Bass Blog

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

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Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Probably of Interest to Bassists Only

(the first draft of this post had some unfortunate typos in the examples, hopefully corrected now)

Mozart, Don Giovanni Overture and Symphony no. 40 provided opportunities to trot out a few crusty old fingerings and, thanks to some slow-ish tempos, roll out a few things that had been on the drawing board for years but never battle tested.

Following a somber presage of the Don's ultimate fate, the hastily composed overture (apparently penned after a Kavanaugh-esque night of drinking on the eve of the premiere) moves along at sprightly clip, Allegro Molto it says in the part. Low strings and bassoons join the action with the following passage.

Unlike a lot of things, this is actually quite pleasant to play on the double bass, with open 'A' and 'D' strings to call upon. When the passage returns, a fifth higher, not so much. The problem is really the 'c-sharp' to 'e-natural' – it's either across 3 strings, or a shift (the interval of a sixth is a long way on an instrument tuned in fourths). I came up with the following solution back in college.

'N' stands for thumbnail, or end of the thumb, a nifty way to play fourths. Another way to deal with fourths is to finger them 3-2, which leads to a handy way to take on chords in the first inversion, which you can see in the 5th and 6th bars of the excerpt.

I like this solution so much, I actually used it the first instance of this passage. 

Mozart 40 is one of those pieces that ends up on almost every double bass audition. Over the years, I've come across countless ways to finger the passages in the last movement. At m.49, I use what was once upon a time an innovative approach, but now I think is fairly standard. The little wrinkle at the 5th measure was one of those things I had been working on for a while but never had a chance to try. Beyond flashiness for its own sake, I thought it might be nice to handle the 1st and 5th measures with the same string crossings while avoiding an ungodly open 'G' string. My stand partner gave me a bit of side-eye during this passage, but I'm choosing to take that as a sign of approval. Also, lastly, the traditional 'on one string' approach to this measure looks kind of embarrassing to me when you see a whole section doing it together. Nothing more to say about that.  

Initially, I thought I needed to arrive at the 5th measure like this.

Eventually I found that I didn't need to 'prepare' the thumb position and settled on what is shown in the full example.

Either the tempo was a bit slower by the time we reached m.229, or else I was finally warming up. Anyhow, I felt confident enough to try out the following.

The first measure is a variant I've used off and on (instead of using a fingering similar to m.49). I've added some brackets to show the 'positions' and hopefully make it look slightly less insane. Playing across the strings at mm.3 and 5 was a concerted effort to try and find a way to play these passages more leggero, which is often a thankless, losing battle. Finally, the odd looking half-step, fingered 3-1 (mm.5-6), is for relaxation of the hand, and also to create a larger interval, with the 'F-sharp' sounding (to my ear at least) better on the low side.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The 5,436 Overture

European thought, art, and culture is imported by Americans, who consume it like candy.  So it’s not entirely strange that a piece of music about the victory of a Russian Tsar over a French Emperor would become an American summer staple. The 1812 Overture  possesses many of the elements essential to American blockbuster style entertainment: bombast, triumphalism, religiosity, militarism, shallow spectacle, with a dollop weaponry thrown in.  Beethoven had his chance to dominate the 4th of July circuit but muffed it with Wellington’s Victory.  It is debatable whether we in the USA should be cheering on a Russian victory, either in 1812 or today. Ideologically, I’m not sure who was the good guy in that conflict.  But for the casual listener, I’m sure the piece is merely something vaguely rousing and patriotic, a musical tableau from around the time Canadians burned down our White House, or something. (Many of us would surely like invite them back to repeat the deed, forthwith!)

A trauma during my formative years as a musician left me incapable of appreciating Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. One of the first things I ever played with a local Youth Symphony was the 1812. A bit about Tchaikovsky’s writing for the double bass can be found here.  For now, it is sufficient to say that in Tchaikovsky, the bass isn’t fully a member of the string family, but gets palmed off on the low brass, as if they needed the help.  At a ‘string sectional’ on the piece, we got to the final page and rehearsed the section, right after the cannon shots, where the strings play those wonderful, swirling passages, tremolando. Of course, the basses don’t play that.  We play the chorale with the winds and brass. So I, along with another unlucky, sallow-faced and unprepared pre-teen bassist, had to squeak and sqawk through the chorale alone, horribly off key, and putrid of tone, while 40 of our comrades snickered.  I’ve found it impossible to enjoy the piece since that day.

The summer season devoted a lot of time to the music of Leonard Bernstein, culminating in two highly successful performances of his Mass - all the more satisfying since I was off both nights.  However, in addition to all of the Americana, there was a suspicious, perhaps even meddlesome, amount of Russian music programmed as well, as if somebody felt the need, musically, to say there are good people on both sides.  Most memorable was a weekend Maria Butina and Wayne LaPierre could only have dreamed about - two Tchaikovsky Spectaculars, back to back, with each night capped off (pun intended!) by the 1812 Overture.  The fusiliers seemed hellbent on using up the their entire supply of gunpowder, each shot louder than the one before, until the final blast at the second performance had me extracting a deeply impacted earplug with a pair of tweezers after the concert.

