remember, The Joy Luck Club is something of an emotional roller-coaster, and the people around me were not at all shy about expressing themselves out loud. The scene couldn't have been farther removed from the symphony, the theater, or even the places I usually went to see movies. My first reaction, annoyance that these noisy people were ruining the film, faded as it became clear the expressions from the audience were not not the sort of cynical observations blurted out by the pimply-faced teenager, immediately looking to his peers for affirmation, rather, they were spontaneous responses to what people were feeling, expressed in a way that actually enhanced the communal aspect of watching a film with a bunch of total strangers. By the end, I wondered what was wrong with me, that my reactions were so muted in comparison to the people around me.

That experience left me wondering about what is expected of an audience member at a so-called 'high culture' event – sitting in the dark, silent, motionless, trying one's best not to become a distraction, praying everyone else does the same – where many of the shared, or communal aspects of the experience have been pared away. In the spectrum of human behavior, if one were able to look at the sum total of how everyone on the planet listened to music, watched live theater, or films, I wonder if the oddballs would be the folks who, listening to some musician's emotional outpouring, watching images of people fornicating or dismembering each other, simply sit there with sticks up their rear-ends, shushing the person in the next row. Some arts organization somewhere (it might have been my own...) had the slogan “ moved” which I thought should have come with the caveat, “...but don't move!”

Of course, the antics of the cellphone toting boor are execrable, the clueless cougher who makes not the slightest attempt at muffling his outburst is villainously rude, and the inter-movement clapper a cad not even worthy of our contempt. I am not advocating anarchy in the audience, and as I am not a regular audience member, I can't speak from that perspective. However, common courtesy to one's fellows ought to be enough to channel public behavior appropriately. And the courteous person on the receiving end of a discourtesy is supposed to courteously ignore it. Maybe if audiences were a bit less up tight, they would feel more free to express feelings spontaneously and the odd, why do they laugh? reactions would go away. As always, I am very curious to hear what audience members think.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 08

The joke about Vivaldi – that he wrote the same concerto a hundred times – might, at first glance, apply to these six sonatas. On closer inspection, they each reveal their individual characteristics, and none seems more idiosyncratic than the 4th movement of the sonata no. 2. The marking of Andante is unique for this set, and, I think, unusual for one of the 'fast' movements of a Baroque Sonata. But this seems to fit with my feeling that the tempos of the final movements should be somewhat slower than the second movements, which I've arrived at through nothing more (or less, I suppose) than my own intuition and a bunch of listening.

The slurs are also an intriguing feature of this movement. The bass arrangement I have seen most often, and from which I began learning this Sonata, mostly follows the pattern of three notes slurred, three notes separate, which gives an interesting 'three against two' feel. When I first got hold of the facsimile, the slurring was a matter for no small amount of consternation, since I was loath to change the way I had been playing, and the intent of the markings in the source seemed somewhat unclear. I fantasized about confronting the copyist, grabbing him by the lapels and asking why the heck he didn't make the markings a little more clear.

The slurs as marked make for some pretty awkward string crossings and shifts, but after speaking to a cellist, who informed me that although they were pretty unwieldy on the cello as well, he would still try to follow them, I decided to bite the bullet and try as well. As with many things, although I hated those slurs at first, I eventually became very fond of them. They fit with the overall quirkiness of the movement, and as is often the case, trying to impose some sort of false uniformity onto the music is not always the best course.

some examples from the facsimile (scribbled measure numbers, mine):

looked like this in the edition for double bass:

click below to listen

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project 07

The project continues with the 3rd movement, Largo. I'm quite fond of this little movement. It brings to mind a scene of extreme torpor, if that is the right word to describe the feeling one might have on a long, lazy Italian afternoon, with the heat shimmering out over the fields, while you sit in the relative cool beneath a Roman arch, a bottle of wine slowly draining as the day settles towards evening.

I'm not sure if two double basses can bring something like that off, but, hey, I tried.

click below to listen

Friday, May 06, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project 06

Blame it on Bruckner

Not much to say about this movement. I had a faster tempo in mind, but as the 'recording session' took place immediately after playing a Bruckner Symphony for the fourth day in a row, my fingers were something less than fresh. So, instead of a fast Allegro, I settled for something a bit more more jaunty.

In the bass edition I used until I found the facsimile, the F-sharps in measures 5 and 6 were 'corrected' to F-naturals. By the time I got hold of the facsimile, I was pretty much playing from memory, and so it wasn't until I started to do some layout work for my own edition that I spotted the F-sharp and realized, just in time, I'd been playing a wrong note all along.

This movement has some curious slurs, which I took to be phrasing indications, rather than bowings, coincidentally, in the same measures with the changed accidentals. Mostly, I just didn't feel like slurring those notes, so I didn't.

</ F-sharpsp and slurs 5-6, mm.>
mm. 5-6, slurs and F-sharps

Also, one passage became inordinately difficult due to the tuning of my lowest string (D, rather than F-sharp, or E) – a small price to pay for getting rid of the 'wolfy' A-string.

a pain to play with a low 'D' string

click below to listen

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project 05

The Marcello Sonatas have been in the double bass repertoire for quite a while. I'm not sure when the first transcriptions were published, or if all six of the sonatas in this set (opus 2) are available, but I have come across no.s 2, 3, and 6, fairly regularly in the repertoire of junior high and high-school students.

When I began this project, I worked from one of the widely available editions for bass already in my library. After practicing for a while, I remember showing my part to Sonata no.2 to a harpsichordist, who, holding the paper in hand as if it were a wet piece of tissue, informed me there was something 'very wrong' with it before scolding me for not either, 1) finding a better edition, or 2) consulting a more original source. I'm not sure '1' exists (for double bass, at least), and so I went to step '2' and resolved to make my own edition based on an original source.

