Bass Blog

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

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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.