There is a body of circumstantial evidence of collusion between summer and ‘downtown’ programming.  Year after year, some of the same pieces tend crop up a season later in one place or the other.  This year, suspiciously, the first set of subscription concerts is another all Russian affair.  Also, the annual free “Concert for {redacted}” this week culminates in, yes, the 1812 Overture.  Enough to give any conspiracy theorist reason to persist for yet another season. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Stoppage Time

Billing the concerts last week as the Season Finale suggested we might be entering the realm of Alternate Facts, since many knew the ensemble was scheduled to return for four more performances. The season would really end with the orchestra accompanying a week-long run of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, yet another of the film night performances sneaking across the boarder between classical and popular music to infest our schedule. Cherubini, Chant sur la mort du Joseph Haydn was an interesting choice in this era of Fake News; the work was composed in reaction to a (failing?) London publication's erroneous report that the revered composer had died. Having survived in spite of Cherubini's request that all copies be destroyed once he learned the error upon which it was based, the star-crossed composition was given an interesting performance here on Saturday evening. About seven measures into the quiet introduction, in response to an inadvertent noise from the stage, the Maestro stopped the performance, turned and excoriated the audience for the disruption. Breaking the fourth wall is often an invitation for the least inhibited among us to open up their own particular jar of crazy, and so, true to form, in the uncomfortable silence following the Maestro's remarks somebody yelled out something, a few people clapped, a few more tittered, none of which did anything but make the atmosphere more tense. With all hope of quickly putting a minor disturbance behind us gone, we started again from the beginning.

There were many theories put forth by musicians to try and explain what had happened. Perhaps the Maestro reacted to some audience members' spontaneous expressions of surprise over the onstage noise, which also had a visual component. Maybe the quick assignation of blame to the audience was a show of solidarity with musicians. The only constant was the poor reporting in the press, beginning of course with the premature pronouncement of Haydn's death, and continuing with both local papers writing up the incident as a concert halted due to 'coughing', a misrepresentation parroted by one of the more popular classical music blogs.

Humans, on either side of the proscenium, occasionally make unintended noises. With training and concentrated focus on the task at hand, most musicians are able to block out whatever the audience is doing, even when it is startling, like someone talking loudly, falling ill, or even a fistfight breaking out in the box seats (the so-called Brawl at the Hall). Unexpected surprises from the stage can be harder to ignore, since (ostensibly) we are paying close attention to each other. Where force of concentration is insufficient, the professional code of conduct keeps most musicians focused on their own tasks when faced with anything from a broken string or dropped mute to someone vomiting onstage (yes, that happened). Lacking the training, not bound by a professional code of conduct, and probably not concentrating as deeply, audience members can be forgiven for spontaneous reactions to something startling or unusual.

Coughs, on the other hand, are often symptoms of a bored or uninvolved audience. A disinterested group of people tends to cough and fidget more. Sometimes the very same audience that coughed a lot during one part of a performance will become riveted later on, and much more quiet. Concerts with superstar performers tend to draw audiences that contain more people who are not really there to hear the music, so these crowds often contain more people who are disengaged from the performance, inattentive, and noisy. But, no matter who is performing, audience behavior is a reflection on what is happening on stage. Becoming irritated with an audience is like yelling at the wind. Asking people not to cough is like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant and then getting upset when they do.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Tongue Tied

When I asked an acquaintance why he was having so much trouble committing to acquiring a new cat, even though it was something he repeatedly expressed a strong desire to do, he replied that, as a man ‘of a certain age’, he fully expected that, even if it didn’t outlive him, his next cat would be his last.  In that frame of mind, he certainly didn’t want to rush into such an important decision and eventually ended up agonizing over it for more than a year.  When our music director’s contract was extended until 2022, as a musician ‘of a certain age’, I realized that either he or his replacement would be my last.  Fortunately for me, as a rank and file player, I won’t have a lot of agonizing to do, but the decision isn’t entirely without consequences. And the arrival of a new maestro is an interesting time to be in an orchestra - sort of a chance for the dispassionate observer to play Jane Goodall minus a trek through the jungle - certainly an experience to savor one last time.

Esa-Pekka Salonen came to town a few weeks ago, conducting some heavyweight repertoire - Mahler 9 and Verklärte Nacht were the mainstays - which might indicate somebody in the organization has their eye on him as music director material.  I like Salonen for the post, both as a conductor and composer, but also for a more insidious reason.  As the arrival of the current music director prompted a number musicians to take up the study of Italian, I wonder if a new era might see a similar interest in the Finnish language emerge. Unfortunately, the US State Department Foreign Service Institute lists Finnish among the group of languages most difficult for English speakers to learn. According to the FSI, in order to become conversant, a student of Finnish might expect to put in about 44 weeks, or 1100 hours of study. I think it would be very interesting to see if any of my colleagues would take up the challenge. Coincidentally, since Finnish is related to Hungarian, and both are from outside of the Indo-European family, there is a certain pleasing symmetry to the idea I might end my career just as it began, under the baton of a maestro speaking one of the Uralic languages.

