Blog > Musical Giants of the 20th Century: Double Bass Players
by Janet Horvath | January 15th, 2017

standard Musical Giants of the 20th Century: Double Bass Players

Serge KoussevitzkyCredit: Wikipedia

Serge Koussevitzky
Credit: Wikipedia

A conversation about giants could not leave out the double bass and we have four wonderful players to introduce you to, if you have not encountered them before.

Born in Russia in 1874 Serge Koussevitzky was primarily known as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949 but his first musical forays were as a double bass virtuoso. He was born into a family of musicians. When he was only three years old his mother passed away and he was subject to the strict teaching of his father. His musical studies included violin, piano and a little dabbling on the cello. Koussevitzky was anxious to apply to the major schools in Moscow but he was penniless. When Koussevitzky was offered a full scholarship if he consented to study double bass, he accepted.

Koussevitzky’s playing was formidable, dazzling audiences. His first performance was in Moscow in 1896 and by 1901 he became principal bass of the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra. A recital performance in Berlin in 1903 led to critical acclaim. Solo bass music was quite slim so he composed a concerto in F-sharp minor, which has become a standard in the repertoire. Koussevitzky’s Russian heroes Tchaikovsky, Glinka, and Rachmaninoff undoubtedly inspired him to compose these glorious lush melodies.

Koussevitzky established himself as one of the outstanding conductors in Europe and of the early twentieth century. The revolution of 1918 galvanized Koussevitzky to leave Russia. He and his wife had been living in Paris for four years when he was offered the Boston Symphony position.

Always passionate about commissioning new music, he supported such greats as Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Gershwin, Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, and Arnold Schönberg. The Koussevitzky years are considered the “golden years” of the BSO.

One of his most important roles was as founder and conductor of the Berkshire Music Festival, which became the Tanglewood Festival. Most important, he established the school of the Berkshire Music Center, which trains the next generation of musicians. In 1942 he organized the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress to support American artists and to commission and perform new works of composers of all nationalities. The organization continues to consider proposals.

Serge Koussevitzky, Double Bass Concerto, Op.3

Gary Karr

Gary Karr

American doublebassist Gary Karr began by studying voice believe it or not, but after a lukewarm debut he decided to learn the instrument, which as he said “sounds closest to the human voice.” He comes from seven generations of double bass players. Receiving little encouragement from his family, he never let on to them that his intention was to play the bass as a solo instrument.

Today the bass is still seldom heard as a solo instrument. Before Karr, few audience members expected much. His breakthrough appearance with the New York Philharmonic in 1962 at the Young People’s Concerts and his solo recital debut in Carnegie Hall changed all that.

He performed the Koussevitzky’s Concerto at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center in 1999 and wrote the following for The Composter’s Advocate: Serge Koussevitzky

“In 1962, the morning after I played my debut recital in Town Hall, I received a surprise call from Mme. Koussevitzky. When I heard this strange, soft-spoken, aristocratic Russian accent, I thought that it was a friend playing a practical joke on me…She kindly invited me to her apartment. Upon arriving, the first thing that I noticed was her husband’s famous Amati doublebass made in 1611. ‘After having heard you play last night, I felt that you were the one to carry on my husband’s legacy. Therefore I have decided to offer you my husband’s doublebass as a gift… his ‘constant companion’ which he practiced… ‘everyday of his life.’”

Known for his expressive, sensual tone, exuberant personality and the joy he emanates, Karr has been heard all over the world. He makes it look so easy.

As you’ll see from the video below he’s also quite a card, pulling stunts while he performs some of the most difficult cello repertoire transcribed for bass—pieces such as virtuoso music of Popper. Author of three textbooks on bass playing, he is a staunch advocate for the instrument. He founded the International Institute for the String Bass, and he has encouraged composers to write for the instrument leading to over 50 new works for the doublebass. Karr continues his thirst for knowledge and ease of expression, which he stirs in his busy teaching studio.

Gary Karr: Moses Fantasy, Habanera, and Popper – and fooling around!

François Rabbath

François Rabbath

Born in 1931 in Aleppo, Syria into a musical family of nine children, François Rabbath discovered the double bass at the age of thirteen when one of his brothers brought an instrument home. He was permitted to try it and Rabbath fell in love. When the family moved to Beirut, Lebanon, Rabbath had no teacher. He attempted to teach himself after discovering a bass method book by Edouard Nanny in a dusty old tailor shop.