Slurs, articulations, and dynamics are usually the most suspicious elements when dealing with a modern edition of a baroque piece. Some of the changes are simply an editor trying to bring a measure of consistency to the variations of an old, sometimes hard to read, handwritten manuscript from the 18th century. On top of that, editors sometimes feel the need to 'modernize' the music, adding slurs and articulations that, while common today, were not in use at the time. Beyond that, often dynamics and phrasings, largely absent in original sources, have been added as an aid to the modern performer, perhaps unfamiliar with the style. Another complicating factor is when, as in this case, the piece is also being transcribed for a different instrument, and there are numerous editorial decisions about what is idiomatic.

The edition I am working from for these recordings, and the one upon which I will base my arrangement for bass, to be published at the conclusion of this project, is the London, c. 1732 edition, available in facsimile form. (The title page is above) The edition, while highly legible, seems to contain what at first glance by the modern eye look like numerous inconsistencies and small errors (although there is what appears to be a rather egregious error in the second measure of the first Sonata – see below). As I have had it explained to me by various authorities, the markings (or lack thereof) which may appear curious to our modern eyes have various explanations, from the shaky hand of an underpaid copyist, to the notion that everyone (at that time) would know the correct way to play the music, obviating the need for comprehensive instructions to the performer, and so on. The main thing I've taken away from my investigations into the matter, is not to jump to any sort of conclusion, and it is not always the best idea to impose a false consistency. There will be more to say on the subject, I'm sure, as the project progresses.

My recording of the first movement of Sonata no.2 contains a couple of willful departures from the manuscript that deserve explanation. The first is the addition of the small cadenza in the thirteenth measure. I have no idea if this is the sort of thing that would have been done at the time, or if what I have done is even remotely passable as stylistically acceptable. Chalk that up to rebelliousness, or call it an ornament that got way out of hand. The smaller digression, but the one that provides me with an immense amount of glee, is the low 'B' played as the penultimate note in the continuo. Of course, the cello does not go down to a low 'B' and Marcello wrote no such note. However, since there are so few things the bass can do that the cello cannot, and playing notes below the 16 foot 'C' is one of them, and in many passages with similar figuration, the bass line drops down an octave at just such a place, I decided to be unfaithful at this point.

There is also a more sinister reason for throwing in a note out of the range of the cello, which is the source of my enjoyment. In the course of my career, I have learned much of what I know about baroque music from the fine cellists, bassoonists and keyboardists with whom I have shared continuo duties. With these noble people, I have no quibble. However, there is a certain species of cellist, often found dominating the continuo, towards which I have a degree of animus. I'm speaking of those who have perfected the art of the over-the-shoulder scowl, the barked admonition, the affected air of superiority, those who make unilateral changes in the part and play without once giving thought that there are others playing the same line along with them. To those bad actors, I dedicate this one low note, as a kind of 'up yours' gesture on behalf of any and all bassists who have suffered.

I fiddled around and tried some different EQ setting for this movement, a bit darker, I think.

click below to listen

Friday, April 29, 2011

My Bad!

After listening to the MP3 files I'd posted, I realized something was amiss. The files were converted at the lowest possible bit rate, rather than the highest. This whole project is a friggin' learning experience for me in the worst possible way. Anyhow, I reconverted and re-upped all the tracks this evening, so they should sound a bit better. Nothing to be done about the out of tune notes, unfortunately.

The links in all the original posts should work for the re-upped files from this point onward. All the tracks can be accessed on one page by clicking below.

Marcello Sonatas

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 04

A few people asked about the equipment used to make these recordings. When I began, I was an absolute novice at recording and used stuff I had accumulated over the years, an odd assortment of mismatched components that included a microphone that cost more than one of the basses, an audio interface that ultimately proved effective at nothing more than keeping my studio door from swinging open, all 'controlled' by a laptop computer so old, rather than by mouse or keyboard, input was by cuneiform tablet, the 'battery', in reality, a grumpy little hamster, running endlessly in a tiny wheel.

So, I'm recording everything on my laptop (I did get a newer one) running Cubase software that came with the Lexicon 'Omega' interface which, before wasting hours of my time, ended up as a doorstop. The “Omega' was replaced by a Presonus 'Firebox', which has run smoothly from the get-go. Close micing of the bass is with a Neumann U47 (which is a story in itself), the room mics were a pair of Neumann K 84s, lent me by a very generous friend, which, after the failure of the Lexicon 'Omega' to even function as a stereo pre-amp, was reduced to to one.

The initial idea was to record in my studio at home. That way, I could record a take whenever the spirit moved me. To record in a small room, I had to place the microphone close to the instrument, about six inches off the bridge, in order to avoid getting nasty reflections from the room. A friend who knows a thing or two about recording came over, took one look at my setup, and told me there was no way I could get a decent sound in that space. So, I've been lugging my instrument(s) and all the gear to 'an undisclosed location' and making the recordings there. Even in the larger room, I still like the sound of the close mic placement, where some of the bow noise is audible. Recordings that are too 'smoothed out' sound fake to my ears and makes me sort of sleepy listening to them.

Editing the finished recordings consisted of mixing the signals from the close and room mics. In the future, I might try moving the close mic a bit farther away. It seems like the farther away from my bass you get, the better it sounds. My family, on the west coast, think my playing is quite good, while my wife, sitting in the next room, is not so impressed. The attached picture shows some of the EQ settings I've experimented with: rolling off the high frequencies to get rid of hiss, the lows, to eliminate rumble.

Of the four movements, this is the one I'm most happy about the recording I ended up with. Right near the beginning, you might be able to hear a very audible gasp for breath, and I'll be darned if I didn't do it again on the repeat as well. Eliminating all sort of noises made while playing, groans, sighs, gasps, and whatnot is actually another element I had to work hard on. Believe it or not, it was much worse before. Never the less, there is nothing quite so pathetic as a middle-aged bassist sweating and gasping over a piece of junior-high level music, but there you have it.

click below to listen

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 03

Like a good short-order cook, I've got to start knocking these things out a bit faster, or I'll never finish.

