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Double bass players are often forgotten in traditional string orchestras, but the Tanglewood Music Center is putting them front and center

Balch, Balliett, Bartok and Britten works for bass septet are the focus of Tanglewood Learning Institute concert

Concert in Ozawa Hall

Tanglewood Music Center musicians performing the world premiere of composer Doug Balliett's "Beast Fights" in Seiji Ozawa Hall in July 2017 are,  left to right (back row), double bassists Peter Walsh, Alexander Bickard, Charles Paul (partially obscured), Nash Tomey, Nicholas Myers, Douglas Aliano, Christian Gray and harpist Helen Liu Gerhold. Front row, left to right, tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole and conductor Vinay Parameswaran. 

LENOX — At most classical orchestral concerts, the double bass section saws away intently with little recognition, tucked away to the side like wallflowers at a wedding. Unless jazz is on the bill, string chamber ensembles neglect these purveyors of the lower register almost entirely.

Tanglewood Music Center, however, offers orchestral bass players the chance to shine, thanks to frequent commissions of new works for ensembles of seven double basses.

Two of these compositions, on April 10, will receive only their second performances ever at Tanglewood's Linde Center for Music and Learning, played by four members of Boston Symphony Orchestra’s bass section — Carl Anderson, Benjamin Levy, Todd Seeber and John Stovall — plus three former TMC bass Fellows: Charles Clements (a frequent BSO substitute), Edward Kass and Peter Walsh.

Joining them will be tenor Eric Carey and harpist Charles Overton — both also TMC alums — and BSO assistant conductor Earl Lee.

The two pieces for bass septet on the program are Katherine “Katie” Balch's “Kalesa Ed Kaluca,” and “Beast Fights” by Douglas Balliett, which includes tenor and harp. Also on the program are Bartok Duos — written for violin but performed by basses — and Benjamin Britten’s “Canticle V: The Death of St. Narcissus” for tenor and harp.

There’s a good reason the Tanglewood commissions call for seven basses, explained bassist Seeber during a joint phone interview with Levy. 

“The TMC summer usually starts with a string quartet seminar, which means the basses and rest of the orchestra have to find other projects to do during that one- or two-week period,” Seeber said, adding that seven bass fellows are in residence each summer.

While TMC often commissions works for brass and percussion, and cantatas for singers — at the same time supporting former TMC composition fellows — there was very little repertoire for basses, he said. About a decade ago, “we started with [longtime TMC director] Ellen Highstein to commission new pieces for bass septet. There were these great young composers and super-talented bass players coming to Tanglewood that can play anything.”

In the case of Balliett’s work — the composer was also a TMC bass fellow — “they agreed to include a singer and a harp player, which really makes that piece fabulous,” Seeber said.

Seeber coached the TMC Fellows for both bass septet premieres; and two of those musicians return to perform in the Linde Center concert.

“Peter Walsh was in the 2017 premiere of 'Beast Fights,' and two years later Eddie Kass was in the 2019 premiere of Katie Balch’s piece,” he said.

Besides the logistics of assembling seven basses, it’s not surprising the pieces have not been performed since their debuts.

Beast Fights

From left to right, conductor Vinay Parameswaran, double bassist Nash Tomey, harpist Helen Liu Gerhold, double bassists Nicholas Myers,  Alexander Brickard, Peter Walsh, Douglas Aliano and Charles Paul and tenor Chance Jonas-O'Toole. The group performed the world premiere of composer Doug Balliett's "Beast Fights" in Seiji Ozawa Hall in July 2017. 

“It would be one thing if the pieces were easy,” Seeber said. “They’re really difficult, super-virtuosic showpieces for the instruments, so we need really great players.”

“Both are written in a very egalitarian way,” added Levy. “There’s no one part that is more or less difficult, they’re all equally difficult in their own unique way.”

Balch’s other work has been commissioned and performed by orchestras from Los Angeles to London, France and Japan. In July she joins the faculty at Yale. She writes that she named her 10-minute composition “Kalesa Ed Kaluca” by linking the first two letters of the names of bassists that taught and inspired her.

“She’s a great instrumental composer,” Seeber said, “The piece is full of energy and has beautiful harmonies. It’s really colorful, lots of fabulous crystalline sounds, high percussive sounds, it sounds like much more than basses playing. She uses chopsticks inserted into strings that are flipped and vibrated, high harmonics and other extended techniques.”

“Balch was a composition Fellow at TWD in 2018, and has written other chamber works for bass, and two works for Eddie Kass, who commissions a lot of works for bass and soprano. They were friends at school together.”

Balliett bills himself as a composer, poet and bassist. Once a student of Seeber at Harvard, he now teaches period double bass at Juilliard. A prolific performer, he hosted a new music radio show with his twin brother, Brad, and, with The Oracle Hysterical, presented hip-hoperas and rap cantatas across the U.S. and Europe.

“He’s a pretty intense individual, and a great player,” Seeber said. “If you go through his playlist, he’s done an incredible variety of stuff from almost pop sounding to super edgy new music.”

An avid history buff, Balliett drew upon ancient Roman blood sports for his 17-minute 2017 composition “Beast Fights.”

“It’s very colorfully done,” Seeber said. “Each bass takes on a different animal in these beast fight pairings, so you [mostly] have two basses at a time, dueling. There’s a lion versus a crocodile, an eagle versus a snake, a polar bear versus a walrus, and lastly a panther against a human, played by the harp. The tenor is both singer and narrator, sort of this Trump-ian game show host. It’s very satirical and a little dark.”

The audience loved the piece when it was premiered at Tanglewood, he said.

Tenor Carey and harpist Overton will also perform Benjamin Britten’s profoundly spiritual 1974 work, “Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus,” based on a poem by TS Eliot.

Additionally, the bassists will present a selection of Bartok’s 44 duos, using a cello transcription.

“They are originally violin duos, melodies he adapted from folk songs,” Levy noted. “We thought it might be cool to do a Round Robin and leapfrog down the line of seven bass players.”

Levy joined the BSO bass section in 2003, while Seeber has played with the orchestra since 1988. It’s the first time they have performed at Tanglewood’s spacious Linde Center, which opened in 2019.

“These community concerts are generally grassroots generated from BSO players,” Seeber said.

Levy, who came up with the original concept, added, “We were supposed to do this program in Boston in April 2020 and, of course, had to shut everything down, as did the rest of the planet.”

Over the years, Seeber has seen a burgeoning interest in bass performance, both by bass-centric and established composers.

“They are writing incredibly interesting, challenging pieces for bass,” he said, “it’s being included much more regularly in new music and chamber music. It was always the odd man out in string chamber music for generations. Now composers are discovering there’s this amazing array of sounds it can produce.

Levy added, “As the technical prowess and mastery of the double bass has become more widespread, and the level of players so much better, composers realize there are almost limitless opportunities for what you can do on double bass.”

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