Bass Blog

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

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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.


nocynic said...

"the lowliest pop diva on her most drug addled night still kills any orchestra at the box office"...Well, no. I once, in my carefree and childless days, somehow ended up talking to a rock promoter at a party. He found out I was in the XSO and was awestruck. Not at my talent, or our great artistry, or anything like that. No, what amazed him was that we could play the same venue in the same city for 35 or 40 weeks a year, and get upwards of 2,000 posteriors in the seats three or four times each week. Not too many pop divas can do that, drug addled or otherwise. If any.
We get blase about this gig, but once in a while I look out into the house and see all those faces, and think how they paid a great deal of money, and put up with either the infuriating traffic or the infuriating public transport in our fair city, maybe arranged for child care, and I feel extremely honored and humbled that they have chosen to spend their evening with us. I feel that the least we can do in return is offer them an experience that we are reasonably sure will be of value to them. Look, I got nothing against the Second Viennese School. I think Schoenberg can be a little clunky (as did Boulez), but I love Berg and Webern. The music I write, while not remotely serial, unashamedly borrows elements of their techniques; I would be a different and, I suspect, a less interesting composer but for those guys.
But when people pay us the incredible honor of going to so much trouble and expense to attend our concerts, and we play music that, after nearly a century of experience, we KNOW they are not going to find worthwhile...I'm sorry, that strikes me as arrogant and almost immoral.
Our former Music Director was a passionate proponent of the Second Viennese School and the Post Serial acolytes who followed them. His championing of their music never quite reached the point where he actually studied the scores so as to conduct them anywhere close to his standards for Beethoven and Wagner, but he did program them a lot.
As for the more conservative currents in the 20th century, he was rather contemptuous. He never programmed the Soviets, or Copland, or something so reactionary as Samuel Barber...except once.
After 9/11, we needed to play something to memorialize the tragedy, and Barenboim selected Barber's "Adagio for Strings". I always wanted to ask him how it was that none of the 20th century music he championed could have been played. When it was time to bring people together in a shared emotion--you know, the kind of thing that music was always intended to do--all of a sudden, all of DB's modernist heroes weren't up to the job. This strikes me as a rather potent illustration of the limits of that music, much as I admire the craft that goes into so much of it.

Michael Hovnanian said...

You may have a point about the box office, but I bet 2,000 is merely the line for the ladies' room at a Justin Beiber concert.

I once went to the restaurant of a very well-known chef with a couple who had raved about him. When it came time to order, they looked at the menu with deeply furrowed brows and proceeded to give the waiter a very long list of the things they didn't eat – “we don't like coriander, if it's cooked...” Basically, they turned the celebrity chef into a short order cook who fried up a piece of fish for them, plain, just the way they wanted it.

nocynic said...

Well, yes, but don't restaurants featuring even the most celebrated chefs typically offer menus? Imagine a chef that told his customers: "Today you are eating haggis! If you are too stupid to enjoy it, don't ever darken my door again!"
One other point, Mike, if I may. You write, "However, in the 'free' West, nobody was ordered to write 12-tone, or any other type of music."
Not quite, no. But good luck getting a university job between about 1945 and 1980 if you were writing anything remotely tonal. And good luck making a living writing "classical" music if you didn't have a university job.

Unknown said...

I like Michael's point that on any concert night there are ~2,000 people in the audience for the XSO. That adds up to at least 5,000 each week, and while the Biebers of the world could, most rock/pop acts couldn't fill that many seats, week in, week out.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Not my point, but thanks. If our fan base is really so large, I wonder why all the top pop acts are millionaires and I’m still taking the bus to work?

sjid said...

Several decades ago I read a comment by a concert pianist, Andre Watts perhaps, about a revelation he had when seeing a crowd two blocks long waiting to buy tickets to his recital. He said he suddenly realized that he wasn't alone, that the audience was as devoted to music as was he himself. Nocynic makes a similar point. I spend all my time in the audience, so I know about the ex-lawyer who has subscribed for about 40 years who arranged the office schedule around concerts, about the pilgrims one of whom travels more than 20 times per year by car, train and foot in a 500 miles triathlon each trip. Stand on the walk in front of Symphony Center on a cold winter afternoon and count the many patrons on walkers and with canes, barely able to walk but seeking to be transported another time. You begin to understand how much you mean to the audience, of the esteem and affection we feel for you. These are acts of love on many levels.

My wife often marvels at the ability of the musicians to play as one. Surely this is a primary element of an orchestra's "sound," years of playing together distinguishes it from one of your "pick-up" groups. Surpassing talent is necessary but not sufficient, that is for sure. Orchestral musicians are subject to the whims of conductor (sometimes odious-tyrannical) and the fanciful structures of the composer, in addition to the tastes of its audience as expressed by the music director and administration. Not much room left for individual choice. How many of us could adjust to such a displacement of the ego for even a short time? Yet it is inspiring to see, for example, the principal winds re-working a passage *after* the concert, or to hear precision down to the vibrato, or to see a dozen bows move identically. We hear and see much beauty. We do not hear or see the hidden cost you have to pay for your enviable achievements. It is ironic that the most vital link in the chain has so little autonomy.

