Most bassists who don’t hold the principal chair in a major symphony orchestra can count on one had the times that they get to play a solo in orchestra. Double bass is an instrument that does not usually fall into the solo spotlight during your typical orchestra concert, and any occasion to play a significant orchestra solo is therefore memorable.
The Elgin Symphony (of which I am a bass section member) was performing Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite for an upcoming week of concerts. I was chatting with ESO principal bassist Tim Shaffer on another orchestra gig when he mentioned that he wouldn’t be able to play that week in
“The conductor would like you to play the solo,” he said.
This piece contains one of the few significant double bass solos in the orchestral repertoire, and I was excited to get the opportunity to play it. I had done some other orchestral solos in the past, but the opportunity to do it three times in one week for an Elgin Symphony subscription series far surpassed any other such experience of mine.
The week before this subscription series I was playing a wacky program with Present Music of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had been experimenting with different bass rosins for this contemporary series and had unfortunately gunked my bow hair into a horrifyingly gluey mess. I spent the day before the first rehearsal soaking my bow hair in alcohol, trying to wash the rosin out, comb it out, everything I could think of, but I couldn’t get my gear working right.
I went to the first rehearsal in a panic—a non-working bow is a very bad thing for a string player, and especially so for a string player who will be performing one of the biggest of their solos in the repertoire. Fortunately, one of my many frantic cleaning rituals must have worked, because the bow ended up performing fine.
Rehearsals went well, and so did the concerts. On two of the performances the applause from the audience erupted in cheers when the conductor acknowledged me.
The paper the next morning had a review. I opened the Arts section, interested to see what the critic had written. He mentioned the bass player! The critic had written:
The Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite featured the excellent bass playing of principal bassist Tim Shaffer….
Aw, man! My one big moment. The odds of a section player getting another chance to play another such solo in another orchestra like this AND have the newspaper critic mention the bass soloist are, to say the least, quite low.
I called Tim up later that day.
“I heard you played a great solo!” I said.
“Yeah, it went so well, I can hardly remember it,” he slyly retorted.
At least one of his students called him up to congratulate him on the mention in the paper.
I almost called the paper to tell them that their reviewer was in error—the bass solo was actually played by Joe Guastefeste that night (Joe is the principal bass of the Chicago Symphony). That would have been a “correction” worth submitting!
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