Bass Blog

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

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Friday, March 22, 2013

In Praise of Purgatory

Last week we played, among other things, the Adagio from Mahler's unfinished 10th symphony. For health reasons Pierre Boulez had to withdraw from two weeks of conducting, passing the baton onto Cristain Macelaru and Asher Fisch. Another notable piece on offer was the Bartók Divertimento for String Orchestra, which has had a notable history in our orchestra, particularly for the bass section, but about which I can write absolutely nothing.

Although my fondness for Mahler's music has gone up and down over the years, the 10th symphony has always been a favorite. As a youngster in the early 1970s, I had the good fortune to be part of what I think was at the time a very rare early performance of the performing version by Deryck Cooke. The mystique behind the piece captivated me - Mahler's supposed obsession with death, the poignant funeral procession for the New York fireman which passed below his hotel window. The sensationalism behind that performance also made a lasting impression. All sorts of die-hard Mahlerites flew into town to hear a rare performance. Moments before the concert, a mysterious gentleman pressed one of Mahler's batons into the hand of the conductor, insisting he use it for the concert.

The whole controversy about whether or not any of the existing the performing versions of 10th symphony  should be performed or not never affected me. Strangely, the 10th symphony was the first piece by Mahler I ever heard. When I went back to listen to some of his other music, particularly the early stuff, I was kind of bewildered and disappointed. Without getting into a debate about whether the 10th is really Mahler or not, I can certainly recommend the Adagio 1st movement. And then there is the other movement Mahler finished (mostly) before his death, the odd little movement entitled Purgatorio. At about 4 minutes, I'm pretty sure its the shortest symphonic movement Mahler ever wrote - I always seem to like the shortest pieces by composers otherwise dedicated to gargantuanism. This tiny movement which sits in the center of Mahler's symmetrical structure for the 10th symphony - Adagio, Scherzo, Purgatorio, Scherzo, Adagio - has always been a favorite of mine. Perhaps it has something to do with the prominent role of the double basses. I remember being completely flummoxed by the bass part as a 13 year-old. At the very end of Purgatorio, after a harp glissando that is like Beelzebub himself appearing out of cloud of smoke, it is the basses who usher the listener to the inferno.

For those unfamiliar with the performing version of the 10th symphony, there is a fine performance by the Concertgebouw on YouTube - just search for Mahler 10/Concertgebouw. (Purgatorio begins at about 36:45) There is an interesting article about the piece, here.

Thanks to all who offered condolences, either in person or electronically.

Friday, March 08, 2013


Bass Blog Back Better than Before!

Homer: ...the extra 'B' is for BYOBB.
Bart: What's that extra B for?
Homer: It's a typo.

Sorry for the long sabbatical. In truth, I've been waiting for three people to ask in person about the blog before resuming. It only took six months...

There are certain professions where having an eighty-two-year-old fill in for a seventy-one-year-old doesn't raise a bushy eyebrow. The United States Senate comes to mind, along with the chairman's seat at some exclusive private clubs, the College of Cardinals, and if something which happens once every 600 years or so makes for a trend, perhaps one day even the Papacy itself. And then of course, there is Conducting. The {redacted}SO saw itself in just such a position last month, when due to some health issues our music director withdrew from two weeks of concerts here, along with a three week tour to Asia. Edo de Waart stepped in for the local performances. Osmo Vänskä filled in on very short notice for two concerts in Taipei, with the bulk of the tour falling to the ever-sprightly Loren Maazel.

On a thirteen hour flight to Asia there is a lot of time to ponder questions like, 'do orchestras carry any kind of cancellation insurance?' or 'why don't we have an assistant conductor?' neither of which I can answer. When I joined the orchestra twenty-some years ago, there were two assistants, which seemed like one too many. Now we have zero, which seems like one too few. AC can be a thankless job, but possibly a useful person to have on hand from time to time when the MD is unable to go on.

Whether an on-call assistant, or somebody rung up at random out of the phone book, the replacement maestro often suffers a fate similar to that of the substitute teacher, only the spit-wads and paper airplanes are of the symbolic, musicological variety. As such, Vänskä had an unenviable task, stepping onto the podium in Taipei at the last second, with not much rehearsal time. By the end of the second performance, his position had not become significantly more enviable.