I would tell nocynic's promoter to attend a few concerts. Or many concerts. You think you have it bad? Orchestras don't play the same 20 or so simple songs over and over in the same way for months and even years, all for a screaming audience of fans suffering from a lamentable case of arrested musical development. The secret to your success in filling the hall week after week is art, that spectrum of musical complexity expressed by talented and dedicated composers and musicians. Art foremost, and a responsive public of sufficient size to support the extravagance. That someone from the music business didn't recognize this suggests music as art is pretty much off the radar.

New music? I found Salonen's bruckner 7 last week to be new. Typically the last two movements of #7 seem weak because Bruckner generally dispenses with the intricate counterpoint that charges the other nearby symphonies. Salonen began so slowly which allowed him to contrast tempos more than any performance I've heard. He made dramatic sense of a work I had pretty much given up on. His interpretation was new and exciting to me, all the more impressive for the experience that came before.

Oh yes, Barenboim. For me, the most memorable posting on this blog was about the Beethoven 9 fiasco, you know, with the kittens-in-the-basket metaphor. Another odious tyrant, another hidden cost. Those interested in another perspective on that concert might read the third-from-the-end paragraph of this aticle:

And thanks for another amazing concert. Stan Collins

Unknown said...

I misread you...The top pop acts are millionaires, but those farther down the food chain, w/ solid fan bases, play a club in [city by lake] that can hold 350-500, maybe, and don't make millions. They're big on bus travel, too. ;) While those groups are fashionable, and often very good, they still don't have the reliably large audience of the XSO.

Brad said...

I think there is a segment in the population that has a hunger, week in and week out, for the kind of music that an orchestra like the CSO presents. This loyal, probing group, and at sizable numbers, will put up with the irritations and expenses mentioned in order to experience the kind of special qualities that very few musicians (or ensembles) possess. Certain pieces, new and old, might be more or less successful depending on their merit and what the collaborative efforts of the conductor and orchestra bring, but there is always that hope, and even expectation, that the results will be great and memorable. We must not take for granted the abilities of the people who join forces and strive to produce what can at times seem magical, and of such quality that they are course very unique in the world. The sense of community that can be achieved in the audience or among the people on stage, or even the combination of people off and on stage, can be very moving and rewarding. There are other times when a given concert or individual piece will bring about mixed reactions and debate among people, which is also a healthy response that can lead to other ideas or an eventual understanding that broadens the horizons of people who were previously too comfortable or too set in their ways.

The program that Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted this past week is a good example of one that worked well because, regardless of the age or exposure the respective pieces had, the conductor and orchestra brought the same intelligence and intensity to them all. There was a seriousness and vitality infused into each that highlighted the differences in structure and sentiments but without indicating a judgment of quality. The piece by Donatoni, for example, wasn't given a lifeless and half-hearted effort that would make it seem like fluff to be ignored compared to the esteemed Bruckner 7 that followed after intermission. They could be admired and remembered on their own terms, and with the specific sounds created by a remarkable group.

If you continually combine good, interesting works with a truly great group like this, audiences will always come, and they'll show up with the expectation of experiencing something they can't get anywhere else.

Speaking of great performances, congratulations to you and all of your colleagues for the much-deserved Grammys!

Dimsky said...

Speaking of Divas and their male counterparts (Devos?), it’s always struck me as ironically sad that the more successful pop/rock/country musicians don’t seem to make any kind of concerted effort to support the institutions (symphony orchestras) that represent one of the greatest exponents of the musical language that they in turn have made their bazillions of dollars from. (Granted many of them are engaged in very worthwhile humanitarian pursuits) In their defense, maybe they’ve never been asked. There is evidence certainly of individual generosity in tangential areas:

And, quoting from this [] story several years ago:

“In 1989, Elliott Carter received a telephone call from Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead. Mr. Carter had no idea what the Grateful Dead was, but when he and Mr. Lesh met, the following May, Mr. Lesh brought a stack of Mr. Carter's music, which he knew intimately.
Mr. Lesh, it turned out, wanted to underwrite a recording of Mr. Carter's music through the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation, which has quietly given grants to other composers as well.”

The connection between pop music and classical has been discussed for decades (worth watching if only for a glimpse of a smokin’ hot Orin O’Brien at about 0:41):

So, how about a comprehensive nationwide plan to involve more of the Gene Simmon’s, Usher’s, and Kenny Chesney’s in support for the more seminal versions of the I-V-VI-IV-V-I progressions repeated 50 times in 3 minutes that build their mansions and heat their swimming pools?

Party on!


sjid said...

I see where, mirabile dictu, next year's second BTS concert scheduled for the end of February is Pierrot lunaire. I hope you will use the occasion to experience a BTS from our side of the stage.

Geo. said...

For Dimsky, the male equivalent of diva is divo. Digressing further, the male equivalent of prima donna is primo don.

That aside, regarding Noseda and the drip factor, I can attest to that from the audience side. I saw him conduct the BBC Philharmonic at The Proms last summer. From my spot in the Arena, I could see the sweat dripping profusely from him.