I had the good fortune to be asked to perform a recital in 2006 on Gary Karr’s former bass, formerly attributed to Amati and previously owned by the great Serge Koussevitzky. This recital happened in the very early days of my blogging, and though I covered it previously on the blog, giving it a two-part treatment in 2006, my writing has improved considerably since then, and I thought that a rewrite of this story was in order.
Check out a video of me performing some excerpts on this famous bass here.
I was approached in early 2006 to play a recital on Gary Karr’s former “Amati” bass. The circumstances surrounding me being asked were random and unexpected. My annual Whitewater Winter Bassfest was being held in early 2006, and I had invited some area instrument dealers to show some basses and bows at the event. One of the dealers that I invited was the Guarneri House of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I’m certainly glad that they were on my list for that event! They came to the festival with a van chock full with basses of all shapes, sizes, and pedigrees. I couldn’t help smiling as double bass luthier Aaron Reilly pulled a Forester and a Kennedy out of the van. I knew that this was going to be a fun day.
I headed over to the Guarneri House tables later that day-I had to try that Forester and Kennedy. The basses both sounded beautiful, even though they had quite different timbres. My playing must have impressed Aaron Reilly, because he asked me later that day if I would be interested in playing a recital on the Amati bass. It was perked at their shop for the spring, and they were looking for people to play recitals on it. It took me about 1.5 seconds to say yes. After all, people don’t usually have someone saunter up to them and ask if they’d like to play a recital on the world’s most famous bass every day, and I knew that this was likely to be my one and only chance to get to play a concert on this bass.
My first double bass memories are of this bass being played. My first recording of the instrument was a Gary Karr record, and the very first double bass soloist I ever heard live was Gary as well. I was fifteen years old at the time and had only been playing the bass for a year. Gary Karr was passing through my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to play an engagement with 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 since been released on CD), and that track remains 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. Being young and ignorant of famous bassists, I thought that Gary was one of the South Dakota Symphony bassists.
“Boy, can those South Dakota Symphony bassists ever play!” I thought. “And look at the basses they play on. Outstanding! If they sound that good, I wonder what Gary Karr sounds like? Oh wait…..”
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.
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. Here is my synopsis of this study (which I printed in my recital program):
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 double 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.
More and more people are now calling this instrument the Karr-Koussevitzky bass, but it will always be the “Amati” to me no matter who actually made it.
Fast forward four months to June, 2006. I had been putting a program together over the last couple of months in between engagements with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, knowing that my time on the bass would be brief and full of other engagements. The date for the recital approached like a black cloud on the horizon-I knew that a lot of prominent area bassists would want to see the “Amati” bass in action, and I felt dubiously unqualified for the task. Although I play a fair number of recitals, I am by no means a soloist, and as I pictured myself up there in a room filled with critical eyes the greasy knot in my stomach tightened.
I tried to tie the pieces I selected into a theme based around Koussevitzky and Gary Karr, selecting pieces that had an association with one or both of these musicians, while keeping in mind the fact that I would be playing a foreign bass on short notice in front of a fairly critical audience. I decided on the Eccles Sonata, the Valse Miniature by Koussevitzky (can’t leave him out!), the Hindemith Sonata, and the Massenet Meditation.
When I first picked up the Amati bass from Aaron Reilly at the Guarneri House, I couldn’t wait to get it home and start working on my recital program. I pulled it out of the case and got a chill up my spine when I saw the distinctive sunflower-embossed tailpiece. It had a new set of Pirastro Permanent solo strings on it (which happen to be my favorite brand of string), so I knew that I was ready to go.
This famous bass is extremely small. It actually doesn’t feel like a bass at all, but more like some strange bass/cello amalgamation. I play a large 7/8 Jakstadt as my main bass, so transitioning to this tiny solo bass was quite challenging. Usually I stand when I practice and play solos, and I am used to the feeling of a lot of mass resting against my side when I play. It felt very strange to have such a light instrument against my side-it actually was difficult for me to keep it balanced. Everything about this bass is small-the bridge, fingerboard, neck, scroll, and string length. Everything about my Jakstadt, unfortunately, is big. The adjustment was acute and uncomfortable.
My two weeks with the “Amati” were filled with orchestra rehearsals and performances in Chicago, and this was hard on both my nerves and my chops. Switching between big and small, heavy and light, orchestra tuning and solo tuning, and extension playing and upper register playing was very stressful. I am sure that many bassists are comfortable switching between vastly different set ups, but for me it takes a few days to really feel at home on a bass, and I unfortunately ever got to really get a practicing groove going just with the “Amati” bass.
The sound I pulled at first on this bass was very sweet but fairly small and unfocused. The tone of this bass got richer and fuller the higher I played, and it got smaller and less resonant the lower I played. This is not a knock against the bass. Quite simply, this is an incredibly special and specialized instrument, and I had not learned the skills to fully activate its potential. This instrument sounds (under my hands, at least) fantastic from the G octave to the edge of the fingerboard and beyond, decent on the D string and lower G string, and downright strange on the E and A strings.
This bass responds best when the bow is right up against the bridge and is pulled very slowly with a lot of weight. If I bowed the strings any farther away than that the instrument sounded kind of like a violone or other such early instrument. Only when the bow is near the bridge with a great deal of weight in the right arm did that famous “Gary Karr sound” emerge. While playing like this, one also has to remain very free and flexible in the right arm. Too much weight will crush the sound, however. Playing this bass with the correct right arm technique is like herding cats-very challenging and often frustrating, but strangely fun.
Preparing the Massenet was a real challenge. The edition I was using was written way down in the grumble zone of the bass, and I was having an insanely difficult time getting a quality tone out of the lower strings. My tone couldn’t cut through the piano in some sections no matter how softly my accompanist played. I really wanted to play the entire piece up an octave, but fear of stratospheric gymnastics on an unfamiliar bass made me chicken out. In the end I settled on playing the main thematic material at the notated register and the rest of the piece up and octave-a safe compromise in my eyes, and one that came off well in the performance.
The day of the recital came, and the nervous knot in my stomach further tightened. I had gotten confirmation that some very well-known double bassists would be in the audience that night, and while it is always nerve-wracking to get up and strut your solo stuff onstage, it is exponentially more so when the audience is full of instrumental heavies.
Deep breathing kept my nerves under control, and I went out and played the recital pretty much without a hitch. After finishing, Aaron Reilly from the Guarneri House took the bass back from me and headed back across the state line. That was the last I saw of it, but I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to play it. Nerve-wracking? Yes. Difficult to play? You bet. Worth it? Absolutely!