Loren Maazel has long impressed me as the Hannibal Lecter of conductors - a veneer of erudition and utmost gentility overlies something I want to know nothing about - the uncanny precision of his gestures brings to mind something clinical, the steel gears and levers of an overdeveloped intellect conjure up something vaguely Mephistophelean. He led us through some highly idiosyncratic performances of the Mozart Jupiter, Beethoven Eroica, Mendelssohn Italian, and Brahms second symphonies. I knew we were in for something 'old school' when I took a look at the part provided for the Brahms. An imprint I had never seen before (a terrible combined cello/bass part with some horrendous page turns, BTW) that bore the stamps "Leopold Stokowski" and "Copyright valid throughout the British Empire." But since it is rude to feed the hand that bites me, I have to admit Maazel was probably the perfect maestro for the job. He was able to step in on a moment's notice and, with almost no rehearsal time, put a very unique personal stamp on those concerts. Even if they weren't everyone's cup of tea, they were certainly interesting performances. The excessively slow tempos gave time to investigate many of the musical nooks and crannies that usually speed by, unnoticed - sort of like getting stuck in a traffic jam on a familiar stretch of roadway; you see the deli, the auto parts store, the little garden you never noticed before. It does get annoying after a while though. The best part of the experience had to be watching the maestro, with no time to stop and deliver an acerbic observation or three, forced to simply keep beating time, making do with scowls alone.

The tour provided an opportunity to see some interesting concert halls - some for the first time, and some old familiar nemeses. Taipei's National Theater, Concert Hall, and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall form an enormous megalithic monument to the Cultural-industrial complex, where the human-as-ant scale of the structures ensures audiences are sufficiently cowed before receiving state-approved cultural enlightenment. The Forbidden City exterior, which gives way to a Dorothy Chandler Pavillion-esque interior was somewhat jarring, but that might have been a product of the jet-lag.

China is fairly mad with new construction these days - skyscrapers, bullet trains, concert halls. We played at a new hall in Shanghai, although the one we played at last time didn't seem that old. Tianjin also had a gleaming new concert palace, which I walked to from the Hotel, about a mile away. The bus was just pulling out of the hotel, making a tortured left turn across four lanes of gridlocked traffic when I set off on foot. The concert hall sits beside what is either a vast frozen pond, or a snow covered plaza, I couldn't tell which in the dark, and so for safety's sake, took the long way round. Still, when I arrived at the hall after about 30 minutes on foot, a slightly concerned stagehand greeted me. "Where's the [darn] bus?!" I was the first orchestra member to arrive. I'm sort of keeping a mental scorecard about the worst concert halls for a musician arriving alone, on foot. Vast, sterile, windswept plazas, with nowhere fort a footsore musician to sit down for a moment's rest don't do much for me.

Of course, the mother of all of these monuments to Big Art has to be Beijing's "Egg." The place has the requisite vast plaza AND a moat. Read here about my experiences trying to break into the "Egg" last time we toured China.

Pressed for time, and to be honest, growing weary of the whole charade, I decided not to try and crack the "Egg" from the outside this time around. However, after the concert, feeling a temporary rush of optimism, a green exit sign beckoned and I made off down a hallway with the intention of finding an exit and walking back to the hotel. There is a story about a conductor getting so hopelessly lost inside the "Egg" during the intermission of an opera, they had to start the next act without him, something the architect should probably receive a commendation for. I hadn't put much credence in that story until after ten minutes of following exit signs down a maze of hallways, I found myself stumbling around in the dark among props backstage at an opera performance in progress. Retracing my steps (by following the exits signs) I arrived backstage at the concert hall in time to board the bus. The "Egg" had beaten me again.

The sightseeing highlight of the tour had to be the brief visit to the Demilitarized Zone, and a look across the Joint Security Area into North Korea. After twenty-odd years in an orchestra, I've developed an unhealthy fascination with hermetically sealed organizations that somehow persist in the face of common sense.

In Memoriam
Joan Hovnanian 1957-2013

While on tour, I received the unfortunate news my older sister had passed away. A talented violinist and pianist, Joan was also responsible for my taking up the double bass. When it came time to choose an instrument, a large white plastic Sousaphone on display at the local band store caught my eye. My parents were aghast and sought to steer me toward something more 'classical'. My big sister took me aside and informed me that if 'bigness' was all that mattered, I could play a much larger version of the violin, making everyone happy.

Joan was something of a musical mentor, and with an infinite amount of patience, my accompanist for many years. She had a difficult, troubled life, and didn't fulfill the potential that seemed so much greater than my own when we were both young. Then again, so-called 'success' and 'failure' each carry their own measure of suffering. I am grateful for the things my sister taught me about music, and for her perceptive, skewering sense of humor, which always helped me endure the unendurable.