The 3rd movement gave me the most problems, and I'm least happy with the final result of the three movements released so far. Predictably, at the outset it seemed to be the simplest, and so got the least amount of practice time.

My original plan for this project was to record the continuo (or accompaniment) part first, and then lay the solo part over it. After a few test recordings, I realized this was more difficult than I had imagined. Making the solo part conform to the less than perfect playing of the continuo line ended up being more difficult than doing it the other way around. In hindsight, it seems obvious; the more difficult part, technically, is harder to be flexible with. So, for the first two sonatas at least, the solo parts have been recorded first, and then I came back and played the accompanying line underneath.

My favorite science-fiction author, Stanislaw Lem, wrote a very memorable short story about a space traveler who, falling into a series of gravitational vortices, encounters multiple versions of himself, in the immediate past or future. In the hands of Lem's sardonic wit, of course the situation turns farcical, with our hero engaging in a series of verbal and physical conflicts with his alter egos. And every time the protagonist deals out a blow or an insult, he finds himself on the wrong end of it as he progresses through time.

Since I'm using two different instruments to make these recordings, and because it has been difficult to reserve time in the room where I am making these recordings, the solo and continuo parts were recorded about 2 weeks apart. After recording the solo lines, I listen to determine if I have recorded any useable takes or not. The biggest lesson learned to date has been that it is one thing to listen to something and think it is good enough, and another to try and play along with it, matching pitch, rhythm, and phrasing. This third movement proved vexing, in that I thought the solo line was pretty consistent, until I took out the other bass and tried to play the continuo part along with it. Then it seemed like the pitch wavered from note to note, and it was a real challenge trying to play an accompaniment that didn't make the solo line sound awful. As in Lem's story, I found myself seriously at odds with, maybe even hating an earlier version of myself.

Playing along with something robotic and inflexible might well be an essential skill for playing in an orchestra. Never the less, making a workable accompaniment for the top line as I recorded it proved trying in the extreme, and I found myself loathing the person I had been two weeks earlier as I struggled to play along.

click below to listen

I encourage anyone interested to pursue the work of Stanislaw Lem. His most well known work, Solaris, would go on my list of 'must read' works for those not only interested in sci-fi, but who share a sense of, if not despair, wariness about what the inexorable march of 'progress' and technology actually mean for the human condition. The Soderbergh-Clooney film version, while not as awful as I feared, is a pale shadow of the Tarkovsky masterpiece, but both, in their own ways miss the point of the original. The adventures of the everyman, cosmonaut, Ijon Tichy, in The Star Diaries, of which the story cited above is one small part, is another essential component of Lem's output.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project, part 02

My wife may well have the second movement of Sonata no. 1 in her nightmares. I found this movement particularly difficult to master and spent many hours actually practicing it, to the point where it almost ceased to exist as a piece of music and became simply a way to torture myself with daily reminders of my shortcomings.

This might be a good time to describe some of the equipment I'm using for this project. To make my life a bit more difficult, I decided to use two different instruments, with different tunings, to record the solo and continuo parts. The 'solo' instrument is tuned to more or less standard 'solo tuning' while the continuo uses the common tuning used most often in the orchestra.

solo tuning

orchestra tuning

The odd tuning of the 4th string in solo tuning only serves the function of eliminating a 'wolf note' on the top string, by sympathetic resonance with the second partial of the lower string. In this sonata, there are no notes on the 4th string anyway. In sonata no. 2, the alternate tuning actually made my life more miserable (as you will hear in due course).

A few words of clarification about tunings and transpositions might be helpful at the outset. The double bass is a transposing instrument. When you give a bass player a part that reads

the sound you get back will be

When bassists complain about having to 'transpose' something, take it with a grain of salt – they've been doing it their whole lives! [Don't even get me started on harmonics. There are hours and hours of my life I will never get back, wasted trying to figure out what register a composer wanted a harmonic to sound in. Composers: forget about markings like 'real sound', 'at pitch', '8va', '8vb' and all the instructions about what string and in which position to find the note. Write the harmonic like the rest of the bass part, one octave above where you want it to sound. Any decent player will be able to figure out where to play it...]

The examples of the tunings cited above actually sound one octave lower. In addition, parts written for solo tuning are transposed down another whole step, making for a 'D' transposition (which simply means when a player plays a 'C' it sounds like 'D') To avoid confusion, hereafter, any musical examples cited will be at concert pitch (which is the pitch and in the octave in which they sound). When I publish my arrangements of these sonatas, I will of course make the necessary transpositions so bassists everywhere can play them without (believing they are) transposing.

Some time during the process of practicing these sonatas, I had the bright idea of using a baroque bow. I'm a bit leery disclosing this, because where I work, 'period instruments' might be even more despised than modern music. Never the less, I endeavored to learn to use the baroque bow, and eventually came to love it. Mastering the grip took quite a while before I was comfortable holding the stick in my fingertips without squeezing. Much of the challenge playing these sonatas has been trying to avoid the tendency for the bass to sound lugubrious. For me, using the baroque bow has been entirely worth the effort in the lightness and clarity of the sound it produces.

Baroque bow with grip

This movement contains passages like the following

which will immediately remind a lot of bassists of similar passages in the Mozart, Symphony no. 40. I imagine any bass player with an orchestra job has spent a few hours cutting their teeth on those cross-string passages. At first, after picking up the baroque bow, I became dismayed at the prospect of having to relearn the technique. In the long run, things I learned using the baroque bow paid off on the 'modern' bow as well.

click below to listen

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project, part 01

What this is all about.

