Bass Blog

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

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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