The Bass Blog now has a Facebook page.  Nothing much to see there at the moment, but hopefully that will change in time.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Red, White and Blue Orchestra (part two)

You see, teamwork will only take you so far. Then the truly evolved person makes that extra grab for personal glory.
Montgomery Burns – The Simpsons, season 7, episode 12: Team Homer (aka the Pin Pals episode)

What makes an orchestra an orchestra? One essential component seems to be that to qualify as such, an orchestra must have more than one type of instrument; another requirement is that it have groups of like instruments playing the same part. Some more concise definitions require that bowed strings make up the grouped instruments sharing parts. Perhaps that is why the designations 'string orchestra' versus 'band' or (if they are trying to fancify it) 'wind ensemble' are used to describe groups made up entirely of strings or winds, respectively. Or maybe the right to the designation acknowledges that the orchestra began as a group of stringed instruments, and it is this core group which continues to give the ensemble its identity. Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, from the time of Louis XIII was, as the name suggests, a group of instruments from viol family with multiple players sharing each of five separate parts. It is this ensemble which is regarded by many as the prototype for the modern orchestra. The members of this fabulous group had the perk of being allowed to carry swords and they held secure positions that were hereditary or could be sold. (Anyone who decries the supposedly coddled state of orchestral musicians as yet another symptom of decay in the modern era should look back about 500 years and reconsider.) The 24 strings, who were better at using their 'indoor voices', were occasionally augmented with wind instruments, customarily used for outdoor performances, playing one to a part and, to quote King Louis, voila!

All musicians of the orchestra collaborate to bring off a performance. True, there are instances of nonconformity, ranging from recalcitrance all the way to willful sabotage (Please, don't ask me to write about that.), but the ethos is overwhelmingly one of cooperation. With between eight and sixteen players sharing a part, the string sections require a different degree of cooperative effort than the winds, brass, and percussion, where each individual bears responsibility for his or her own line. I once participated in a conversation during which a member of a wind section made a disparaging remark about how it seemed that before every performance the stagehands would come and take one or more chairs out of the string sections (meaning a player would be absent – this is something for audience members to lookout for during the warm-ups, by the way), while players at the back (winds, brass, percussion), having more of a sense of responsibility and pride in their jobs, were seldom if ever absent. True enough, but another pair of anecdotes might show this in a different light. Once, with the music director on the podium, we were playing a piece with a major solo part for one of the string principals who became seriously ill mid-week, after one or two performances, if I recall. The newly hired assistant took over on very short notice and performed more than admirably. Another time, a principal of a wind section made the entirely understandable and forgivable error of mixing up a matinee and an evening performance in the schedule. First the concert order was reshuffled, and then the rest of the performance was ultimately delayed by about one hour, awaiting the arrival of the essential yet tardy musician. As the show must go on, in this case I say score one for the strength and flexibility of the collective! It is true that during a performance an audience member might observe a string player dropping out momentarily in order to turn a page, put on a mute, scratch an itch, or whatever, without a significantly noticeable result. But this only underscores the strength of these sections and the adaptability of the players. Like the internet, which can endure catastrophic local failure due to a design where no single node is essential to the survival of the whole, the string sections of an orchestra are strong and flexible because of their built-in redundancy and the players are attuned to working collectively and adjusting to whatever minor variations might occur. This strength emanates from willing self-sacrifice, along with the attendant sublimation of ego, which is the price paid by string players to distribute their responsibility widely among themselves. The countless minor adjustments and compromises that go into playing in a string section are largely unremarked upon in rehearsal and are more or less taken for granted during the applause.

Returning to the post performance acknowledgments, the trend of having more and more individuals, sections, sets and subsets of groups within the orchestra rise for special recognition during the applause seems to be gaining momentum. This trend has also affected other art-forms as well. A New York Times article from a few years back noted the increasing length of film credits, where anyone who so much as brought coffee and donuts to the director now gets a mention. In the concert hall every conductor is now on the lookout for opportunities to distinguish an individual player from the larger group. This is troubling, and not merely as an expression of sour grapes from a string player, but arises from a general uneasiness with the fact that the orchestra, already imagined by many in the public as an autocratic, elitist organization, does little to counteract those negative perceptions by spotlighting individual accomplishment over collaborative effort.