A major complaint among bassists is the difficulty hearing oneself while playing in the orchestra. Some of this is due to the shape of the instrument – sound-box down near the floor, ears up in the air (unless the bassists' slouch has permanently disfigured the spine) – and some of it due to the dark timbre of the instrument. Another cause, namely the volume at which other instruments play, is the third rail of describing life in the orchestra, which I will not step on just now. So, many notes go by, if not completely unheard, possibly insufficiently scrutinized. At this point, you might wish to consider what can happen to the human voice when the facility of hearing has been lost. Practice time, the obvious answer to this dilemma, can be difficult to come by in sufficient quantity in the midst of a busy schedule of rehearsals and concerts. As an under appreciated student, most of my playing happened in the practice room, where I was painfully aware of my deficiencies. As an highly appreciated professional, on a lot of days I'm lucky if I can get my practice time up to half of the total playing time, which means a fair amount of what I play every day, I don't hear. The result is that keeping tabs on how one is playing, while not impossible, can become challenging.

Over the years, when students have come to me for private lessons, whether for posterity, or to provide themselves with another chance at deciphering the tortured verbiage used by the teacher, they have often asked to record the session. After gaining permission by signing the customary waivers, they unveil one of a number of devices to do the job which have grown in sophistication while shrinking in size, from the 'portable cassette recorder' ubiquitous early in my career (horribly named by present standards at about the size of a loaf of bread) all the way to the digital gizmos of today, some of which are little bigger than a pat of butter. Sometimes I've asked to listen to the recordings, usually while the student packs up their instrument, both as a way to keep up with the technology, and to avoid the awkward chit-chat at the end of a lesson. The student who came to me with techy cred far outstripping ability to play the double bass inadvertently provided me with the much needed wake-up call.

After spending an hour covering a movement from one of the Bach cello suites, de riguer for the college student or other 'serious' aspirant to mastery of the instrument, I spied the tiny mp3 recorder and asked if I might listen a bit. The miniature device excellently captured the poor quality of the playing assaulting me when I put in the ear-buds. This fellow is worse than I thought, I recall remarking (to myself). Of course, the next thing I heard on the recording was the sound of my own voice, proclaiming the student ought to play just like that. Unawares, I'd been listening to my own playing, not liking what I had just heard.

In response to such a rude awakening, I resolved to try and rehabilitate myself by practicing my double bass more diligently. I began by resolving to practice every single day, which I quickly modified to resolving to practice often. In the cool light of reason, I once again modified my resolution and promised myself I would practice occasionally. Since practice without performing is like singing in the shower, and without some sort of end in mind, I knew I would never apply myself with sufficient diligence, I also posed a challenge to myself, using fear as the ultimate motivator.

The basic outline of the project, which I will describe more in detail as it progresses, is to record the 6 Sonatas for Solo violoncello with a thoroughbass for the harpsichord, by Benedetto Marcello, arranged for two double basses (by me). Since the point of the exercise is to see for myself whether or not I can play the instrument, the recordings would be of complete takes of each movement, and I would not resort to any sort of editing, pitch correction, or other digital wizardry to make the end product more palatable to the ear. The only nod in that direction would be the use of overdubbing, which would allow me to play both of the parts, and some EQ to compensate for deficiencies in my equipment and the location(s) where the recordings would be made. The end result would be something of a cross between a studio and a live recording – I would 'perform' each movement for the microphone three or four times and use the best take. If in three or four tries I couldn't come up with a useable take, then it would be back to the practice room to try again another day. Work on the project began in earnest during the fall of 2010, with the goal of finishing the first of the Sonatas by year's end. Obviously, I'm behind schedule for various reasons, some of which were out of my control. Never the less, I am now ready to proceed.

Click below to listen.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Great Men of Music

My fingers are crossed for the success of this visit by our music director. I don't want to jinx anything by even thinking the wrong sorts of thoughts, so I'll write about something else for now.

Over the past month or so we have been host to some venerable maestros. The floorboards have been groaning under the collective gravitas of these great men of music. Some of the concerts have been pretty good too.

Choral icon Helmuth Rilling led enjoyable performances of Mendelssohn's Elijah in front of thousands of rabid choir directors here for a convention, and for whom the esteemed German maestro could do no wrong. In fact, I think to many of those conventioneers, the instrumentalists were something of a nuisance, or at best, a necessary evil. Of the school I've had passing acquaintance with in the early music world, Rilling seemed used to an instrumental ensemble prepared to fend for itself while he tended to the needs of the chorus. For the most part, we were content to sit off in a corner and play nicely with our toys while the singers did their thing. My memory might be failing me, but this kind of blockbuster choral concert used to be a more frequent occurrence around here. Perhaps they are too tired from the Christmas shows to do more.

Whatever else he brings, Charles Dutoit always seems to pack his suitcase with plenty of excitement when he comes to town. Although this time I wonder if he left his bag unattended for a moment and somebody slipped in a couple of strange items, namely The Enigma Variations, and Sibelius Suite from Karelia, both of which seemed at odds with his francophilic tendencies. This iteration of the Elgar brought to mind the master French chef who holds his nose and whips up a shepherd's pie merely to show how truly awful food from across the channel is.

The Elgar also served as subject matter for another Beyond the Score presentation. Since one of my colleagues all but dared me to write about it, I have to confess to being thoroughly engrossed listening to stories about the dog who jumped into the water, the man who slammed the door on his way out, the sudden thunderstorm, and the lady who took a boat ride (or did she...?!)

Dutoit stayed for another week to lead us in Petrushka, along with the Grieg piano concerto and the aforementioned Suite from Karelia, bringing some elan to the Stravinsky, reminiscent of nail-biters from the Solti era, with 'excitement' as the byproduct of a spasmodic modal expressivity, and the hyperbolic extraneosity of gestural vectors emanating from the vicinity of the podium. Anyone scratching their head trying to follow that last sentence has taken the first small step on the road to empathizing with the occasional plight of an orchestral musician.

