Since starting this blog I have received a number of questions and made vague promises to answer them at some point.
A bigwig from the International Bottesini Society recently contacted me with a series of interesting questions. I agreed to answer them in my blog if they would wave my 25 years of unpaid membership dues, so here goes.
1. Describe an experience that made you glad you play bass.
Once upon a time I played in the ‘Junior Symphony’, which I guess is the farm team for the Seattle Youth Symphony. I must have been about twelve when this happened. We were playing (or trying to play) the last movement of Tchaikovsky 4. The conductor threw a fit at the general lack of preparation in the strings and decided to go round the orchestra, stand by stand, to hear the theme.
There were only three of us in the bass section, and although I can only speak for myself, I can safely say none of us had any idea how to play those notes. First violins, seconds, violas, and cellos each went through their public humiliation before all eyes turned to the basses. Now as any bass player knows, the basses don’t play the complete passage at the beginning of the movement. Without saying anything to each other, the three of us all instinctively chose the same survival mechanism. When the conductor gave the downbeat, together, we played exactly four notes and stopped.
The conductor found it impossible to maintain his wrath in the face of such brazen incompetence and let the matter drop. At that moment I was very glad I played the bass.
On a more positive note, one passage that makes me happy I took up the bass is the opening pizzicato section of Mahler 4, 3rd movement. On those rare occasions when, due to a fortuitous leave of absence, illness, or by sheer luck, the bass section pizzicatos are together, this is one of the most satisfying things to play. In this business you often have to settle for very simple pleasures.
2. Describe an experience that made you wish you played something else -- or perhaps weren't a musician at all.
One word: Bolero.
3. What, in your opinion, is the worst moment in the standard orchestral repertoire for bassists?
I have to answer this a little carefully.
In my experience, the worst moment in the standard repertoire for the basses has to be the ‘bass solo’ passage in the Mahler 1st symphony. I’m not talking about having to play it myself though.
I imagine the questioner intended something else. There are really so many candidates for the worst moment. What comes to mind is the so-called ‘storm scene’ from Beethoven 6. I’m talking about the loud passages where the notes are largely inaudible but give the visual impression the bass section is engaged in some sort of communal act of autoeroticism.
I played Beethoven 6 in another orchestra before I got to Chicago. After playing through the ‘storm’ movement, the conductor stopped and addressed the bass section.
“Should we rehearse that?” he asked, foolishly.
Of course we all shook our heads, ‘no’.
“You know,” the Maestro went on. “When you get to heaven, you are going to have to face Beethoven!”
The principal shot back, “Well, he’s going to have to face me!”