There is a brief section in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus which I cannot recall exactly or find again when I thumb impatiently through the book, so it is possible I'm making it up out of whole cloth, but the passage I have in mind is a description of the way Renaissance composers embedded a bit Christian symbolism into their compositions by writing crossed voices in the polyphony to invoke the image of the Holy Cross. These secret symbols communicated to those who could read the score but were not readily discernible to those who merely heard the music. With that passage, whether it really exists or not, in the back of my mind, my thoughts crystallized when I found myself in the music library looking through the score of the Bruckner 9th Symphony in search of a minor discrepancy. What drove me to the library is not now important, probably on the same level as observing that the gargoyle on one side of a Gothic cathedral has six teeth, then traipsing a hundred meters or so in order to discover that its counterpart on the opposite side has but five. Nevertheless, the inconsequential yet nagging question had me seeking out the score in search of an answer. As it was an election year here in the US, I had also been pouring over dozens of electoral maps at the time. Anyone who has done so will have noted the great spatial disparity; vast swaths of sparsely populated territory are held by the Republican (conservative) party while the Democrats (liberals) are clustered in densely populated urban centers. Turning to the Trio section of the second movement, where I knew I would find the answer to my query, the great expanse of empty staves struck me as instantly familiar. What appeared to be a mostly empty page of manuscript actually represented a majority of the players playing! Is it possible that conductors, who (allegedly) spend hour upon hour studying scores, rather than holding animus for the string sections, are responding to this spatial under-representation on the printed page when it comes to post performance acknowledgment?

(click to embiggen)
Left: Bruckner 9th symphony, Trio. Two thirds of the orchestra (strings) playing, one third resting. 
Right: 2016 presidential election results. Decisive victory for the Democratic (Blue) candidate (+~900,000 votes).
N.B. Use of the state of Illinois is for illustration purposes only. No information about the location of a Large Midwestern City is intended or implied.

Could it simply be that conductors, seeing an image of a grand orchestral score in their mind's eye, convert the disparity on the page into an unequal lavishing of attention? Some conductors certainly appear to follow the formula that everyone who gets a line in the score gets a bow. Obviously, this does not completely explain the treatment of the string sections, who get 4 or 5 lines yet almost always rise as a group. It is possible that with the strings clustered at the bottom of the score, coming last in the order, and with patience and applause thinning out, the maestro is merely wrapping things up in a kind of yada yada yada. Or perhaps the strings have gone the way of a vestigial organ, or the reptilian brain, once upon a time vital to the organism, maybe its defining characteristic even, but now layered over with the fruits of more recent evolution and progress.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Red, White and Blue Orchestra (part one)

This post was getting way too long, so I split it in two.

Years ago, after a concert, a stranger approached without invitation and began to unburden himself. The scenario becomes slightly less odd when I add that I was carrying my double bass at the time. As many who play the instrument know, trundling about with such a conspicuous load makes one a slow-moving, easy target, captive to all manner of unwanted attention. The reason for the fellow's need to share his thoughts became apparent soon enough when he noted that as a lapsed Catholic and infrequent concert-goer, attending his first performance after a lengthy absence had evoked unpleasant memories from his childhood. More than anything, he said, the hushed reverence of the concert hall, the men in funny costume, all of the sitting down and standing up, reminded him of the Latin Masses he had endured as a child. Even though the language of music seemed as unfathomable and profound as Latin had been to his youthful mind, he found both piercingly beautiful, literally the voice of the divine, to his way of thinking. What annoyed him about both the concert and the Mass were the ways which both mediated that voice through unnecessary, worldly pageantry and stiff formality that spoke more to human pettiness and egotism than to the otherworldly. Unfortunately, much of what he related is lost to me, for, at the time, even in my as yet underdeveloped penchant for fleeing the scene of a concert with utmost alacrity, I impatiently discounted his remarks as the unfortunate coincidence of a traumatic religious upbringing with poor social skills. Yet this gentleman, who I served poorly at the time with my indifference, is probably in some way responsible for my often wondering about the format of the orchestra concert, its stagecraft (such as it is) and what meaning or message is conveyed to the audience by the non musical portions of a performance.

Due to its variability, the end of an orchestral performance provides more fodder for speculation than the beginning to those who wish to view the concert as psychodrama or read it as some kind of political allegory. At the conclusion of most theater productions, even after dropping character, the players take their bows in a choreographed, rehearsed sequence, perhaps moving from the minor roles to the leading parts, culminating with a final joining of hands by the entire cast. By contrast, the end of an orchestral performance is, by design, an impromptu affair, with only the broad outline of what is to occur known by the musicians in advance. The maestro will take any number of curtain calls, at certain points asking the entire ensemble to stand. Depending on the repertoire, individuals, soloists or sections, will be asked to rise in turn, either remaining on their feet, or sitting to make way for others. Who will be acknowledged, and in what order, is not revealed in advance. Lack of planning is usually not much of a problem, or results in only minor hiccups, but occasionally produces a shambolic or comedic effect. Sometimes at the motion to stand, two players will rise, or none at all, with several people looking over their shoulders, returning 'who, me?' looks to the imploring maestro. How ironic for the audience to observe that the conductor who supposedly possessed the ability to draw the most exquisite and subtle nuances from the orchestra by the slightest gesture of hand during the performance, has now become unable to distinguish between two players sitting a yard or so apart by pointing with that same hand during the applause. With the hand having lost its supernatural abilities, the maestro may next resort to miming the instruments or calling on the players to lip read. An interesting aside is that, during more than thirty years playing in orchestras, beyond some very general instructions (try to smile, look at the audience, don't clean your instrument!) I have never witnessed, or even heard about, discussion of what would take place during the applause.

