(crossposted with new introduction from PBDB)
National Symphony Orchestra bassist Ira Gold has recently joined the Peabody Conservatory double bass faculty. Ira is well known to listeners of Contrabass Conversations podcasts as he has been interviewed by Jason and featured on two episodes! I recently asked Ira some questions about his journey as a bassists and musician, and learned some fascinating and thought-provoking things about him…. I hope DBB readers enjoy it as well.
Tell me one story about an experience that you had with one of your own bass teachers that inspired you or changed you as a musician.
When I was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2003, we had a side by side July 4 concert with the fellows sitting next to Boston Symphony players. I had the honor of sharing a stand with my teacher, Edwin Barker. We performed Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and to say it was thrilling, incredible, goosebump-esque, out of this world, would be an understatement. I witnessed, professionalism, care, the highest level of bass playing, and musical sophistication in seeing how Ed played, gestured, and connected with me, the section, and the orchestra at large. He is by far one of the most thoughtful and engaging musicians I have ever met, and his teaching incorporates the same level of awareness and mindfulness when making executive technical and musical decisions. Since this concert came at the end of four years of study, it was a culmination of all the ideas we had worked through, to finally experience first hand the fantastic being that Ed Barker exudes. When the concert finished, I thanked him for the privilege and experience of sitting together, and he said very simply, “I could hear you, Ira, you sounded great!” Thank you Ed, I will never forget the experience.
When did you decide to become a musician? Did you have other career interests or goals that competed with music for you?
I have been playing music since I was three. I played violin, studied the Suzuki method, and quit around the age of 10. After a short battle with drums for a year, I picked up the bass at 12 and have never looked back. It wasn’t until the age of 15 that I seriously considered applying to college as a music major, with the dream of going in to the profession. The goal was to attend a fine music school and study with a teacher that had orchestral experience. I thought that if I did that my study of the orchestral repertoire would give me the best opportunity to land a job in a great orchestra. Little did I know that I played my cards right and everything unfolded the way I had anticipated. The specifics of school, teacher, summer festival, etc worked itself out, but the content of that was a visualization turned realization. Like other young men, I played sports, and had interest in them beyond high school. When it came down to deciding about a career, music resonated more strongly with me as something I could do for many decades, as opposed to a short athletic career.
How long have you owned your current bass/basses? What do you like about them? What do you wish were different about them?
My first Italian bass, circa 1850, has been in my life since 2002. I acquired it shortly before my last semester of study at Boston University. I played my senior recital and the Boston Symphony Section Bass audition with this new instrument, and it was a huge leap from the modern Romanian bass I was playing at the time. The Italian, formerly known as Tyrone, now known as Tyra, since having the Laborie endpin hole installed, is a beautiful chocolate brown color, and the sound is similar in description. The shoulders are extremely easy to get around, despite the bottom bout being much wider.
I have had numerous successful auditions, recitals, and competitions on this bass, and it has been a friend to me. The ironic part of all this is that it was previously owned by H. Stevens Brewster, the former Principal Bass of the National Symphony before Hal Robinson took the post in 1985. Mr. Brewster sold the bass to a student, who, went to grad school at Rice University, studying with Paul Ellison, and then became an established jazz musician in Houston. Then the bass goes back to Rice University, but now in my hands, as I study with Mr. Ellison, and then back to the NSO in 2005.
I recently purchased another fine Italian bass, also from the mid 19th century. This one is even smaller than Tyra, and also a wonderful sound throughout. It was owned by the late Kenneth Harper, former Assistant Principal Bassist with the Colorado Symphony. Ken was my teacher for two summers at the International Festival Institute at Round Top, and we stayed friends for years. Ken was one of those guys that just stayed engaged in lessons, conversation, concerts, without any notion of not being present. He was the most giving teacher I’ve ever had, and he taught me so much about music, life, and the orchestral world. Ken’s bass brings me joy, not only because it is one of the finest basses I’ve ever played, but because Ken’s spirit is very much a part of the sound, vibration, and character of the instrument.
If you could go back in time and tell your 18- to 22-year-old self something, what would it be?
Take a break! I worked diligently during those years, almost obsessively, perfecting my craft and giving up social opportunities to practice as much as possible. However, there is something to learning about the world, what is happening in your community, and being a part of something outside of your own schedule. I wish I had been more involved in the BU community, maybe even explore Boston more. The friendships and musical bonds that came from my years there are forever lasting, but sometimes you only live in a place once – take advantage of what a city has to offer you.
What changes have you seen in the last 10 years in the bass-playing world that have most surprised you?
Well, my youngest student Ruby, who just turned 9, can play some tunes in thumb position. Yes, that is a true statement. Through the George Vance method, students are exploring the instrument in boundless ways that I didn’t experience until the age of 14 or so. I’m sure this has been going on for a while, probably as far back as the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, but for me, seeing it first hand now, it’s extraordinary. I think strings like the Corellis and Bel Cantos have improved young students ability to make a quality tone at an earlier age. Another interesting factoid is how many Rabbath educated or inspired students are landing jobs in orchestras, and what that means for the future of the orchestral bass world. I personally believe that Francois’ message of playing with ease, having a bass that is set up to accommodate every note on the fingerboard, and the use of thumb for many of our fast orchestral passages is allowing us to elevate the standard of orchestral playing. Hal Robinson has noted this before, but in conjunction with the ease of play, recent audition winners are also the finest solo bassists. This is what you see with violin and cello winners, bass has moved in to this arena. It is so exciting to be part of this, and see where it goes.
What challenges do young bassists face today that you didn’t have to face when you are in school?
I’m sure the competition has always been there, but it seems that there are so many more incredible players now. Between ISB, national workshops, classes, and symposiums, the high standards of educational institutions, and the level of bass playing in orchestras, the culture is shifting. We are living in a bass renaissance, and are so fortunate to be interconnected while it’s happening.
Another point I hear about is that traveling with a bass is becoming more difficult and stressful. I had my flight trunk all through my school days and flew everywhere for auditions and sub work. Airlines have changed their policies about weight restrictions for bass, and this has made booking flights with certain airlines from certain cities impossible. I know AFM is working through petitions to correct this, but the process is probably complicated.
What sort of music – other than classical music – do you enjoy listening to?
I go through phases, but rock is always there. I’m a sucker for 70’s and 80’s rock, something about the whole culture seemed limitless and unleashed. Classical musicians, although under this veil of sophistication, care, and refinement, need to consider when to “explode” or “erupt” an articulation or gesture in the music. I think there is much to learn about emotion through all styles, genres, and configurations of music. Rock gets at the primal nature of sound in a way that we don’t experience in orchestra.