I had an interesting Chicago Master Singers performing experience that I’d like to share. A couple of years ago I was hired by the Chicago Master Singers (see previous post) as the only instrumentalist for a couple of their concerts. The concert program was Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, a great piece for unaccompanied choir. I was hired to play bass behind the chorus very quietly through the entire program to help them stay on pitch.
When a choir sings unaccompanied for a long period of time, the pitch can drift imperceptibly up or down (down in this case!) This may or may not be noticeable to the audience, but it is not what one wants to happen in any case. This was definitely happening for the Master Singers for this piece. We would start a piece in the key of C and end in the key of B (or even Bb from time to time!). My job was to play just loud enough to provide a reference for the choir but not loud enough for the audience to hear. I was hidden behind a pillar on an elevated platform, and I could peek around the pillar to watch the conductor.
It is a tough job trying to keep a massive choir on pitch while not being heard by the audience! The bass singers would come in flat and I would increase my volume ever so slightly to keep them up. My instructions were to make a valiant attempt to keep the choir on pitch, but to follow their descending pitch if it was impossible to keep them in tune.
To complicate matters further, I had to play the actual pitch that the basses in the choir were singing, not the written pitch. Double basses actually read an octave higher than our sounding pitch, so I had to transpose up an octave and then immediately down somewhere between a quarter tone and a half step AND not be noticed but still work to keep the choir pitch from sinking further!
Also, many members of the choir were not happy with the implication that they could not sing in tune, and they weren’t shy about making these feelings known to me! These performances took every bit of mental focus that I could muster to handle the numerous challenges.
Even with this difficult role, I had a great time playing this piece. It’s not often that a bass player gets to participate in an a capella concert like this.
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