Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ravinia Week 03

The week that wasn't

There were two concerts scheduled this week and, as luck would have it, I ended up off both nights.

Having Wednesday night off was not by choice. The Weill and Schrecker program called for a very small orchestra. As I have mentioned before, any concert with 'Gala', 'Special', 'Festive', or other superlative attached immediately goes to the top of my wish list for days off. All of the speechifying, bowing, hugging, and whatnot gives me the willies, so Saturday had a big 'X' through it in my calendar. I suffered a brief pang of regret, looking at the program order and noticing the concert ended with 'Ravel', fearing I might miss out on another extraordinary overtime bonanza until it became apparent 'Ravel' referred to Daphnis and not Bolero. Also, Conlon has much better clock management skills than Eschenbach.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ravinia Week 2

Eschenbach and More Show Tunes

The Sunday concert (I don't know what to call it, is 5 PM afternoon or evening?) seemed like a microcosm of the whole Ravinia experience. A small crowd witnessed an underutilized orchestra swelter through a program of Broadway show music. The most disturbing fact is that may have been the best concert of the week.

If anyone needs help filling out their Ravinia scorecard, my records show the following after two weeks:

Total concerts: 6
Pops concerts: 3 (.500 average)
Concerts with Patti Lupone: 0

Usually all sorts of interesting things happen when Christoph Eschenbach comes to town. One of the more mundane yet annoying is that the rehearsal schedule gets all cockeyed.

Brahms Symphony

Dvorak Symphony
Brahms Double

Dvorak Symphony
Brahms Symphony
Korngold violin concerto

At first glance the above seems unremarkable, until one realizes that the two Brahms pieces were on the Friday concert, the Dvorak and Korngold on Saturday. Now, not everyone plays every concert, and the seating arrangement changes from night to night, so creating these ungodly rehearsal 'sandwiches' makes for all sorts of pains in all sorts of backsides. I think even with their banks of computers, the personnel office can't keep up with this sort of nonsense. In an effort to limit my exposure to any sort of Eschenbacchanalia, and with the full knowledge that by doing so I might deny myself the fruits of a potential of overtime bonanza, I scheduled a day off for Saturday. On Friday afternoon I sat blissfully under the stage waiting while the orchestra rehearsed Dvorak, unaware of the personnel office calling my home and inquiring as to my whereabouts, causing my wife either undue worry or premature celebration at the thought I might have met either an untimely or long overdue demise en-route to the rehearsal.

The preceding may seem like the most trivial sort of griping, and I will plead guilty to the charge after making a brief statement in defense.

Music is (quite obviously) an art which unfolds in time. A large part of what we concern ourselves with as musicians is (or ought to be) the premeditated and thoughtful placement of elements in time. Am I together with so-and-so? At what rate are we getting faster, slower, louder, softer? Is that pizzicato (ahem) a shade too early? These are our concerns.

It is therefore my contention that this temporal sensitivity makes the poor, sloppy, or thoughtless usage of time all the more irritating. It is telling that the conductors who waste time in rehearsal, end early one day, go too long the next, don't know when rehearsal starts or ends, are often the same fellows who have no sense of how to make a transition, pace a ritardando, and so on, the temporal insensitivity manifesting itself in both macro and the micro mismanagement of time. With that, I rest my case and await sentencing.

On Friday evening, solists Benedetti and Elschenbroich played admirably, avoiding the scylla and charyibdiss of the Brahms double. The piece can very easily lapse into sounding like two cats either fighting or mating, virtually indistinguishable to the untrained ear. As Brahms apparently only wrote three symphonies, it was odd the one we played Friday bore the label #4. The performance took all the usual pratfalls, along with a few extra curves thrown from the podium. In the 3rd movement of the part I was reading from, I noticed the italicized marking gracioso, which gave me a chuckle, as this poor piece always gets the most pugilistic pounding. Perhaps it's the triangle. The last movement, Allegro energico e passionato, began at a promising pace but, reaching the middle section, lapsed into the all-too-familiar dirge funebre.