Through its spontaneity, the post concert ritual opens a window into the inner workings of the maestro. Just as Kremlinologists once studied photos from the Red Square Mayday Parade in order to deduce a deeper meaning from the position of dignitaries atop Lenin's tomb relative to the General Secretary, the concertgoer can sometimes 'read between the lines' during the applause by noting who gets acknowledged, and in what order. For instance, after a recent performance, the trombone section was given a bow, but none of the vocal soloists. What was the meaning in that? A nod to the military industrial complex? A warning to the intelligentsia? Who knows. Every conductor has a unique way of handling the post performance acknowledgments. Certain of them appear to have a set routine for each piece that they follow with little variation – Brahms 1st symphony might be 1) concertmaster 2) horn 3) oboe, etc., for example – while others appear to react in the moment. A poor performance, inattentiveness, or something that occurred during the rehearsals might move a player down in the order, or off it altogether. Some are generally stingy about rewarding individuals, and others search out any player who might have had the slightest contribution to the performance for recognition. Of course, none of the preceding applies to the string sections except in the rarest of situations. Their treatment is systematic, and will be covered in the next post.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A real page-turner

Francesca da Rimini was on the menu last week. Tchaikovsky's infernal tone poem ranks low on my list of favorites, not only for its predictable harmonies and ear-crushing orchestration, but also because the edition we play from, the only imprint of the piece I've ever seen, is particularly bad. The editor's mistake of combining the cello and bass parts essentially doubles the number of pages, since the two sections play separate parts far more often than not, resulting in one bad page turn after another. The brisk tempo of the Allegro Vivo sections insures that a player barely has time to recover from one page turn before the next arrives. So scarring has been the experience that for me, The Divine Comedy evokes not the work of Dante, but describes the act of sitting on a double bass stool, having to get up to turn another page every thirty six measures, all while wearing a tailcoat. 

In music, the 19th century is mostly notable for the double bass virtuosi Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini. Yet even with those formidable bassists standing astride the era like a pair of musical colossi, the century must be viewed as a period of failed promise and unrealized potential for their instrument. Yet it began with so much optimism. The late symphonies of Beethoven assigned increasingly important roles to the bass line, culminating with a truly independent contrabass voice in the Ode to Joy of the 9th symphony. The decoupling of the cello and bass parts in early romantic music was initially greeted as hopeful sign that the double bass might be on the verge of assuming a more important, independent role in the orchestra. However, that brief period of optimism soon gave way to Weltschmerz as composers such as Richard Wagner took the recently emancipated double bass and immediately conscripted it into a new kind of servitude, shackling the instrument to the low brass section. By the latter half of the century, Francesca da Rimini, along with many similarly orchestrated pieces, represents a kind of nadir for the double bass in the orchestra.

Unlike the eternally suffering lovers, Paolo and Francesca, the cello and bass parts of Francesca da Rimini cry out to be torn asunder. From the baroque era through the symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert, a combined part for cellos and basses makes sense as the instruments play the same part far more often than not. Beyond the middle of the nineteenth century, depending on the composer, a separate double bass part becomes the norm. Simply as a practical matter, once the cello and bass lines diverge beyond a certain point, having two separate parts notated on individual staves becomes more of a liability than an asset when layout and pagination are considered, which makes the editorial decision to combine the cello and bass parts of Francesca da Rimini so unfortunate. There is also the ulterior motive that, beside the fact bassists don't need to see the cello part in order to keep their place, a certain amount of shame attends having our colleagues see how little we are doing behind them.

click to embiggen

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Party Like It's 1893

In years past, announcement of the schedule of concerts for a new season has sometimes been cause for great anticipation and optimism, while at other times it has provided motivation for me to double check the status of my retirement portfolio. This year, I decided to take a more dispassionate, data-centered approach to news of the 2018-2019 season1 by making a list of every work scheduled to be performed, including the year of composition, duration, number of performances, as well as a few details about the composer, and then seeing what the data had to say about it.

I made a few choices about what not to include. Tour repertoire tends to be even more repetitive than the season as a whole and, if I had to guess, is also more conservative. Since tour programs don't represent what we offer our hometown audience, I felt justified in leaving those programs out of the data set. I also omitted the so-called Film Nights, although they occupy two full weeks of next season, plus a number of performances interpolated into otherwise 'normal' weeks. I just don't feel those qualify as concerts, and I certainly didn't feel like counting Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the like, as 20th or 21st century music, so those didn't make the list. Besides those choices, anything offered as part of a subscription concert (minus the Star Spangled Banner) was included, as were the free outdoor concert and the Symphony Ball. Repertoire from concerts billed as Members of the {redacted}SO or from educational programs was not included. 