The Grieg piano concerto brought to mind an egregious omission from my previous post on the subject of memorable outbursts from the audience. To set the scene: a number of years ago (more than 10?). On the podium, a conductor nicknamed 'Santa' (as in Claus). At the piano, the son of a Russian dissident. After a lackluster performance of the Grieg, from the balcony came lusty booing from a single, very agitated audience member, followed by confetti as torn pages from a program book were tossed in the air. My eagle-eyed stand partner identified one of our local critics as the perpetrator. How that slipped my mind, I have no idea.

Bringing Bruckner 4 to our concert hall is like showing up at a party with a bottle of wine only to discover your hosts have a case of it under the back stairs. But we are always ready to uncork another Bruckner Symphony, no matter how many times we've had it before. With a reputation for testiness preceding him, Kurt Masur's mostly gentlemanly demeanor came as something of a pleasant surprise. Although, noticeably less chipper than the last time I saw him, it is hard to say if the bonhomie was intentional or a side affect of advancing age. His getup – concert attire in name only, since it was a a concert and that was what he was wearing – goes down as one of the most talked about outfits we have seen in quite some time.

Conductors who try and foist a sense 'drama' onto Bruckner often end up highlighting some of the idiocy in the music, or in themselves. Masur managed to find the grandeur of the thing without becoming ponderous, the lightness without it becoming an embarrassingly unfunny joke, which is a pretty fine line to tread. Kudos to him. Somebody remarked that if he (Masur) didn't understand the piece, nobody would. I guess if coming to a deep appreciation of Bruckner is another byproduct of the aging process, I'll hold hold out for a deathbed conversion.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Rex Tremendae!

This is probably as good a time as ever for the Bass Blog to shift back to something lighthearted. The concert on Saturday {actually Thursday - see comments} evening was notable for the return of the audience member (affectionately) dubbed by orchestra members as 'Thesaurus Rex'. I'm referring to the gentleman in the terrace seats who manages to yell out something at the end of a piece, in the split second before the applause or shouts of 'Bravo' emanate from audience members with normal reflex times. 'Thesaurus' refers to the content of his utterances, usually some adjective of praise.

I wish I had a record of all the weird things audience members have voiced at the end of pieces over the years. For me, the gold standard still has to be the person at the University of Illinois Krannert Center who sat through an entire lengthy Symphony by Georges Enescu (can't remember which one) and enunciated a perfectly well-formed, loud “BOO!” before anyone else in the room could react. A close second goes to the audience member who, right before the very quiet ending of Mahler's Das Lied Von Der Erde, groaned aloud, “Oh...God...!”

At the very end of the concert this past Saturday, with the last note of the Bruckner 7th still ringing in the hall, Thesuarus Rex managed to yell out “Awesome!” before any other audience member made a a sound. However, at the end of the first work on the concert, the Overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (which one of my colleagues, in response to the increasing volume at which the piece was played each night, dubbed the Overture to The Bombing of Nürnberg) Rex yelled out something a bit more lengthy and complex, which nobody I spoke with could quote with absolute certainty since the normal applause had drowned out most of it. The best guesses I heard were “Dudamel would be proud!” which makes sense since Salonen, Dudamel's predecessor in Los Angeles was on the podium, or else “Why do you play so loud!” which, when you think about it, could apply to almost any concert at 220 S. Michigan Ave.

If anybody heard that and knows (or has an entertaining guess) what was said, please comment here or email me. I'm dying to know.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Be True to Your (Second Viennese) School

The responses to my last couple of posts were impressive; I truly appreciate the all of the thoughts and their passionate expression. And since I became hopelessly bogged down writing a dull post about Muti's replacements (Slatkin, every-ready, dependable; Sakari Oramo, another talented Finnish conductor? Yes! {Purple bow tie and cummerbund oddly out of character}; Noseda, inspiring, entertaining in rehearsal, world's sweatiest conductor?) I thought it might be interesting to feature some of those reader's thoughts, along with my typically ill-considered replies.

As expected, the subject of retirement generated a fair amount of passion. Out concern for my thumbs, kneecaps, and other regions anatomical, I should leave this alone except to reiterate it is a difficult issue on both a personal and on an institutional level. Every player is left to come to terms with it on their own. Some days, instead of counting rests, I find myself counting years to retirement, like the kid who can't wait for Christmas. When the date arrives, I wonder if I will still feel the same and make a graceful exit. Right now, it is impossible to predict. My fear is that, like the drunk sidling up to the bar for 'just one more', I'll wake up hours later at closing time, as they're pushing me out into the street.

Resistance to change seems an integral part of the human condition. Considering recent events in the middle-east, one might draw the conclusion that someone in a job for too long can lose perspective on when it is time to leave. Perhaps societies only change when collective power tips some sort of balance away from the strong individual desire for stasis. Many of the 'great' orchestras of Europe have thrived with a mandatory retirement age, as I understand it, applied equally to all, from the exalted principal to the lowly section drone. Certainly, nobody wants to institute the 'Logan's Run Symphony Orchestra', where at age thirty the flashing jewel imbedded in the palm indicates one's time is up, but there is probably something short of that which might prove workable.

Dimsky posted a lengthy comment, part of which shifted the focus from retirement to education:

I don’t think we can talk about this subject (retirement) without talking about another unsavory aspect of why there are too many players for too few jobs: some responsibility for the glut of players has to be born by the overzealous recruiting of Colleges and Universities...

It is truly depressing sometimes, to see the number of talented music students and then think about the number of jobs available. Colleges and conservatories filling teaching studios and school orchestra rosters becomes a bit of a rat-race, to be sure. The brutal truth is that a certain amount of oversupply of music students might be a necessary evil in order to insure the talent pool is sufficiently large. A more humane approach might be some system of apprenticeship, but I have no idea how that would be implemented.

