Bass Blog

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

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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.