I used timings provided in our season schedule, which, I believe, are based on past performances. Actual performance times can vary wildly, depending who is on the podium. (We recently completed performances of a work listed in our schedule at 51 minutes that came in at about 65 minutes every night.) For new works, and others for which no timing was given, I made estimates based on a total concert time of 120 minutes. Seemingly reliable dates of composition were readily available online for most pieces. Where there was some question about the completion date, I tried to defer to the last year a piece had been worked on. In the case of arrangements, such as the Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet, the Ives arrangements by Schuman and Adams, I chose the date of the arrangement. I freely admit to a couple of guesstimates. Vivaldi Piccolo concerto? 1729 sounds good to me.

The list I compiled came to 325 performances of 104 pieces by 57 different composers, all in all, about 157 hours of music.

Here are a few fun facts about the upcoming season.

Party Like It's 1893
Confirming my suspicion that we are somewhat behind the times, the median year of composition for pieces scheduled to be performed next season turned out to be 1893. President Cleveland is welcome in the auditorium any time. I have no idea how this compares to past seasons, but my feeling is that, as orchestral time runs slower than normal time, we are gradually falling further and further behind. I'm still hoping that, before I retire sometime in the 21st century, we abandon our 18th century dress code, to mention one thing.

Better off dead?
Of the 57 composers, 62 were alive at the time of this writing, their pieces receiving 18 of the 325 performances. About 4 of the 157 hours of music scheduled for next season was written by someone who still has a pulse. I'm praying for all of their continued good health.

The winners are
Mozart - 32 performances of 10 different pieces.
Brahms - 20 performances of 6 different pieces.

One hit wonders
(composers with only one performance)
Johann Strauss Jr
Josef Strauss
Yes, that last one is a real shocker. The first two, not so much.

Year of the Woman? Think again.
Performances of works by female composers, 0.
Alex Ross had a nice comment on this.
One index of backward thinking is a lack of female composers. If an orchestra is programming few female composers, it is almost certainly playing little new music, since any serious consideration of the music of our time would have to include a large number of women.

Composer(s) of color
William Grant Still

Mind the Gaps
Repertoire spans the period 1729 – 2019. The longest gap between pieces is 32 years (1741-1773), separating the Handel Messiah and Mozart symphony 25, more or less a concession that the orchestra rarely dips its toe into the Baroque or early classical eras anymore. From 1773 and 1969 there is never a gap of more than 10 years between pieces, although the interval between the Chopin Piano concerto (1830) and Wagner Rienzi (1840) is just that. As expected, most of the action happens around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Although the current decade is represented by three new works, the lack of music from the recent past comes as more of a disappointment than a surprise. Lately, I'm wondering how much of music appreciation involves nostalgia. Since there needs to be a certain passage of time before nostalgia takes hold, the recent past is relatively unattractive in a nostalgic sense. One would hate to think of music programmers as being enamored of the latest shiny bauble, like the spoiled child who, upon receiving a new toy at every occasion, quickly loses interest in the previous acquisitions and shoves them into a closet to molder, forgotten.

The gaps in programming became more obvious when I grouped the repertoire by decade. (y-axis is number of performances)

There is a twenty year gap between the Schuman 9th Symphony (1969) and the Adams arrangement of Ives At the River (1989), and then another twenty years to Daugherty's Letters to Mrs Bixby (2009). Nothing from the 1970s, or 1990s, and virtually nothing from the '80s or the '00s. In fact, since the Adams/Ives is an arrangement by one composer of an earlier arrangement by another, one could make the argument that the real gap is an astonishing 40 years, 1969 – 2009. To pile on with the bleak news, Adams/Ives, Daugherty, as well as Corigliano's One sweet Morning, are all short vocal pieces, meaning that all of the repertoire from 1970 – 2016 totals about 15 minutes of music.

We recently premiered a commissioned work, a fine piece by my colleague Max Raimi. In spite of a good reception from the public, musicians, and, crucially, the Music Director, one wonders if the piece will suffer the same fate as so many of our commissions and world premiers and never be heard in our hall again. Perhaps, as part of the commission process, the orchestra could commit to more than one performance, maybe 3 over 5 years, or some similar arrangement. (Certainly, in case the submitted work was truly execrable, some sort of veto process could be included.) As so many of our much-ballyhooed commissioned or premiered works receive one performance before disappearing without a trace, I often find myself imagining a group of laborers on lunch break in a Belfast shipyard, circa 1913. Remember that ship we launched last year? What was is called? Titanic, or something, name escapes me. Wonder what became of that? Shrugging, they turn back to building the next boat.

1 the 'downtown' season, concerts at {redacted} between September 20, 2018 and June 29, 2019
2 includes John Adams, arranger of Ives, At the River

Friday, March 23, 2018

Raising the dead


A few years ago I embarked on a project to record a set of six Sonatas by Benedetto Marcello. A small but very unfortunate accident was a major factor in my never completing the set. The hard drive with six as yet unreleased movements crashed – actually fell off the dolly with all my equipment and shattered on a cement floor – taking with it the final two movements of Sonata IV and all of Sonata V. After such a setback, it was difficult metaphorically as well as literally to pick up the pieces and go on. Also, the recording process, where I would load both of my instruments and all my recording gear into a car and drive to an undisclosed location, usually in the middle of the night, to make the recordings, had become increasingly burdensome, so I went on to other things.

