Bass Blog

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

Feel free to email your comments.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Endless Summer

Last week, we played two programs at Ravinia.

A) Brahms, Piano Concerto no.1; Symphony no.2
B) Brahms, Symphony no. 3; Piano Concerto no.2

Christoph von Dohnรกnyi, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano

(There were six two-and-a-half hour rehearsals for these two concerts.)

In preparation for the two programs of familiar pieces, we managed to squeeze the work of three rehearsals into only six – any efficiency expert who happened to look in on the proceedings, including listening to the final result, would have gone away seriously scratching their head. If the point of rehearsals is the preparation for a concert, I can't say the majority of the time was well spent. However, if it is to indulge the urge, latent in many who fancy themselves 'leaders' of one sort or another, namely sadism, then the week must be chalked up as a roaring success. The Marquis, peering down from heaven (or wherever he ended up), must have looked at the fifteen (15!) hours of rehearsal time with a horrific kind of glee.

Arriving at certain rehearsals is akin to stepping into the doctor's office, hearing the snap of the gloves going on at the same moment one realizes the jar of Vaseline is long ago empty. Any positive reasoning about what is about to happen in the next two-and-a-half hours might understandably be replaced with a kind of dread. And after fifteen hours of probing, merciless, relentless, and ultimately pointless - “You were here for a headache? Terribly sorry!” - if the patient, when asked to sashay down the hall, proves a bit unsteady on his feet, it should surprise no one.


jodru said...

This is an awful post. Your blog is usually a great read, but this makes you sound like an entitled, bored, desensitized jerk.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks. I'm largely the product my enviornment.

seer said...

My hunch is that Jodru has not spent much time in an orchestra.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks. I can respect anyone's opinion, but I find it interesting when a person gets testy after reading two short paragraphs of something they find offensive when I'm writing about enduring hours of the same.

I'm certain this applies to other fields as well, but playing in the orchestra, while often a great job, is sometimes a pain in the ass.

jodru said...

Here's the thing about your post, it cuts to the heart of why orchestral players are such an unsympathetic lot.

When Peyton Manning takes the field each Sunday, has he run ever play a million times? Of course he has. He could call an audible in his sleep.

Does that mean he doesn't have to practice each week? Does that mean he gets to skip two-a-days in the summer?

Of course not. That's the job.

Can you play Brahms in your sleep? Sure. But when Christoph and Manny come to town, you get paid to rehearse with them. That's the gig.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks for your comment. I think I get the gist of what you are saying better this time. Of course, I have a different take on it. For me, the issue is effective leadership – doing what is best to achieve an excellent performance.

Certainly, we are paid to sit and do what we are told – play Brahms, Gypsy, Lord of the Rings, what have you. Most, if not all of my colleagues are not averse to hard work either, otherwise they wouldn't have succeeded in a rather tough, competitive field.

The 'contract' granting a conductor leadership over an orchestra is really a fairly simple thing, but also elusive. The musicians cede quite a bit to the maestro, subjugating egos, giving up autonomy in order to grant legitimacy to the authority of the podium. The maestro only needs to do a few simple things in return. Show competence in performance, communicate effectively and efficiently in rehearsal, and most importantly, convey there is some reason for doing whatever it is they are doing. The last of those elements being so important that, if given proper motivation, musicians will overlook huge deficiencies in the other areas. When the conductor doesn't hold up their end of the bargain the performance suffers, enough that the maestro who can't do it because of a lack of ability should be declared incompetent, and the one who refuses out of stubbornness or pride, negligent.

Yes, we are well paid and professional, so we sit still for a lot. Beyond that, we take enough pride in what we are doing that we bail out floundering conductors fairly often, or at least narrowly avert harrowing in-concert train wrecks. The thing the conductor gets in return for the bargain with the orchestra is access to the wisdom and experience of every player on the stage. The maestro who turns their back on that without realizing the degree to which they rely on it is, frankly, a dunce.

A quarterback who insists on running the same play 57 times in a row, each time criticizing one of the linemen for not having their jersey tucked in, a stance that is a millimeter off, or a trailing shoelace, all the while failing to notice the guy he is handing off the ball to has his helmet on backwards is not showing effective leadership, not doing what is most important to win. The linemen, if they are professionals, will endure the ridiculous practice regime, will block for the QB in the game, maybe even save his ass so he can throw for a touchdown. If they are jerks for not thoroughly enjoying that sort of arrangement, in solidarity, I'll cut them a little slack.

jodru said...

All of that was understood from your original post.

However, sticking with the football metaphor might help clarify why I think it's just a jerk move to write a post like this (and by way of disclaimer, again let me reiterate that I really like your blog. Your posts about the recording process are particularly fascinating).