When talking about the retirement of symphony players, there is often the implication that for every older player, a younger, 'better' one eagerly waits in the wings. In some places this is the mantra of orchestra managers and boards of directors, who, seeing younger, fresher, (and most importantly) cheaper faces, become enamored with the idea. This viewpoint devalues the traditions of an orchestra and denigrates the accumulated years of experience assembled on stage. Filling every chair in the orchestra at all times with the 'best' player available would create a sort of All-Star team, and anybody who watches sports knows All-Star squads aren't really teams. Nobody cares about them as teams per se, and besides, they don't play defense. (At certain concerts, I feel as if all I do is play defense...) The strength of an orchestra lies in large part with its continuity, which is actually a middle road between renewal and stasis. All parts of the whole are replaceable, but replace too many and the continuity is lost. In this country, the profession needs to consider at least acknowledging the issue, which would be better coming from the musicians themselves, otherwise we might find it imposed on us.

In response to my lamentations about the conservative nature of our institution, nocynic seized the opportunity to take (another?) swipe at the hapless Second Viennese school:

The reason 100 year old pieces are still considered "modern" is not entirely the fault of the conservative nature of the institution. "Modern" has come to be defined as "not accepted". Unlike earlier masters, who came to be loved in time, there is still not much of an audience for the Second Viennese School. In that sense, it is likely that they will always be modern, the last statement of a road not taken.

You are probably correct in asserting Schoenberg et al have a small following, but after watching the grammies the other day (Hey, I was under the weather, too feeble to lunge for the remote when it came on...) and seeing all sorts of musicians who are loved in their day, I wonder if the same could (should?) be said about classical music in general. Our society seems to have largely turned its back on us, when the lowliest pop diva on her most drug addled night still kills any orchestra at the box office. Some may blame the serialsists, as if they hijacked the bus of classical music and forced it down a road nobody wanted to travel, but I'm not so sure. The Soviet era repression of composers has been something of a recurring theme at our Beyond the Score presentations. However, in the 'free' West, nobody was ordered to write 12-tone, or any other type of music. So what happened? To invoke an ideology even more hated and discredited than the second Viennese School (Marxism) it might be insightful to consider the forces of the 'marketplace' and the emergence of music as a commodity. It is probably no accident the experiments with atonality and the widespread availability of the phonograph record happened about the same time. In the battle between the living and the dead, the dead always win. Perhaps the most enterprising musical minds, rather than cowering at the back of the hijacked bus (“Take me to P0!”) simply got off at an earlier stop, in search of the other five letter word that begins with 'm', money.

sjid wrote...

Typical enlightened programming by progressive music directors includes a composition of new music sandwiched between two war horses, with the new music most often taken from a group of a dozen or so favored living composers in acts of blatant cronyism.

Ah, the 'shit sandwich' as it is affectionately known in the business. Sometimes getting an audience to hear new music is harder than getting a cat to swallow a pill. The 'acts of blatant cronyism' should surprise no one. To have a new work commissioned and performed by a major orchestra, composers need political savvy as much as musical acumen to earn one of the rare prizes. The frustrating part is that after, if not creating, at least complicity in maintaining an atmosphere unwelcoming to new music, players feel free to complain about the few works that trickle through.

tom wrote several interesting things...

The iPod has superseded the radio. If all you ever listen to is 'your' music, what chance does the unfamiliar have?

Declining role of the pre-packaged subscription in selling orchestra concerts...

Not long ago, I had a quasi argument with a classical music neophyte in another city who had purchased his first subscription to the local orchestra. Looking over the programs he had signed up for, he asked me about a number of pieces which were unfamiliar to him. Rather than allay his fears, my descriptions prompted the response, “Why should I pay for something I'm sure I won't like!” My argument that attending the concerts could be regarded as an educational experience, where exposure to something initially unfamiliar and possibly even momentarily unpleasant could lead to a deeper understanding, did little to persuade him his money should go towards anything he was not already in support of.

This attitude probably did not exist when most of the so called masterworks of the repertoire were created, under the system of royal and aristocratic patronage. There is a huge difference between 'the Customer is king' and 'my customer is The King.' Nowadays the tendency is to to equate aristocracy with philistinism, but in the days of the great masterworks, many of the patrons had what we would consider today an extraordinary level of musical education. (I wonder who was the last U.S. president to play the violin, Jefferson?) I don't think our current notions of mass appeal and marketability had anything to do with the creation of much of what we hold dear today. Part of education is learning to recognize those who have a deeper understanding than our own. The person who knows nothing, or very little, is today empowered to weigh in on any subject, or at least ignore whatever falls outside of their current world view.

On the subject of narrow minded programming, Lisa Hirsch said...

Overfocus on the few, the great, means that we lack context for their music.

The fact that there isn't an 'action painting' hanging in every dentist's office and bus depot has not prompted museums to declare abstract expressionism a failure (a road not taken, if you will) and throw their Jackson Pollocks in the trash. Giving a listening public less knowledgeable about classical music than their counterparts in the past more choice over what to listen to than ever before, rather than fostering broadmindedness, probably has a lot to do with the shrinking range of what gets programmed. Orchestras have become the primary source of music education for a lot of people, who in many cases, are hungry to know more. I'm often chiding our Beyond the Score presentations, although I think this is just the sort of activity we should engage in. My main critique is, as always, the programming, which for BTS skews even more conservative than the regular concert offerings. I would like to see us, however gently, try and broaden the interests of our audience rather than provide continuing, smug affirmations of the status quo.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Country for Old Men

Aeneas picked up a rock, a heavy lift,
which no two men now alive could do,
although he managed it with ease all by himself.
-Homer, The Iliad

Last week, one of my colleagues retired after 49 years in the orchestra. The feat is something that, the more I think about the particulars of it, the more astonishing it seems.

The last time we went to Japan, I met with a rabid fan of our orchestra, and incidentally, a reader of this blog, who ended up taking me out and buying me quite a few drinks. At some time during our evening together, after at least our second bottle of sake, he said, solemnly, “The {redacted} bass section is all very old men.” His English, although better than my Japanese, was not great. Assuming we were suffering from both linguistic and cultural miscommunication, I have no idea if he meant that as a compliment or a not so subtle put-down.

