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.


Unknown said...

So are we left with no principal bassist now? rotating section?
How is the long and arduous task of replacing a principal bassist anyways?

Michael Hovnanian said...

To be honest, the principal stopped playing a couple years ago and officially retired in the fall. I was wondering if anyone had noticed. Last week was merely the ceremony. They are looking under every rock, trying to find a new 1st chair player.

sjid said...

It seems that we can't exist without contradictions. For many audience members the number one contradiction in the orchestral world is why a preeminent orchestra tolerates incompetence among its senior members. If we are lucky it will be the piccolo player, a relatively inconspicuous instrument that half the audience can't hear anyway. The worst cases are brass players, especially principal-soloist brass players who are living legends. Perhaps it is time to exercise the final level of your maxim and pay them not to play. Many of us would willingly pay a forced retirement surcharge on tickets if it would eliminate the problem. Then they could form their own orchestra and play their hearts out on boats in the middle of Lake Michigan. They make critics of us all. From the moment they walk on stage we focus on them, every piece becomes a concerto for dropped notes and orchestra. Even if all goes well they have drawn our attention away from the greater musical experience. They can ruin every concert like nothing else. We in the audience are perplexed by the unconditional cheering that their efforts elicit from some enabling audience members. Do they invite family members or hire demonstrators to keep their reputations alive? They bask with virtual raised finger.

If the situation is allowed to deteriorate it eventually becomes the subject of tabloid conversation before the concert begins. There is no better way to break the ice with that stanger in the next seat than to speculate about the self-maligning master. Here are some actual quotes prompted by one such situation in Chicago: He needs the money. Playing makes him feel young again. Reversion to the mean. He's like a bad teacher, you just can't get rid of him. He's lost his lip. He's lost his wind. He's deaf and only hears inside his mind. He is a-toning for past greatness. This sad situation has a comic side only because it is incongruous that such ineptitude is tolerated in the proud ranks of a major orchestra. We are always left with the same unanswered question, why is this allowed to go on?
Stan Collins

Brad said...

This is all rather interesting (and entertaining!) stuff. I was wondering how auditions are handled as far as current orchestra members who want to, for example, audition for a section's principal position. Do they automatically advance to the final rounds?

Michael Hovnanian said...

Yes, anyone from the orchestra desiring to be guillotined by their colleagues can step right up to the finals.

Dimsky said...

(in two parts)


First of all, nice to see the blog back to a semi-regular offering; I’ve enjoyed it for some time now and was missing it during that dry spell a while back.

You make some very lucid points on the subject of this post and I appreciate and share much of your concern on the issue. It is something I give a great deal of thought to these days inasmuch as I’m in my 33rd season (at the ripe age of 58) here in an orchestra west of the Rockies in an area known primarily for skiing and the somewhat salty (but not unpleasant) large body of water from which the city derives its name (two of your Principals used to call it home, as a matter of fact).

You’re absolutely right, it IS a very touch subject, as the conductor James Gaffigan recently found out at his blog 10/27/11; responses/comments to that post can be found in Drew McManus’ post from 11/12/10 and from 11/8/10. To be fair to Mr. Gaffigan, he tempers some of his more volatile remarks with the caveat regarding an “older….dedicated and passionate” player in an orchestra where he had spent some amount of time.

This introduces the concept, of course, that age or years of service for that matter, is only part of the issue. In my time here, and also in a two-year stint at a previous orchestra as well as a season substituting with a “larger” orchestra I’ve seen “old” players in their 30’s & 40’s and “young” players in their 60’s & 70’s. In addition to that, though I’ve never seen a scientific study on the subject, I would submit that the average age at which people are getting into full-time orchestras is rising (a recent audition winner here was in their forties meaning, as someone noted, that they would not qualify for a no-cost single room on tours [15 years of service being necessary] until they were old enough to order from the senior menu at IHOP). Naturally, there will always be the wunderkinds who “arrive” in their early 20’s. But, due in part to the sheer volume of players, their commendable persistence, and the seasoning that takes place in some of the ROPA and lower salaried ICSOM orchestras, the biological audition clock of many players ticks a little longer these days.

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, especially where the level of student playing (or faculty, for that matter) doesn’t justify the implied promise of gainful employment post-graduation, hope which hangs like a carrot from a stick on Music department web-sites (I don’t think Peter Schickele was too far off when he says that alter-ego Professor Schickele teaches music at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. One can be a performance major in stranger places, I think).

(Part 2 continues below)

Dimsky said...

(Part 2)

The events in the 60’ & 70’s that coalesced in the artistic, governmental, business, and philanthropic circles largely responsible for the modern “living wage” orchestra (outlined very succinctly by Henry Peyrebrune in a guest blog at [“How did we get here?” from 12/21/10], did not account for the trickle down effect of the vast number of musicians who wanted to take part in the growth of part-time to full time orchestras but were left without a seat in the Musical chair-dance that is the audition circuit. As played out, those events have left the orchestra world a bit of a victim of its own success: What were these musicians to do? As it turns out, many ended up teaching in higher institutions of learning carving out performance programs, aggressively recruiting, churning out ever more students until the whole business has started to resemble a vast pyramid scheme. Things are out of whack in the supply/demand sense and it is not getting any better with the current concessionary atmosphere of which the most obvious example is taking place in Detroit.

My point is that if we want to talk about this issue on the back end, don’t we need to talk about it on the front end as well?

At any rate, thanks for those 2 & 3 finger exercises you put on here for downloading a while back. I practice a few of them every day; with any luck they’ll add a few years to my pre-arthritic fingers so I can become a “living legend” too (at least in my own mind).

All the best,


nocynic said...

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.