Since we played Mozart at the CSO this past week, I suppose it is a good time to talk about one of the traditions here. When I first started playing with the CSO I was surprised to see that the bass section played most baroque and many classical pieces (usually Mozart) with mutes on. Apparently this was meant to keep the section from playing too loud or is based on some weird interpretation of historical ‘performance practice’. As with many things that go on here, I’ve never managed to get a logical explanation for it. A number of players in the section don’t seem to agree with the practice and slowly began ignoring it – a sort of passive resistance movement. So that is why if you see the CSO playing Bach or Mozart you might notice one or two bass players with mutes on and one or two without.
A friend of mine who plays a lot of early music in Europe – I’m going to leave him out of this by not mentioning his name or the groups he has played and recorded with – once surprised me with the statement that the bass can ‘never be bright enough’. As I have thought about it over the years it has changed into my own personal mantra that the bass can never be clear enough. I’m referring mainly to Baroque and Classical era music. The role of the double bass changed in the 19th century and a simple generalization cannot cover all types of music. Nevertheless, I have always been disturbed by the idea of playing the older music with a mute on, particularly the rubber type that tend to make the sound more muffled than muted, at the very time when maximum clarity and articulation are called for.
Playing both softly and clearly is a difficult skill and can actually be very tiring. Playing Mozart and Mahler on the same concert can pose a challenge, but those are things players need to hone their skills to master. Slapping a mute on the bass and continuing to play in the same old way is not the answer.