One of the first things a new player in the orchestra learns is that talking about age and retirement is a VERY touchy subject for some people. I remember, when suggesting that, rather than expecting another raise, players with forty (or more) years experience could possibly be incentivised to at least consider the possibility of one day entertaining the idea retiring, a colleague ordered me to perform an act on myself that, while possibly pleasurable (if you're into that sort of thing – and nothing wrong with it if you are), is most probably physically impossible, even for the most limber among us.

[Translator's note: the author, having suggested the possibility of providing incentives for long-serving members of the orchestra to retire, was told to go f*ck himself.]

Our former music director, not always the most adept at dealing with personnel issues, nevertheless got off what has to be one of the the greatest comebacks on the subject. When said music director asked one of the crusty old-timers when he might be thinking of retiring, the player replied defiantly that he intended to die in his chair, to which the music director answered that the orchestra could arrange for the chair to be delivered to the musician's home.

When I joined the orchestra, the first violin section was something of an actuarial marvel. Now the tables have turned somewhat. My cursory statistical analysis of the string sections shows the viola and bass sections to have the highest median age (this does not include our recent retiree), followed (in order) by the cellos, second, and first violins – quite a reversal, and a bit of a sobering fact, finding oneself on the side of the teeter-totter that's getting heavier.

Like fibers of a rope, not a single one of which runs the entire length, the overlapping career spans of musicians carry on the traditions of an orchestra. An orchestra without this linkage to the past isn't really an orchestra in the way we currently think of one, it is merely a group of musicians, a pickup group. The attitudes of managers and boards of directors in some places, where they assume musicians are easily replaceable from the stocks of eager conservatory graduates (who, most importantly, would work for less money) are misguided at best, destructive, and not in the interest of the institutions they serve. Cut too many fibers, and the rope frays and breaks; braid in too many, and it becomes thick and inflexible.

However, the aversion to change has become so institutionalized, the concert hall of today might be one of the few places where something 100 years old is still called 'modern', where, if somehow miraculously reincarnated, a dazed Schubert could probably wander the halls for a week in his tailcoat and spectacles without drawing any attention (who was that little German-speaking fellow, the new violist? Shrug). The past, obsessively glorified, with its stranglehold on the present, is in no serious danger of being forgotten any time soon. For the sake of the future, the bonds might need to be loosened a bit.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Greatest of All Time

{Not to ignore the elephant in the room, I join my colleagues in wishing for our music director's good health and speedy recovery. The desire to seek an explanation, or at least, information about what happened, while quintessentially human, does nothing to ameliorate the situation, although it may satisfy our own desires for immediate resolution. At the moment, compassion for someone who has suffered misfortune, or at very least the right to privacy, might be the most appropriate response.}

Last week, I played an awful lot of Mozart, at the {redacted}SO and with Ars Viva. Two different people reminded me his birthday was coming up (on January 27th) but I forgot, and so enjoyed the sensation of being surprised by the same news twice.

Some years ago, overcoming what had been a longstanding aversion, I broke down and attended a double bass convention in a distant city. While there, I encountered a colleague who specialized in music of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Elements of our discussion have remained with me over the years, even though as a naïve first-time conventioneer, I had yet to fully realize the primary function of such events, to facilitate marketing and commerce, and the thinly veiled motive behind our conversation was to get me to buy some sheet music. Nevertheless, the gist of what he had to say – very briefly, that our fixation with only performing and listening to the 'greatest' works by the 'greatest' composers does a disservice to listeners and performers alike – has stayed with me ever since, that, and the score to the piece by Franz Anton Hoffmeister I bought from him.

While engaged in this most interesting conversation, we were interrupted by someone bursting in, breathlessly informing us of an impromptu lecture presenting the 'discovery' of the Haydn double bass concerto. As all bassists know, the Haydn concerto has been considered lost for about 200 years, probably ending up lining Mozart's birdcage, or else carelessly tossed aside by some slovenly bassist, a loss felt keenly to this day, a missed opportunity for a marginalized instrument to gain some degree of legitimacy. Looking back, I still cannot decide whether it was in confirmation or in refudiation of the point he had just made, but the mere possibility of a work by Haydn was sufficient to banish thoughts of Hoffmeister back to oblivion and send my colleague dashing off (with me right behind) to hear about this new 'great' addition to the double bass repertoire. Imagine our disappointment then, finding ourselves victims of a bait-and-switch, the lecture really nothing more than a trumped up sales pitch for a new edition of a concerto by Johann Matthias Sperger, the bassist in Haydn's orchestra at Esterhazy. The 'lecturer' seemed genuinely surprised by those in attendance who, being offered Haydn but receiving Sperger, expressed disappointment. “This is not as great as Haydn? No?” is when I remember people starting to walk out. I vowed right then and there never to attend another bass convention.

[n.b. I am actually quite fond of Sperger as a composer of numerous concertos and other pieces for solo double bass. One of my life's major disappointments has to be the failure of the admittedly ill-initialed Sperger Society to more successfully champion his works.]

Last week , between the two orchestras I played with, seven works of Mozart were on offer, all of which I had performed before except the Piano Concert no. 11. Regrettably, I was downsized from that piece – the last player or two in each string section being expendable in the name of 'lightness' or 'transparency' even though, one on a part, the winds continue to play as loudly as before. So it came to pass that I ended up playing nothing but old favorites.