I can never tell which of the pops shows are going to be well attended. Celebrating her 85th birthday, which has to make her one of the oldest people to appear before our orchestra (not counting those on the podium), Barbara Cook sang to a smallish, Mahler 6th sized crowd. Her elegant stylings were more in evidence when she sang with the combo. Fortunately, the orchestra sat out half her numbers but still managed to collect some overtime by evening's end.

If anyone had given it a moment's thought, they could have put an intermission in that concert, lumped all the orchestral pieces on the first half, dismissed the orchestra altogether and still ended on a high note, all while saving a little money – just sayin.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Ravinia Week 1

Death Marches and Show Tunes

To give credit where it is due, an irate yet erudite colleague who gave me an earful on the way home from the concert on Sunday suggested the title for this post. The first three concerts featured a turgid, steaming slab of Mahler 6, served up between two pretty flimsy slices of Americana. There has been a fair amount of grousing in recent years that the programming at Ravinia has become all about either concentration camps and (perhaps motivated by some fairness doctrine) heavy German fare on the one hand, or show tunes on the other – as if there was nothing worth hearing in between. The programming for week 1 did nothing to dispel that.

Since much of the country suffered the same fate last week, I risk little in the way of betraying the identity of the orchestra I work for by reporting that the weather was beastly hot and humid – over 100 degrees for three days in a row. A tiny crowd braved the heat to watch our 5 PM July 4th show – the first one I can remember doing in about 20 years. The lawn was as devoid of human presence as it had been back in 1776, save for any native Americans who might have wandered by and wondered what the pale-faced idiots were doing out in the midday sun. An onstage thermometer read 95 at the start of the show.

To celebrate America's birthday, Conductor Steven Reineke assembled a frothy mixture of patriotic favorites and (you guessed it) show tunes, inoffensive at least for those willing to concede we have gone from being a nation of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, to one of Williams and Disney. Ashley Brown, known for her portrayal of that most American of heroines, Mary Poppins, sang beautifully and bravely in the fierce heat, particularly the selections from Brigadoon. As I did not read the program notes, I can't say if there was some thematic thread here; the Scots have allegedly been pushing for some form of independence recently.

Jap van Zweden conducted a respectable Mahler 6 on Saturday evening when the temperature was still brutal and the audience only marginally larger than for the Independence Day show. Nothing says summer like 90 minutes of angst in 90 degree heat. The hammer blows in the Finale are always the focus of attention when we play Mahler 6, and dare I say they have become a little bit overexposed. As if making a point to be at odds with the way our orchestra operates downtown, the Ravinia camera crew completely ignored them.

The week closed with another 5 PM show on Sunday. 5 PM still strikes me as an odd time for a concert – when is one supposed to have supper? Marvin Hamlisch presented a laudable first half in conditions that could almost be described as pleasant since the heat wave had broken the night before. He presented a few short selections, peppered with witty banter that showcased impeccable comedic timing, at one point deftly turning the dead microphone he was handed into a running gag. 

For the second half, he took a backseat to Idina Menzel, who like most of the stars of stage and screen that perform with us was completely unknown to me. She seems to have a rabid following of gay men and adolescent girls. Ms Menzel reportedly was under the weather and did not attend the rehearsal. The diva too sick to sing is something of a cliché, but she really did seem to be in some kind of distress, with a cup of herbal tea and various lozenges at the ready during the performance. I haven't seen that much onstage consumption since Pavarotti's now infamous Otello with us a number of years back.

Words and music have a strange relationship. If not used carefully, words have a unique power to crush music – sort of like the surgeon's scalpel, which can either heal or maim. Ms Menzel obviously had a lot to say to her fans, but the incessant ramblings of her monologues between each selection had the effect of sucking the life out of the performance. The true professional, Hamlisch stepped in with some well-timed one-liners, appreciated as much for their wit as for their brevity, but even he seemed to wilt under the verbal barrage. When all was said an done, a concert with about 60 minutes of music dragged on for 2 hours and 40 minutes, the only bright side of which was the two overtime payments due each and every player.

The confluence of professionalism and overtime makes for the perfect segue into week 2 at Ravinia – the return of Christoph Eschenbach.