Bass Blog

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

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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.


nocynic said...

"Allegro energico e passionato, began at a promising pace but, reaching the middle section, lapsed into the all-too-familiar dirge funebre."
One of my all-time pet peeves. Brahms clearly indicates that the quarter notes in the middle section should equal the quarter notes in the previous music. The time signature changes from 3/4 to 3/2, so there is a natural halving of the tempo, but it should be no slower than that. If you actually do it this way, the underlying Chaconne theme is discernible, and the flute solo has a noble and simple Bachian quality. Unfortunately, even the finest flute players, aided and abetted by the clueless conductors that now populate the landscape, cannot resist the urge to love this solo to death, as if it were a Verdi recitative or something. The only guy I ever heard make this part of the piece work was Bernard Haitink. Eschenbach's version was worse than most, of course, but not by much.

sjid said...

My favorite conductors were often active composers. Most have higher insight-to-ego quotients (though sometimes due to extraordinary insight). Boulez provides an example. His TV broadcast Mahler 7 ( contained a second movement that really felt like a hike in the mountain wilderness as Mahler intended. Usually this movement is more like Central Park or even the Bronx Zoo, something the musicians can sink their virtuosic teeth into. Mahler was quite capable of unfolding his images so doesn't require our embellishments. Extra effects soon take us off his path. On the other hand, how many remote mountain hikers are present in audience or orchestra? The Romantic lifestyle and environment are kaput, so maybe contemporizing effacements should be expected, even justified. We relate more to peacocks than to nightingales.

How many in the audience are even aware of graciosos or alla breves? The most recent Schubert 9th even added an accelerando into its tweaked-up alla breve section. In a parting nod to structure, the conductor abruptly braked to the original tempo so that the final bars were a mirror image of the opening, as Schubert intended. It was a nice, brisk performance which ignored Schubert's puzzle-perfect proportions and therefore diminished what was perhaps his greater message, the contrasting effects of lyrical and symphonic-motivic styles. Conductor-composers are much more likely to help us hear the graciosos and alla breves in convincing if not revelatory ways. It was natural that Boulez, Bernstein, Rosbaud, Furtwangler, Skrowaczewski, Silvestri, Maderna all strove to assert the primacy of composer over conductor. Even their libertarian excesses, such as Mahler rewriting passages, were respectful efforts aimed to bring clarity to another composer's intentions.

My other favorite conductors are nearly all former musicians, such as Jaap van Zweden. Care to take the plunge, Michael?

Stan Collins