Bass Blog

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

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

You're so vain

you probably think this blog is about you

The (poorly taken) photo is from Wall Drug in South Dakota. The sign behind the “Cowboy Orchestra”reads: “Our drugstore musicians ain't heard o' Petrillo. They play just for the thrillo.” (Note how their working conditions were unilaterally changed by management.) This is either a pretty old sign, or an extremely inside joke. I wonder how many folks who look at that know about James Petrillo?

Taken during my sabbatical last year, the photo seems all the more apropos lately since our contract was up for renegotiation this fall. Happily, after a few tense weeks an agreement was reached and everything is all smiles and bonhomie around the concert hall. Contract time is interesting to me mostly for its rhetorical excess – the pleas of poverty from management set against the claims that classical music is a priceless asset, as necessary to human survival as air and water. While the truth most probably lies somewhere in between, I feel that as a musician, albeit a cynical one,  my bet is that the deep pockets are even more unfathomable than the mysterious powers of music. I'm waiting to see the bottom of one, or the top of the other, with no real hope of glimpsing either before my career ends.

It is interesting that (at least at times other than during contract negotiations) management occasionally buys into what I think of as the myth of 'The Transformational Power of Music', which I would describe as the belief that some needy individuals, whether deprived of freedom, opportunity, or even the material necessities of life, might be changed profoundly through exposure to a concert of classical music. Then, of course, the coffers open and the funding flows freely toward such a glamorous and an ennobling end. Certainly not the only instances, but among the more notable examples of an institution getting caught up in that idea are the two tours we've taken to Russia. I think both trips were undertaken, at least in part, as some sort of effort to spread the message of freedom through music.  Although, during our first visit the U.S.S.R. was sounding its death rattle, I'm not convinced our performances had anything to do with its ultimate demise. Furthermore, trotting out an orchestra at some freedom-themed event always gives me a bit of a chuckle. If anything, the orchestra resembles, at best, a dictatorship in miniature (if occasionally even a benign one), and at worst, a dystopian, bureaucratic nightmare. I wonder how many strongmen or plutocrats who attend these concerts secretly lean back in their chairs with a feeling of self-satisfaction, seeing in the orchestra more affirmation than threat. Meanwhile the common citizen, for whom the music might offer solace, a balm against suffering, or even stir the heart to action, is nowhere to be seen, unable to afford a ticket.

When the Berlin Wall fell, with the obligatory triumphalist Beethoven's Ninth staged in the rubble, the cynic in me grumbled that if music really had such a transformational power, why didn't somebody put the orchestra there before the collapse, perhaps bringing it about years earlier? As a performer, it can be frustrating when the tail wags the dog, when symbolism Trumps the music, because musicians know that music really does have a transformational power. The little boy who, upon hearing the Schubert C major Symphony, threw down his crutches and walked, or the dictator who listened to the Missa Solemnis, wept and opened the doors to his prisons – I suppose these sorts of things might actually happen, but with such a vanishingly small probability that belief in them is essentially hokum, like trying to start a campfire by assembling the kindling then waiting for lightning to strike it. The transformational power of music is no myth, but I think it works in more subtle, certainly less direct ways. The showy, symbolic gestures our leaders sometimes fall in love with are wonderful, sometimes expensive, spectacles, which I grudgingly admit also have their place and their function. But music is most powerful as an element of culture when it becomes a part of people's day-today existence. I would go so far to say that music has more power when it is ordinary than when it is extraordinary. And, of course, the orchestra was there long before the Wall came down. The Berlin Philharmonic made its home for many years within a stone's throw of it. The many concerts given there, and the vibrancy of cultural life in the west had more power than any one-off concert could achieve, however glamorous. The real triumph was in the 'mundane' task of supporting a world class ensemble in a difficult environment – paying a wage that would attract the finest players, and making certain musicians would have the wherewithal to provide for the health and welfare of their families. Nothing particularly glamorous or mythical about that.