Several years later he was able to afford a move to Paris. Auditions for the Conservatoire were to be in three days. Undaunted Rabbath learned the required repertoire and although he was immediately accepted, he maintained his singular if perhaps unconventional approach.

Rabbath soon moved on to performing his own and others’ compositions with his characteristic dazzling technique, intense musicianship and distinctive bass technique. There are fascinating podcasts with Rabbath recorded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Rabbath has written extensively on bass technique and his method, which includes a revolutionary fingering system, has been adopted by many bass teachers including the International Society of Bassists President and Ball State University Bass Professor Hans Sturm, American composer Frank Proto has written five concertos for him.

Francois Rabbath: Paganini cadenza

Edgar Meyer Credit: IMGartists.com

Edgar Meyer
Credit: IMGartists.com

Doublebass player and composer Edgar Meyer is a profoundly versatile artist. He has just completed a coast-to-coast U.S. tour performing his Quintet for Strings with the Dover String Quartet. On November 8th he performed a double bill of Bottesini’s Concerto No. 2 and his own Concerto No. 1 for doublebass marking his Hong Kong debut. Other impressive recent achievements have been a new violin and double bass concerto work which was performed with Joshua Bell and premiered at Tanglewood in 2012, a Double Concerto for Bass and Cello that he and Yo Yo Ma premiered with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting, and a 1999 violin concerto for Hilary Hahn, which Hahn premiered and recorded with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Hugh Wolff.

Edgar Meyer was born in 1960 in Tennessee and began his studies at the age of five with his father. By the time he was in junior high school, Edgar was playing jazz gigs with his dad—Edgar playing the piano and his dad on bass, and he was already writing music. By the time he was in high school Edgar had fallen in love with bluegrass music’s forlorn sounds.

He went on to study math but quickly switched to majoring in music at Indiana University. A chance jam session began a life-long collaboration with Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Edgar Meyer was a student at the Aspen Music Festival and Fleck was performing with New Grass Revival. They decided to jam in front of Aspen’s Häagen-Dazs shop. Fleck was blown away. Meyer seemed to be able to nimbly play millions of difficult chords and licks. Meyer was soon invited to the Telluride Festival where Fleck and other all stars such as Sam and Jerry Douglas performed. During the 1980’s Béla and Edgar played an annual duo set and by 1985 they and other virtuoso artists made some brilliant recordings including Unfolding and The Telluride Sessions. Meyer has been performing at Telluride for 25 years.

“My most cherished memory is the 1985 Telluride All-Stars jam, with Mark (O’Connor), Sam and Jerry (Douglas) and Béla,” he says. “It introduced me to a musical energy I had never felt before.”

The New Yorker has hailed him as “…the most remarkable virtuoso in the relatively un-chronicled history of his instrument.” Meyer’s effortless technique and soulful expressivity have rendered him a unique place in music history—someone equally accomplished in classical, bluegrass, jazz, and composition. His over 20 albums include recordings crossing several genres.. Meyer feels that Bach has been the greatest influence on his composing and in fact, he has recorded all of the solo Bach Cello Suites. In 1995 he recorded the Schubert: Quintet, Op. 114 The Trout with Emanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, Rebecca Young and Yo Yo Ma.

Meyer’s acclaimed collaborations with the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Mark O’Connor led to Appalachia Waltz, the 1996 wildly popular album. Appalachian Journey followed, which received the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album. Also notable was his recording of 1997 Uncommon Ritual with Bela Fleck. The Goat Rodeo Sessions of 2011 included Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, which was awarded the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Folk Album.

In an interview for the Bass Musician November 2011 Meyer says in response to the question: “What might you suggest to an enthusiastic young player looking to make his art, his career?

Edgar: “Play piano. Get to know and get involved with people who are better than you are.
Immersion—Create a broad base of knowledge. Get to know the things that influenced the music that you love. Learn all the parts not just your own. Writers need to play, players need to write. Learn to listen, especially while playing.”

Meyer’s prizes include the 1994 Avery Fisher Career Grant. In 2000 he became the first bass player to receive the Avery Fisher Prize and in 2002 the only bass player to be named a MacArthur Fellow. Meyer teaches at the Curtis Institute and the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University.

Meyer: Finale from Work in Progress Commissioned for San Francisco Performances, and the Savannah Music Festival

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