Quite some time ago now, someone informed me the links to the audio files no longer worked, and, indeed, when I checked, the file hosting service I had been using was long ago defunct. I was content to leave it at that until recently someone else accused me of deception or trickery, implying that the disappearance of the audio content had somehow been arranged on purpose, as away to hide my shame. In defense of my honor and, paradoxically, at the risk of losing it again quickly by re-exposing these recordings to public scrutiny, I feel I have no choice but to make them available.

It is natural to occasionally entertain doubts about one's path in life, specifically as related to one's choice of profession. From my perspective, near the top of the list of occupational hazards, right below being forced to look at photographs of myself, would be listening to recordings of my playing, which has made this endeavor particularly difficult.

Below are links to all of the relevant posts, with links to audio files (hopefully) intact.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

4 + 4 = 7

Some weeks the best strategy is to close one's eyes and to think, if not of England, at least about double bass fingerings.

On background, and for those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the instrument, apart from its size, the most distinctive difference between the double bass and the other stringed instruments of the orchestra is that, where the violin, viola, and cello tune in fifths, their larger relative tunes in fourths. This seemingly picayune difference actually represents a broad chasm, for although both are classified as 'perfect' intervals, fourths are actually a bit less pure than their 'goody-two-shoes' inversion, the fifth, which can almost do no wrong, harmonically speaking. On the other hand, the so-called 'perfect' fourth, with its checkered past, is actually considered dissonant in some cases. Imagine the dilemma suffered by bassists as they awake each morning wondering whether or not their strings are tuned consonantly or dissonantly! There are a number of reasons that the tuning in fourths became standard for the double bass. Certainly the longer string length made keeping the open strings closer together in pitch an attractive option. The smaller interval between strings makes for less shifting in step-wise passages; unfortunately, in this scheme larger intervals become farther apart. Tradition, or ancestry, might have played an even more important role, as the double bass inherited the tuning, along with some of its physical characteristics, from its forefathers in the Viol family. In fact, the modern double bass owes so much to its ancestors, the gentle, largely forgotten Viols, that while the violin, viola, and cello might truly be considered siblings, the double bass is, at best, a distant cousin. Now that modern science has revealed the persistence of Neanderthal DNA in modern humans, it is interesting to surreptitiously glance at passers-by in search of echoes from our prehistoric past. Prominent brow? Weak chin? Elongated skull? Concert goers might avail themselves of a similar opportunity and glance over at the double basses, making note of the sloped shoulders, flat backs (I'm referring to the instruments here, not the players.), smooth C bouts, and so on, relics from a bygone era, eking out an existence on the fringes of the modern orchestra.

Discussion of Double Bass technique and pedagogy can have all the fun and fascination of comparing the hairstyles of Byzantine emperors. So, for the purpose at hand here, it is probably sufficient to note that most modern-day bassists in the orchestra use a technique where (in the first octave on each string) a 'hand position' spans two semi-tones, in other words, a whole-step. This span, taken across two strings, equals a perfect fifth, across three, an octave.

Intervals larger than a whole-step require a shift, string crossing, or some sort of 'extended' technique. Incidentally, and perhaps counter-intuitively, in my experience one of the most problematic intervals to deal with is the perfect forth. To play this interval, like all those larger than a whole-step, requires a shift, string crossing, or some sort of creative solution, with problems arising from the fact that, as the two notes lie directly across the string from each other, they must be barred (played with the same finger stopping two strings), or the hand angled so that a different finger may be used for each note, or the same finger can 'jump' across the strings (at the cost of legato phrasing), or else a string crossing and a shift can be used in conjunction. Stack two perfect fourths one atop the other and you get a minor seventh. (Yes, in music four and four make seven, one of the more minor annoyances.) The problems playing the minor seventh are those of the perfect fourth, compounded, which brings us to this passage from the latter third of the Finale of the Mendelssohn fourth symphony, measures 222-230. From the audience, you might notice the hands of the double bassists playing this passage on one string suddenly moving in agitated fashion in order to make all of the small shifts, up and down, like the needle of a sewing machine, or something else, altogether more embarrassing.

Apart from requiring many small shifts, the biggest problem here is the minor seventh at m. 223

N.B. If the 'D' is played on the 'G' (top) string, the 'E' on the adjacent string is about nine inches away, measured on one of my instruments – certainly a stretch to aspire to, but beyond the bounds of most normal human anatomy, and a long way to travel between two notes at the rapid tempo of the Saltarello. Of course, taking the two notes on the second and third strings is also possible. This distance measured on my bass at about six inches – a stretch certainly attainable by the average hand – but generating a number of additional problems, not least of which is the muddiness of tone which results from playing high notes on low strings. The solution I arrived at

seems a little less preposterous when taken in the context of what I wanted to do from m. 225

This fingering eliminates many shifts (only one after the third beat of m. 225) while adding a number of string crossings. Lately, I've become enamored of fingerings that let me leave my fingers down as long as possible. In performance, I 'bailed out' early and went back to first position in m. 227

Like certain interpersonal relationships, getting into thumb position is easier than than getting out, so you have to pick your spots carefully.  Here is then is the complete passage, with a decent alternative for mm. 225-226 below.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Once more unto the breach

“Of course, you know this piece very well.”

