Bass Blog

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

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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.


Jacque said...

Internets, U R Doing it Wrong: "waiting for three people to ask in person"

Great to see something new on your blog, thank you for posting!!

JBB said...

I'm sorry for your loss.

But I'm happy you're posting - if I had known you wanted requests, I would have written months ago. As it is, I've been checking for updates daily since August!

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thanks. I was being mostly facetious...In truth, I needed a break. Also, I had a leave of absence back in the fall, so there was nothing to write anyway.

Chmosss said...

Sad to hear your loss, but happy to see you back posting.

Michael Hovnanian said...

Thank you .

Chantal said...

I'm so sorry about your sister. I'm glad she steered you towards the bass, and was such a positive influence on you! Glad to see you writing again as well.

Best wishes,

wjmego said...

Very happy to see you posting again!

sjid said...

Mirabile dictu! The Bass Blog is back. Nowhere else to experience so much about experiences of an orchestral musician. And oh, those titillating tales of troublesome time beaters (TTTTT). Thanks for your eloquence and insight, Michael.

My condolences to you and your family.

Andrew said...

Thanks for posting again. I too have been checking back in hopes of seeing a new post.

How is Alex Hanna getting along with his new secitonmates?

Michael Hovnanian said...

We're not the easiest bunch to get along with, be he seems to be doing fine.

KCar said...

If I'd known you needed to be asked in person about the blog, I'd've flown to Chicago and done so. Welcome back!

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed reading this blog Michael.

I couldn't seem to figure out how to get your email so I thought I'd comment instead...I'd like you to listen to a new piece for Double Bass!

Please encourages a type of applied performance that a lot of the repertoire lacks! It's gone done a storm around Bristol in the UK, and needs to be shared. Let me know what you think.


David said...

What a great description of Maazel as Hannibal Lecter. I had tears running down my cheeks from laughter. So incredibly insightful.

Michael Hovnanian said...

After that post, I don't think I'll be having dinner with Maestro anytime soon.

nocynic said...

Maazel seems to have played this works a few too many times. Bored to tears by the overly familiar music, he needs to come up with distortions and mannerisms to keep himself interested. This week at the XSO, we had a young man named Sokhiev, who lacks the excuse of age but still felt the need to turn Tchaik Four into his own little analysis session. It makes me have even increased admiration for Bernard Haitink, if that is possible. He can return to a beloved familiar work for perhaps the hundredth time and not be jaded in the least. He still approaches it with respect and wonder, and is perfectly happy to let it stand on its own merits.

Bill said...

I'm glad I stumbled by. I had assumed that you were swallowed up a horn player run amok. I too am sorry for your loss. Reading your blog reminds me that every endeavor has its "backstage" happenings. It makes me appreciate what comes out of my speakers that much more.

TG said...

i am sorry to hear about joan. i knew her in the early 1980s at college, and enjoyed her company very much.