Imagine that the Colts' offensive guard Mike Pollak got so fed up with the practice you describe that after the game he shared his grievances with the media in the locker room. How well would he come off? More to the point, how long would he remain on that team?

The answers are: not well, and not long.

seer said...

Nah not worth it.

Drew80 said...

“The final result”, if the reviews are to be believed, was excellent: the orchestra played at the highest level for Dohnanyi; and Dohnanyi’s readings of Brahms were at the highest level. Are the reviews inaccurate or uninformed?

It sounds as if you have an intense visceral dislike for Dohnanyi the man. Whatever his merits as a human being, Dohnanyi has been widely acclaimed, for decades, as a distinguished musician and conductor. I cannot believe that Dohnanyi, after decades of conducting the most exalted ensembles, no longer knows how to rehearse or use rehearsal time.

For what it’s worth, the Boston Symphony the last two seasons played and sounded better under Dohnanyi than any other conductor, including Haitink.

Brad said...

Maybe a duel would settle this.

By the way, it's puzzling as to why Ravinia is, according to you, giving some concerts excessive amounts of rehearsal time while short changing others. Does management guess in advance what they assume is appropriate?

From what I experienced in the Friday performance that week, and also in the past at Orchestra Hall, Dohnanyi gets good results from the orchestra. Other than a clumsy horn solo, the ensemble sounded radiant and very focused in those great Brahms works. I was moved and impressed by the performance.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks for your comment.

Speak to players who are students of the subject, and you will often hear their favorite stories about concert criticism – the performance where a large part of the orchestra was lost, later deemed a 'triumph' in the press, that sort of thing. To be fair, perceptions from the stage can be quite different from what the audience experiences, the resulting opinions formed, on either side of the proscenium, highly subjective. Labeling someone else's opinion 'inaccurate' might be a logical boo-boo. I wouldn't go so far as calling anyone who enjoyed something I didn't 'misinformed' either.

Since I don't socialize with the maestro, I can't say anything about him personally. I'm commenting about what I observe in a professional setting, rehearsals and concerts. Similarly, I have no idea what he 'knows' about how to use rehearsal time. I can only speak to what he does when I'm playing and my comments are about the appropriateness and effectiveness of that.

As for the concerts in Boston, I would need to know the criteria used to rate one concert 'better' than another – ticket sales, reviews, decibels, beats per minute? Without that information, I can't say if it is worth anything or not.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Not sure how the rehearsal scheduling is done exactly. Most weeks, with 3 separate concerts, the available rehearsal time is set by contract. Each concert usually averages 1 1/3 to 1 2/3 rehearsals. In this case, with only 2 concerts, although not needed, more rehearsal time was available. This might have been a request or demand from the conductor, I don't know. Ravinia likes to get everything they pay for, so any time that can be scheduled usually gets filled.

Drew80 said...

When I wrote that “the Boston Symphony the last two seasons played and sounded better under Dohnanyi than any other conductor, including Haitink”, I was not, of course, referring to “ticket sales, reviews, decibels, beats per minute”.

The orchestra’s sound under Dohnanyi was much more transparent than the normal Boston sludge. Balances were perfect. Ensemble was tighter. Rhythmic life and vigor were present. The orchestra did not play fortissimo all night.

Such qualities were generally not in evidence in Boston Symphony concerts under other conductors, including those under Boston’s former Music Director.

Under Dohnanyi, the Boston Symphony sounded almost—but not quite—as fine an ensemble as the not-to-be-named orchestra in which you play.

Of course, I am sure you know about the unhappy encounter between Dohnanyi and the Boston musicians several years ago, when Dohnanyi spent an entire rehearsal retuning the orchestra to his exacting specifications . . .

nocynic said...

My sense was that Von Dog's Heinie had nothing to say, so he spent inordinate hours picking at real and imagined flaws. At least one critic whom I respect liked the concert a lot more than I did. But I found the symphonies tedious, moribund and pointless. And I think that it is a shame that Peyton Manning doesn't have a blog where he makes observations half as interesting as the blogger here.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Sir, your $20 is in the mail!

cinq_cordes said...

As a player in another American professional orchestra, I can speak from long experience that few conductors know how to manage their rehearsal time well, or impart anything of substance to the group. If the conductor gets two rehearsals, thats what it takes. If he gets ten rehearsals, it will take ten. There are some who could not achieve in ten what others achieve in two. I would also venture to say that many orchestras are starving for real leadership and insight from the podium. And like Mr. Hovnanian's orchestra, my ensemble rescues many a conductor during the concerts. If sometimes musicians seem a little crabby, it shouldn't come as a surprise, given some of the things we see and endure. But let me tell you - to be able to play classical music in the company of such excellent musicians compensates for a lot.