Awakening the Past

by Deborah Dunham

Reproduced with permission of the International Society of Bassists, this article appeared in Bass World, Vol 28 #3.


It is without question an exciting time to play bass. Our modern instruments are set up for optimum brilliance, projection and power. Committed, contemporary luthiers are working seriously with bassists on new instrument designs and making restoration decisions for older instruments that may lead us to better ease and comfort in performance. The thinner gauges of tauter steel strings now available are such that we perform with greater agility and expression. Bowing articulations are immediate and a beautiful, clear tone is more easily achieved. The latest technical studies are literally taking bassists to new playing heights and well beyond previous performance standards. Paul Ellison, in a recent conversation, remarked that he is “continually surprised and moved by the level of sophistication of our top tier college applicants. Today’s freshmen rival the graduate applicants from just 10 to 15 years ago.”

It is difficult however, in spite of our cutting edge environment, to witness the number of players still muscling through their excerpts, complaining of fatigue and facing the spectres of tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and even rotator cuff surgery. Challenging also is the working player’s ‘artistic’ situation. Although one can remain steadfast in hours of instrumental practice per day, this is usually relegated to maintaining a certain level of skill required for one’s job and for honing upcoming repertoire. For someone who, in addition, wishes to present high level solo recitals or participate in chamber music concerts or even find a better position in another orchestra, extra curricular preparation may seem unrealistic, especially for the player with a family. How does one find time to stay abreast of (and also incorporate) the latest advances in bass playing?
My five years of freelancing in Boston was a fast track for rapid growth and new insights. A bassist here could play nearly 52 weeks a year provided he or she was flexible enough to accommodate the diverse repertoire demands of the symphony, pops orchestras, opera, ballet, theater, contemporary music and for some, even jazz after hours. Work was never ‘work.’ There was always another piece to prepare, always another musician with new ideas to meet, and yes, always another interpretation to try.

It was working with the early music ensembles of Boston that brought on my own personal epiphany. Scholarship and performance ability among several of these colleagues was particularly well balanced (inspiring me to return to the doctoral degree left behind for an orchestra job). Points of performance practice could be backed up but more important, decisions seemed consistently made for playing ease and ideally to accommodate a closer interpretation of the composer’s intent.

Not all of the early music ensembles required “period” instruments and bows but most did. Having done a master’s degree focusing on contemporary music, a passion unexpectedly emerged for performing on instruments set up to emulate the ones for which the music was originally written. This was like experiencing contemporary music from the other side of a virtual “wormhole.” Moving between the two realms of playing and the repertoire they shared ensured a continued integration of stylistic musical ‘gestures,’ from the early Baroque through even Romantic genres. Of course, each era organizes its musical gestures with different effect. Professionals are generally aware of this and will point out predictable patterns and idiosyncrasies of each composer if asked. But when this awareness is combined with the feel of gut strings under the fingers and the vastly different feel of an early music bow’s balance in a period orchestra, the modern experience is greatly enhanced. And, even though an American modern orchestral sound is typically large and full, the visceral experience of period practice can be brought to modern playing without disrupting the blend of a section. Becoming more familiar with this process, the traditional technical problems (that some repertoire requires us to review every time it comes up) begin to evaporate.

In undergraduate years, my experience with the music of Bach always seemed a technical test more than a musical practice. Upon arriving in Boston, the opportunity to perform Bach’s cantatas (with bass lines that, of course, never quit) weekend after weekend with Emmanuel Music on limited rehearsal, and on a modern bass, made me appreciate and use, without question, the recommended practice of NOT giving full weight to every note of the measure, but subtly emphasizing the most important ones without accent. Just this one change liberated musical phrasing. It came spontaneously, freed up my hands, allowed for greater collaboration within the continuo section and secured me a place on the Emmanuel Music roster while I lived in the Boston area.
Mozart, too, seemed easier on the modern bass after performing his Symphony No. 35 with the Händel & Haydn Society. The sensation of the classical bow leaning into the looseness of gut strings renders the spiccato bounce more natural and locks in the understanding for not moving the stroke completely out of the string. Take a moment to tune your strings down to A=430 then try playing the passage that begins with the pick up to measure 115 through the down beat of measure 134 from the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Usually the classic ‘in-between’ tempo is such that it is difficult to keep the modern bow articulation consistent. But crafting the stroke to ride with the release of the string allows for better phrasing and less stress for the performer. Although you are working with steel strings and a modern bow, this brief exercise may be enough to bring on a different perspective. Tuning the strings back to A=440 or higher, it should take little time to make the adjustments if you choose to go this route.