At some point during the week, I tried to recall all of the Mozart Symphonies I had ever performed and could only come up with no.s 1, 25, 29, 35, 36, 39, 40, and 41 off the top of my head (the bottom of my head being buried in the blizzard of '11). There might be a couple of others that, possibly due to some sort of trauma induced amnesia, I can no longer recall having performed, but not many. This interests me because it seems almost impossible to hear or read about Mozart without mention of his untimely demise and, as if somehow related, his prolificacy. When presented with these facts in a pre-concert (or during-the-concert) lecture, audiences usually murmur, or you hear a sigh wash across the auditorium. “So sad...So young...Damned shame, really...” And then you are either told outright, or your mind follows the suggestion on its own, to imagine a world, a world with ten, twenty, thirty, forty more years...of Mozart! What a world that would be! But alas, the world limps on, cruelly denied. The other composer with a birthday last week, Schubert, gets pretty much the same reaction, although, cutting a more pathetic figure, and as yet not the subject of a major motion picture (imagine the box office possibilities of “Peter” ), Schubert probably wins in the sympathy department.

So, there seems to be something askew here. Mozart and Schubert: prolific geniuses who died young, far too young. We wish they had lived longer, written more music. Yet, much of the music they did write (at least in terms of the symphonic) molders on library shelves, unplayed. The late works may indeed be the 'greatest', whatever that means, but is the rest really rubbish by comparison? I wonder if someone at the Ars Viva concert looked at the program book during Mozart Symphony no. 25 (a delightful piece) and harrumphed, “Symphony 25? He wrote 16 more for God's sake! Why aren't they playing number 41?!” And then we move on to the point my fellow bassist-conventioneer made. Are there other composers, other pieces worth hearing? Would hearing them, at least once in a while, give us a better understanding, a perspective on the era, the style, on the supposed 'genius' of the 'great' composers, the 'great' works? I don't presume to know the answers to any of these questions. As a performer, with zero input as to what gets programed anywhere, I feel a certain amount of frustration at the repetitiveness of programming, with the focus on the 'greatest' men and their 'greatest' creations, to the exclusion of all else, and I have an inkling this is somehow related to the growing irrelevance of so-called 'classical' music today.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The not-so-constant Gardiner

Without keeping statistics, I can't say if this season has had more conductor cancellations than usual or not. After the most famous one back in the fall, we've had two in a row the past couple weeks, so at the moment it feels as if nobody wants to come here and conduct. Perhaps the fact that the high temperature one day last week was 10 degrees (Fahrenheit) had something to do with it.

News of a conductor cancellation is not always met with disappointment among musicians. In fact, sometimes it is cause for a minor celebration. This old joke (which I actually heard for the first time told from the podium by a last minute replacement for an ailing conductor) could refer to any number of maestros although it deals with something a bit more permanent than a cancellation.

The day after a great maestro died, his widow widow took a phone call from a violinist in the orchestra asking to speak with him. The widow informed the musician the great conductor had recently passed away and hung up the phone. The following day, the same musician called again asking to speak to the maestro, to which the widow repeated that the great conductor had expired. Over the next several days the violinist continued to call, each time asking for the maestro. At last, exasperated by the continuing calls, the widow reminded the violinist she had repeated the same news to him every day for a week. “I'm sorry,” he replied, “I just can't hear it enough times.”

Although Jaunjo Mena did a fine job in replacement of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, we missed out on the opportunity to evaluate the relatively unknown music director-designate of another orchestra. In America, music directors do not guest conduct each-others orchestras very often, limiting the opportunities to see the latest in the new crop of dashing young maestros. Seeing someone else's music director as a guest conductor is sort of like meeting the significant other of a rival. Along with natural curiosity, there is a certain amount of schadenfreude when he or she turns out to be frumpy, or vapid in some way.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner has been our guest here before and does not fall into the categories of young, or rival music director. Nevertheless, I was still keenly disappointed at the news of his cancellation – not to take anything away from his capable and ever-ready replacement Leonard Slatkin. The oil-and-water interaction of our ensemble with any of the 'early music' types is always entertaining and a shame to miss out on. Gardiner's program of three 20th century works, a potential gold-mine of blog posts which will, alas, for now go unexplored, looked intriguing on paper – a kind of daring-do parachute drop behind enemy lines in the war between 'period' and 'modern' performance. I can only wonder how we might have received him – snap a hood over his head and off to Guantanamo, a truly modern and up to date reaction, replete in its paranoia and intolerance, or, as in the more genteel days of the early flying Aces, a cigarette, perhaps some champagne, and with a good-natured pat on the back, send him packing across no-man's land, the trenches, back to the 18th century.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Now Serving...WAR!

2011 began with something of a bang – the Beyond the Score program devoted to Prokofiev Symphony no. 5. Although I have mixed feelings about the BTS shows, I'm happy any time one of them features music less than a century old. We've got to drag our audience (and probably a number of musicians) kicking and screaming into the 20th century before the next one ends.

It came as something of a letdown that the pro Stalin heckler did not make an appearance. I mean the fellow who took extreme umbrage at the Shostakovitch 4 presentation and yelled “Long Live the Third International!”among other things. I suppose he is on some sort of 'do not fly list' at our concert hall, unless of course he is being detained, incommunicado, in the secret warren of interrogation cells beneath the stage. But the disposition of such a rare commodity as an ardent Stalinist in this day an age merits careful consideration. They might consider writing him into the show next time we do another one of the Soviet area masterpieces.

As I am sure to have mentioned previously, it is hard to get an accurate idea of the BTS show from the stage while sitting in the dark, fending off sleep, stealing glances at the screen, and trying to keep one's place in the cues. We have little number displays, like at your local bakery, telling us which number is coming up next. It may seem obvious that the cues run in numerical order, but if you have three or four off in a row, the possibility of miscounting is very real. That said, it was difficult to follow the narrative thread of the presentation. Germany seemed to invade the Soviet Union three different times during the show, then Peter and the Wolf got involved somehow. However, in the end, the audience was justifiably appreciative, Socialist Realism (at least temporarily) won the day while, routed from its entrenched position, Liebestod, turned tail and fled the concert hall.