The very first double bass soloist I ever heard live was the extraordinary double bassist Gary Karr. I was fifteen years old and had only been playing the bass for a year. Gary Karr was playing with my hometown symphony orchestra (the South Dakota Symphony), and my teacher Charles Kreitzer had gotten me a ticket for this performance. This concert was a revelation for me–I had no idea that a double bass could be played like Gary Karr played it. Low rumblings and flute-like harmonics mesmerized me, and I knew from that point on that I wanted to be a double bass player.
I know that I am not the only bassist who has had this experience. Gary Karr inspired countless double bass players to pursue the study of this great instrument. When I ask my colleagues to name their first double bass solo record they almost always name something by Gary Karr. His televised performance of The Swan from Carnival of the Animals under Leornard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall propelled the bass into the spotlight as a solo instrument. I have an old record of this concert (which has been released on CD), and that track is my favorite Gary Karr recording of all time.
I had the opportunity to go backstage before the concert in South Dakota, and I saw my teacher and Gary Karr rehearse a duet for the concert. I marveled at his playing, but also at his small bass with the beautiful, sunflower-embossed tailpiece. Gary Karr frequently spoke of the sound of a bass as being like sonic chocolate. I never understood what he meant until I heard that bass up close. It had a complexity and beauty that I had never heard before. It was owned by virtuoso bassist and Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, and it was given to Gary Karr by Olga Koussevitzky, Serge’s widow, under unusual circumstances.
Fifteen years later I was asked out of the blue to play a recital on this magnificent bass. Gary Karr had recently retired from the concert stage, and he donated his bass to the Internatonal Society of Bassists. It was being loaned out at the moment to performers for use in recitals. I naturally agreed to it, although I was quite busy and hadn’t prepared any repertoire. This opportunity was not likely to come again for me. I would only have the bass for two weeks before the recital, and I began to get apprehensive about my ability to play well on a foreign bass in such a short time. Also, I had heard that the bass, while possessing a beautiful sound, was very difficult to play. I will describe in detail the experience of playing this bass in Part II of this post.
This bass has for years been attributed to the Amati brothers of Italy. Recently, however, the origins of this bass have been called into question. A scientific study using tree ring dating was recently conducted on this bass. You can read the conclusions of the study here. I wrote a short piece on this study for my recital:
Gary Karr had acquired the Amati bass (the bass that this recital is being played on) at a special party after his Carnegie Hall debut by Olga Koussevitzky, widow of bass virtuoso and famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky. She gave Karr her late husband’s bass in 1961 after telling Karr that she had seen the spirit of her late hus- band embrace Karr onstage as he performed. Before he became a conductor, Koussevitzky had been a virtuoso bass player.
Koussevitzky is said to have purchased the instrument from a French dealer in 1901 for $3,000. Nothing is known of its history before 1901, but it is reputed to have been made in 1611. Karr made all of his albums and played virtually all of his pub- lic performances on this magnificent instrument. He recently donated this famous instrument to the International Society of Bassists.
Most sources claim that the “Amati” bass was made in 1611 by the Amati brothers, Antonio and Girolamo, of Cremona, Italy. If this is true, it would only known dou- ble bass made by the Amati brothers. In 2004 this bass was carefully inspected and evaluated independently by four experts in bass design and style, and all agreed that inconsistencies in style suggest that the bass was constructed after 1611. The wood appears to date to 1761 at the earliest. Also, many attributes of this bass suggest a French origin. All of these facts suggest that this bass was not made by the Amati brothers. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic bass that has inspired countless bassists over the last few decades, and I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to play this recital on it.
It is now commonly referred to as the Karr-Koussevitzky bass, but it will always be the “Amati” to me no matter who actually made it.
Read part II: Tackling the “Amati” Part II – playing the bass