Jeremy Kurtz-Harris


The John Harbison Bass Concerto Project

[Article published in the International Society of Bassists's "Bass World" magazine]

From April 2006 through the end of the 2007-08 season, 15 bassists from across North America will be stepping in front of their respective orchestras to be part of a "rolling premiere" of a brand new work for double bass and orchestra. Especially exciting is that the concerto is by one of the most prominent American composers—John Harbison.

The work was commissioned in memory of David Capoccioni and Michael Hammond by the International Society of Bassists, and has been funded by the family and friends of David Capoccioni, as well as the 15 orchestras involved. This is certainly a first-of-a-kind event in the bass world, as well as for the entire classical music community. While there have been large-scale consortium projects before, none have featured so many musicians stepping out of the ranks to solo with their own orchestras. It is certainly a project that emphasizes the strong sense of community present among bassists.

The Genesis

"It really is just one of those stories where the stars seem to align," says bassist Hunter Capoccioni, son of the late David Capoccioni. "The commission was conceived after one of Paul Ellison's master classes in 2000. At the end of the master class a discussion
developed about Ginastera—I believe in reference to the bass solo in the Divertimento Concertantes. Paul began discussing how he and Barry Green had begun a joint commission of a bass concerto from Ginastera. Unfortunately, Ginastera passed on before he could begin writing the work, leaving us to mourn what could have been."

"After he had told the class about the Ginastera project, he began to reflect on the need for more such commissions. [Paul] commented about the high level of solo bass playing in the world today and that now is the time for the bass community to begin similar dialogue with the available number of truly wonderful composers."

That evening when Hunter returned home, he received a telephone call from his mother.  Hunter's father, who had died suddenly the year before, had been given a memorial tribute that day at the Wal-Mart annual convention—a company for whom David Capoccioni had worked for almost twenty years. At the end of the tribute, they presented Hunter's mother with a check for $10,000 that had been raised within the company.

"Needless to say, we were both pretty floored by their generosity and began discussing how to appropriately use this gift," says Hunter. "My father really loved music, loved to sing, and was immensely supportive of my bass playing. My mother and I discussed beginning a music scholarship in his honor and other ideas until I had one of those light bulb moments and I asked my mother what she thought about commissioning a bass concerto as a memorial. We both instantly loved the idea and, knowing that the ISB was a non-profit organization, we thought it best to donate the money to the ISB with the stipulation that it be used solely to commission a work from one of today's leading American composers. About an hour or two after Paul had talked about Ginastera I called him at home, told him what had happened, what my mother and I wanted to do, and we worked out the details. The whole conception of this commission really had a beautiful feeling of fate. I look at it as a rainbow in the middle of an extremely difficult year for my family."

Hunter and Paul spent the next few months discussing composers, listening to recordings, and talking with colleagues. "The first time Harbison's name came up was while Paul and I were at the Sarasota Music Festival," says Hunter. "Paul asked Robert Levin his thoughts and Robert immediately said 'John Harbison.' I listened to a lot of his music after that and immediately knew he was the right composer. Harbison's background and compositional style really fit the aesthetic we were looking for. Although it is difficult to classify Harbison's eclectic musical language, I hear a sense of nostalgia for the American music of the 1940s and 50s, especially jazz and radio music of the period. Harbison's background as a jazz pianist subtly pervades some of his harmonic and rhythmic choices. He has written concertos for the other three strings and also happened to be a good friend of Michael Hammond."

Michael Hammond was the highly revered Dean of the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University where Hunter was a student at the time. An incredibly intelligent man, Hammond was a composer and conductor, and held degrees in philosophy, psychology, and physiology. 

"We gave Michael the name of two or three composers, and asked what he thought," says Paul Ellison. “He said definitely that his choice was Harbison—both musically, and because of [Hammond's] desire to see performance of American music." 

Michael Hammond had become a fan of the ISB while attending the 1993 convention in Interlochen. Since he also had a personal connection with Harbison—they both owned vacation houses by the same lake in Michigan and had known each other for years—Michael was asked to approached Harbison about the project.

"Michael called him and got him enrolled in the project," says Paul, who feels that Hammond was instrumental in garnering Harbison’s participation.

Tragically, Michael Hammond died two years later from complications of cancer, just a week after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. At the request of the Capoccioni family, his name was also added to the dedication of the concerto.

The Composer and His Work

The piece, entitled Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra, is in three movements—Lamento, Cavatina, and Rondo—and lasts about twenty minutes. The use of the term "bass viol" was very deliberate, says Harbison.

"The introduction [to the Lamento] is kind of a pre-history, in which I tried to set a scene of the bass in its old consort. The physical shape of the instrument, having not shifted the way the other violin family instruments did, obviously still shapes the sound."

John Harbison has a great deal of experience with the instrument in two particular settings: Bach cantatas, which he has conducted often, as well as his experience as a jazz pianist playing in small combos. Both of these situations gave him the chance to hear
a single bassist playing very active lines in the context of a larger group. "The timbre of the instrument, of a single bass player, was certainly something I grew up with," says Harbison—definitely not a comment that could be made by all composers.

Because of his experience playing in one-on-a-part settings with a bassist, Harbison felt it natural to include active bass parts in a number of his chamber pieces. His Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet and Strings; Snow Country for oboe and string quintet; Mottetti di Montale for mezzo-soprano and strings; and Chorale Cantata for soprano, oboe, and string quintet all have significant bass parts within a chamber setting.

When he began to work on this commission, Harbison began listening to more of the solo bass literature, including staples such as the Koussevitzky Concerto and the Bottesini Concerto No. 2 in B minor, in addition to newer pieces such as Edgar Meyer's Bass
Concerto No. 1 and Double Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Although Harbison had written for bass before, and had written concertos for the other string instruments, the double bass began to present some challenges. 