It is of benefit to compare the tempo and timing differences found between modern and ‘period’ interpretations. Have you listened to Boston Baroque’s critically acclaimed recording of Händel’s Messiah (Telarc2CD-80322) as conducted by Martin Pearlman? With brisker tempi and the Baroque style one can experience the entire work in a single concert without the usual aural and mental exhaustion.

I was at first startled with the compelling choice of Händel & Haydn Society conductor Grant Llewellyn to lead the bass and cello sections with one beat to a measure in the recitative of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The bowings and fingerings of the last movement required reworking, but the results meant much finer “ensemble” playing and a soaring spirit in the performances. Even with gut strings and classical bows the bass section sounded unencumbered and more agile. Playing this same symphony months later with a modern orchestra, I did not mind recalibrating back to the ‘traditional’ tempi and I was happy to set about melding with a different section as if rehearsing giant chamber music. As a bonus, the new freedom still felt in my hands from the previous experience afforded me more energy and I was less fatigued by the end of the concert.
The study of period practice is obviously not new but it seems the scholarship, particularly in the past 15 years, has brought much more clarity to recent modern interpretations. In 1999, Simon Rattle conducted the Boston Symphony in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, The Eroica, from the then new Bärenreiter edition. Not only did BSO players take time to examine the updated version of their parts for any changes in articulations or notes; they were also particularly attentive to Rattle’s lighter, more supple and subtle period practice approach to the work. Many of the symphony members welcomed this refreshing attitude for an orchestral “warhorse.”

I have watched students both in my private studio and in Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music master classes make quantum leaps in their playing just from “auditioning” a baroque bow in a single session. The kinesthetic understanding is swift, thus integration of certain bowing manipulations with the modern bow to emulate the feel of the Baroque bow in Baroque passages comes quickly. A student’s years are often a process of moving from keen instrumental imitation to a fuller, cognizant musical awareness anyway. Why not invite a more streamlined process at the onset of advanced studies? The professional may also discover, in the long run, that incorporating additional stylistic concepts into his or her playing actually reduces practice time required to resurrect a piece for an upcoming concert. Ideally this leaves more time for other, equally important performance projects.

On the other side of this discussion, our comparatively ‘futuristic’ modern bass playing finesse can serve us by further enhancing gut string playing prowess. Where are the treatises that instruct period bassists to play gruffly and behind the beat, while forgiving them for bad intonation? Spinning out a beautiful sound from gut strings (that is also in tune), is certainly more challenging, but it can be done and I no longer believe that even period players need ever sound raw or coarse in their interpretations.

But granted, even if a bassist makes in-depth historical practice studies for more informed performances, he or she may still have to face the demons of stage fright, audition jitters, stress and tension. In addition to disciplined instrumental practices, we have come to appreciate the complementary practices of yoga and meditation, Feldenkreis, Alexander Technique, Pilates, weight training and cardiovascular exercises (to name just a few on a very long list) for enhancing the longevity of a career. I advocate, for the same reason, time spent cultivating further practical research into, and hands on experience with, that which period practice offers us.

Deborah Dunham performs with Boston Baroque (principal), Händel and Haydn Society, Mercury Baroque Ensemble and Ars Lyrica, Houston, while continuing her doctoral studies with Paul Ellison at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. She has also recently played with Houston Symphony and Houston Ballet Orchestra. Since 2001 Deborah records annually for Telarc as a member of Boston Baroque and her past collaborations with other artists and composers can be found on Bridge, Mode, New Albion and New World Records. She was a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1987-1997 and worked as an extra player with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras from 1996-2001.


Reprinted with permission from the Double Bassist
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