Bass Blog

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

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The {redacted}SO season at Ravinia got underway last week. As all things Ravinia go to short term memory only, I can't say if it is unusual or not to begin a season without the music director on the podium, but it seemed like it. At the stroke of the new year, you're supposed to grab your SO for a kiss, not your ex.

Things went as well as could be expected through the first two concerts. A decent rendition of Symphonie Fantastique (except that the sluggish second movement could have been renamed from Un Bal to Medicine Ball) followed an all Lang Lang first half, which I did not play – comments about his hairdo from players coming off stage at intermission made me even more happy with my lot. The following night, omens (like the piano soloist having to stamp his foot to keep things together in rehearsal) foretold of rhythmic accuracy being on the sacrificial altar later that evening. But the gods smiled on us, and the Rite went better than it had a right to.

On the third day of Ravinia, things changed.

In the NFL, one of the most important elements under the control of the head coach is 'clock management', knowing how many minutes are left in the game, how many timeouts are left and when to use them, which plays eat up the clock and which save time, etc. Conductors have similar issues in the way they allot rehearsal time when schedules are made and, more importantly, how they actually spend the time once rehearsals begin. This is true especially in a situation like Ravinia, where tight schedules make it always seem like the fourth quarter of a close game. The clueless coach who squanders timeouts early, sending in the old Statue of Liberty play, or the Flea Flicker, only to watch helplessly as the clock runs out in the final quarter, down by 2 points, with no time to get the field goal unit onto the field, this hapless time-manager is like the conductor who works too long on the pieces that don't need rehearsal, lets players out early at one rehearsal only to run out of time at another.

There is a provision in our contract to bail out the chronologically challenged conductor, but at a price. (Come to think of it, if a conductor is not so good at managing hours and minutes, how are they doing with beats and measures?) 'Extraordinary Overtime' is supposed to put pressure on the time managers and schedulers to get their act together. The criticism leveled at players is often that since the management side are all people of good will, a little more flexibility on our part might be in order. I have no objection to stipulating to the good will. However, good will, too easily overridden by bad planning, sometimes needs the help of a fiscal incentive to fully manifest itself. So, in cashing my overtime check, I feel content in the knowledge I'm helping some folks realize their better nature.

You might think of extraordinary overtime as something like that scene in the Batman movie where, as the Joker, Jack Nicholson and his merry band parade through downtown Gotham City showering the amazed citizens with cash. (I think they then spray everybody with poisoned gas, BTW.) EO is not a demand by greedy, avaricious musicians. All somebody higher up the food chain has to do is say 'no' to the conductor and both money and time are saved. The $16 bottle of Bud Light in the mini bar looks ridiculous when you check in. In the middle of a sleepless night, it may even begin to seem like a reasonable solution to a problem. Opening the bottle demonstrates a failure of will. These, and other boondoggles tend to stick in the mind during contract negotiations when the quadrennial pleas of poverty come out.


CK Dexter Haven said...

So after the $16 beer and $8 bag of pop chips were consumed, did the field goal attempt make it through the uprights, or did Salome forget to take off one of her veils?

Michael Hovnanian said...

We were penalized for unnecessary roughness, taking us out of FG range.

Jacque said...

That is a terrific assessment of the situation of overtime, thanks for sharing it, Michael.
People (non-musicians) who ask "what's the big deal, why fuss over a few minutes at the end of a rehearsal" have never had to suffer through a poorly-organized rehearsal. Inefficiencies in the execution of a rehearsal mean that a lot of people are sitting around doing nothing (say, the string section, while the conductor works with the woodwinds) much of the time. Then, suddenly, at the end of rehearsal (when you gotta get home to the babysitter / meal is only served for one hour / need to get to my doctor's appointment / whatever) the conductor or management team declares that everybody needs to stay for overtime.
There's an easy analogy for most non-musicians: your company's weekly status meeting. How do you like sitting around hearing reports from all the division managers you don't report to, only to find out at the end of the meeting that you have to stay late? Pisses you off, right? And if it happens again and again?
The union rules around overtime are designed, as Michael points out, to provide additional--financial--incentive to conductors/management to work smarter, not harder (to borrow a hackneyed phrase).
And it's a two-way relationship. When I was assistant manager to a small-ish orchestra on the east coast, a conductor who dramatically re-arranged a rehearsal to best make use of the orchestra (during an electrical storm at a covered but essentially outdoor venue) was rewarded by enormous goodwill from the orchestra, who did not press for overtime given the circumstances.
Bottom line is respect each other. Forced overtime is management saying "we don't respect your time enough to plan well." At least in the worst case.
End of rant.