"There were some similarities [to writing the other string concertos], but there were some very startling differences," says Harbison. "In terms of the balance, which is clearly the most delicate issue, it is not so different than certain problems that come up with the viola concerto, or certain registers of the cello. I remember some advice that I think Rostropovich gave to Lutoslawski for the orchestration of a cello concerto, where he said: 'maybe a harp'."
"In all cases writing for the strings in concerto situations, except for the upper strings of the violin and cello, there are issues that would never come up in a piano concerto, for instance, that are very, very sensitive. I like to write a lot of passages in concerto situations in which the solo is not absolutely foreground, but is meant to actually be a real chamber music equal. [That type of writing can be] even more difficult than [those] where the foreground is very clear. That is, the instruments that are sharing the principal activity too easily dominate...those passages can really be lost. I do really consider that carefully with the double bass." 

Harbison also mentions challenges in range overlap when orchestrating the work. He says that, like the tenor voice, the bass can sometimes sound like it is operating in an octave higher than the one it's actually sounding in. "I wanted to keep reminding myself of exactly where it was, because the things that can interfere with the bass are quite quirky—a bunch of wild cards. Depending on the register, things below can be difficult, and things above can sometimes be tricky because of overtone cutting." 

"I tried to think about those things as much as I could, but one of the things I like to do when I write a concerto is to make the solo part very thematic; that is, have the material come from the action of the piece rather than from the instrument. And so that leaves you in situations where you have to navigate carefully between the practical and the ideal."

"One of the issues with an instrument like the viola or the bass, for the way I write, is that I don't feel comfortable with the orchestra taking over and making a huge sound. I've never been particularly happy with the viola concertos for giant orchestras, because the
orchestra stops playing and the viola comes in—and sounds wimpy. It doesn't happen with the violin because the violin's projection can be so demanding. But with the viola, you just think, 'oh, the poor person has to come back in after the great roar of the
orchestra.' I wanted the scale of the orchestra to be something that would make the reentry of the bass sound appropriate. It's one of the things I try to do with the tutti [sections]—to not make them outlandishly grandiose.

"I think the other problem in writing a bass concerto is what do you do with the bass—the actual bass line. And I think that is the really difficult one. At some points I decided that the actual bass of the texture should be the solo. To constantly try to create a structural base below the soloist becomes difficult to maintain an interesting texture. So I was quite aware of the issue of  'what is the real bass?' here."

Harbison also comments about the changes in bass playing over the years in which he has been conducting and composing. "There's a big change in the way the instrument is presented. When I first started conducting Bach cantatas, I'd have to say there was a general assumption—there were certainly exceptions, obviously, there were always bassists who were highly developed in certain ways—but the general assumption was that the tone would always be absorbed as part of another sound. And the sonic ideal of the bass has really changed in the last 30 or 40 years, and the playing techniques have changed as well. Just in the years I've been doing Bach cantatas, the sound of the bass line has changed. The kind of playing that is going on at the bottom of a Bach orchestra now I'd have to describe as more polished and soloistic."

"It's now harder, although I do go for it at times in this concerto, to get that sort of strained or crude effect out of the bass which a lot of early solos the Fourth Act of Othello, or Mahler 1, where I think the assumption is that you'll get a certain kind of roughness and strangeness. Often when we hear those passages now, we don't hear that. We hear quite a different voice. The bass has evolved toward a different ideal."

"I still think that it is, in some ways, the most distinct of the string voices in terms of not having the same kind of origins. Of course, one of the things that is certainly important to me about it is the origin in the viol family. I have a certain early music origin as a performer, and have worked with viol consorts and so forth, so I know kind of where that comes from. It seems to me that that quality somehow always plays a role in listening to the bass—it's there somewhere, even though the evolution has been somewhat away from that timbre. The glassy kind of thin sound of a two-viol consort is part of what 19th century composers were expecting from the bass. So I tried to keep that in mind—I tried to start the piece at least with a sound that will be—for people who know that music at all—something of the older period of the bass.

"I worry, perhaps, that maybe only three people in the orchestra have ever heard that sound world—that is, music of the 12th and 13th centuries, which means a lot to me, and from which I'm getting a nice dividend of it sounding fresh because hardly anyone uses it anymore. But also that it suggests a particular sound, which is hard to get if you haven't heard in context what it might be like."

It seems quite appropriate, though, that such a pivotal new work expresses the range of the bass' history, from its origins to its current sound. It is also quite appropriate, and fortunate for the bass community, that it has been written by such an immensely able and thoughtful friend of the bass. Harbison comments, "I think it's a very rewarding solo instrument."

The Premieres

John Harbison's Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra will be given its world premiere by Joel Quarrington with the Toronto Symphony on April 1, 2006. Timothy Pitts will give the U.S. premiere with the Houston Symphony on May 5, 2006. Other orchestras and soloists who have signed on to the project include and will perform the piece during the course of the next two years are:

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Ralph Jones
Boston Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Edwin Barker
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Owen Lee
Florida Orchestra: soloist, Dee Moses
Greenville Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Timothy Pitts
Houston Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Timothy Pitts
Knoxville Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Steve Benne
Los Angeles Philharmonic: soloist, Dennis Trembly
Memphis Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Scott Best
Minnesota Orchestra: soloist, Fora Baltacigil
New Mexico Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Jean-Luc Matton
Philadelphia Orchestra: soloist, Harold Robinson
San Diego Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Jeremy Kurtz
Seattle Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Jordan Anderson
Toronto Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Joel Quarrington
University of Iowa School of Music: soloist, Volkan Orhan