To the naïve or untrained observer, it might appear that the Maestro beginning rehearsals with such a compliment is off to a good start. However, this bit of flattery clangs off the ears of the hardened orchestral musician like a dropped mute, especially when it serves as the prelude to, maybe even an apology in advance for hours, perhaps even days, spent in a painstaking vivisection of the repertoire on offer. Indeed, in this context 'knowing the piece very well' is often coded language for received wisdom, the accumulation of error, or of a misguided tradition, which the conductor is about to sweep away with a number of well chosen words, leaving in its place something cleaner, more authentic, an ur-interpretation of what was once naively thought familiar. The empty promises ring hollow when brought up against the reality of the limited allotment of rehearsal time, not to mention the hubris of feeling oneself capable of knocking down an edifice in order to build a brand new castle-in-the-air during a few hours of rehearsal. Many times, when unrealistic expectations manifest themselves as inadequate preparation, it is this disdained 'knowledge' of the orchestra that saves a foundering performance.

To claim an orchestra knows a piece very well is a multifaceted assertion, but one which essentially boils down to an acknowledgment that the orchestra, as a group, knows how to execute a good performance on its own, with minimal guidance (sometimes even in the face of malevolence or gross negligence) from the podium. Obviously, this knowledge includes each individual player's mastery of their instrument, but further extends to familiarity with the other parts, which, in a practical sense, and in this context most importantly, means knowing what to listen for, how to respond to it, and how to incorporate that into the physical act of performing. This knowledge is pragmatic, visceral as well as intellectual; it is the accretion of all the player's experiences, numerous trials and errors over many years, triumphs, train-wrecks, hours spent in rehearsal, in practice, in listening, and for some, even in contemplation.

Just as merely attending a few lectures on human anatomy, reading a few textbooks, perhaps observing a dissection, might not make a person a good lover, listening to a conductor talk about music is not necessarily the best route to a good performance. The better conductors seem to understand how to balance the mechanistic with the spiritual when it comes to spending precious rehearsal time, acknowledging that, much like one's personal hygiene, the knowledge of the orchestra, in its visceral and practical sense, requires a certain amount of repeated, sometimes unpleasant, usually unglamorous, attention.

At one end of the spectrum is the conductor who relies too heavily on the knowledge of the orchestra, merely waving arms around and accepting whatever happens. Like the charlatan baker, who, having an order for a birthday cake canceled, merely scrapes off the frosted inscription and presents the cake to the next unsuspecting customer, this conductor adds little to the orchestra's store of knowledge, but instead cashes in on the work of others. This Maestro's appearance on the podium is a sort of nightly stage dive, where the orchestra, in possession of a sense of dignity, not to mention professionalism, along with the inability to take spontaneous collective action, catches him or her every time. The antipode of such a Maestro is, at the 'highest level' of the profession, more common, and, by most musicians, considered at least somewhat insufferable, namely, the incessant talker, the Maestro who does not leave enough rehearsal time for the orchestra to actually put into practice the myriad ideas presented. Perhaps as symptom of encroaching age, I find that, although I'm often scratching my head, trying to figure out how what is being said is going to help the week's performance, I have more patience for the talkative Maestro than some of my colleagues. Yes, the boyhood reminiscences, or what some far-flung critic had to say about a long-forgotten performance are odious, but other podium offerings make me happy to 'learn as I earn' - the steps to the ländler, for instance, or the difference between an Austrian and a German military march (or at least the fact that such a difference exists - interesting how many Austrians I've met who are at pains to point out the most subtle discrepancies between themselves and Germans), these may not be the most important things in the moment, certainly not from my particular corner of the orchestra, but they are interesting, and, year in year out, add to the collective wisdom of the orchestra.

The conductor, like the doctor who sees serious malady and does nothing, should be discouraged. Similarly, his counterpart, the well-meaning, overzealous ideologue whose first impulse is to immediately euthanize the patient and set about effecting a resurrection, should be gently dissuaded. Each Maestro who takes the podium leaves a mark, contributing to the orchestra's collective wisdom. The orchestra, out of necessity, and as a survival instinct, prioritizes pragmatism, and in so doing can be somewhat ruthless in dismissing otherwise well-meaning conductors. However, from a player's perspective, the steps to making a positive contribution, and to avoid becoming a cautionary tale, seem to be obvious, yet somehow illusive.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank the various readers of the Bass Blog, both colleagues and people unknown to me, who have contacted me during my lengthy hiatus. Your inquiries as to the fate of the Blog, not to mention my own well-being, have been greatly appreciated. I thank you for your enduring patience with this self-destructive hobby of mine. Of course, due to my contrarian nature, those who expressed pleasure at the disappearance of the Blog, and wished for its continued non-existence, provided the ultimate motivating factor in my decision to resurrect it.