Bass Blog

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

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Heart of Darkness

The Rivers Festival came to an end on June 9th, although the onstage activities seemed to take a week off for a Haydn/Martinu/Scriabin program that had nothing to do with rivers, as far as I could tell. Music directors conduct what they want, when they want to, and the rest of the season kind of takes shape around that. However, among other things going on that week, there was some sort of outdoor concert which the MD took part in, and also a bunch of brass players went down the local river in a boat (He got a real pretty mouth ain't he? - insert your favorite quote from deliverance here. I don't think Dueling Banjos arranged for Tuba and Bass Trombone made it onto the program, but who knows, I wasn't there, and since the nice web-page devoted to the festival has disappeared, everything I'm writing is based on very imprecise recollection).
To be honest, I ducked out that week for some much needed relief in order to play a set of concerts with a local period instrument group. While the Rivers Festival brought some new and interesting repertoire to the stage, it also brought its fair share of earsplitting selections as well. Some of the most enjoyable pieces, Bates, Revueltas, were also among hardest on the eardrums. So after several weeks in which I felt as if I might have been playing concerts for the hearing impaired, and/or in danger of joining their ranks myself, it was very nice to do something lower down on both the decibel and pay scales.
Although the performances took place after the scheduled end date of the festival, I did manage to get back on board for what was, I think, the last hurrah of River-themed entertainment, Siegfried's Rhine Journey from Gotterdamerung. It is well and proper to end this sort of festival at the Rhine; the waterway connecting Switzerland and the Netherlands has to be about as sacred to the classical music buff as the Ganges is to the Hindu.
Was the Rivers Festival success? Did it irrigate the parched musical landscape of our city, or did it siphon off precious, limited resources into unnecessary feelgood projects, fueled by focus-group generated corporate doublespeak? From my position onstage, it is impossible to comment on the many things I did not participate in. As mentioned earlier, I appreciated the influx of new or underperformed repertoire. If the various symposia and other events were a boondoggle, I cannot tell. I would greatly appreciate hearing what readers have to say about it.
Festivals may come and go, seasons change, music directors retire or move on, but one unavoidable fact, like death and taxes (depending on the circumstance, more odious than either) is the music of Anton Bruckner. We ended the proceedings last week with his 1st symphony, which I was really dreading until someone pointed out that the designation 'number one', rather than a descriptive title, merely functioned as an ordinal number. As a double bassist, like many of my comrades who play the instrument, I can confess without embarrassment to having thrived by reaping the benefits of lowered expectations. Therefore, when a colleague turned to me during one of the rehearsals and said “this piece isn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be,” I had a visceral sense of understanding. The most interesting thing I took away from the experience was noting the nested symmetry between the one work and the composer's entire output, observing how the great organist's maddening attention to detail, his dogged working through of an idea to its sometimes ridiculous conclusion, had persisted from the very beginning of his career and stayed the course from one symphony to the next, just as within each of the symphonies, that same maniacal persistence carried from one note to the next, one measure to the next, one section to the next, and so on. The ideas common to many, if not all the Bruckner Symphonies, depending on one's viewpoint either brilliant or execrable, seem to have sprung from his head fully formed and taken on the existence of unalterable truths, worthy of endless, worshipful repetition.
The 'downtown' portion of our season ended with a choral collaboration, including the Vivaldi Magnificat and Verdi 4 Sacred Pieces. After a week with a period instrument ensemble, the Vivaldi, although no surprise, came as a real shock to the system, a kind of “OK, you're back in Kansas” moment. The Verdi, on the other hand certainly more apropos, showed the assembled forces to better effect. It was nice to end on a high note. 

1 comment:

sjid said...

This is certain to be an inadequate attempt at thanking you for the Sunday performance of "Four Sacred Pieces." The eminent musicologist-musician Harvey Sachs ( tried to prepare us in his pre-concert lecture, telling us he'd attended all your performances and that they were the greatest he had ever heard (he was referring to all three pieces on the program). He and I are old guys. Not even a lifetime of music prepared us for your playing. The performance left in the dust the usual pat phrases such as "music making at the highest level." A high note? You entered another realm. It was the Garden of Eden compared to Uncle Joe's tomato patch, the northern lights to the dying embers of a campfire, Shakespeare's love sonnets to these words. Ours was the astonishment felt when first laying eyes on the Taj Mahal by one who has known only mud huts. Only you and your colleagues know how such sound sorcery was achieved. I hope the management will do the right thing by releasing it on SACD so that others may get a glimpse of what Prof. Sachs and I are raving about.

The Bruckner first has always struck me as his most radical composition, an exciting youthful risky work before he got into his more polished Romantic-Baroque crossover groove that characterized all the (to me) other inspirations that followed. I think Karajan is the best advocate of the innovative nature of the first symphony.

Stan Collins