Bass Blog

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

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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 na├»ve 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.