The Bass is one of the largest and lowest instruments in the orchestra. Learn how it evolved and was used over the centuries, how it can play solos just like any other instrument, and more!
The Bass extension
Performances and recordings of Robert Oppelt
Giovanni Bottesini, Elegy No. 1 in D major
Serge Koussevitzky - Chanson Triste, Opus 2
Domenico Dragonetti - Waltz No. 3 for solo double bass
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by Robert Oppelt, who is principal bass of the national symphony orchestra. There is so much to learn about the bass and what it can do. Robert tells us how the instrument evolved and how composers used it over the centuries, how it too can play difficult solo literature, and he plays some big orchestral moments for us and tells us what it's like to be principle bass. Thank you so much for joining me, Robert Oppelt. We are excited to learn all about the bass but first, if you had to describe the bass to someone who had been to an NSO or an orchestra concert before, how would you describe it in a sentence or two?
Robert Oppelt: Well, I would say first of all, that obviously it's the largest instrument in the violin family. It's about as tall as a full grown person. Its primary purpose is to provide the harmonic and rhythmic foundation in an ensemble, in my case, national symphony orchestra. But it would provide a foundation in an orchestra or rock band, bluegrass, whatever.
John Banther: And that's something you hear quite a lot when it comes to bass instruments. And of course, the bass itself, that it provides the foundation, the footing for the rest of the band, whether it's jazz, bluegrass, orchestral or otherwise, to build upon. And the name itself, it seems different than instruments like the violin. We typically call it the violins. Someone might say fiddle but bass, there's string bass, acoustic bass, double bass or simply bass, or something else. There's quite a lot of different ways to call it too.
Robert Oppelt: Right. I was born in Kentucky, and down there, they would call it the bull fiddle, right.
John Banther: The bull fiddle.
Robert Oppelt: But the bull fiddle ... Yeah.
John Banther: Does it get that name bull fiddle because it's the size of the instrument or the sound or something else?
Robert Oppelt: The size of the instrument, yeah.
John Banther: It is quite unwieldy, it's quite large. Now, how does it make a sound?
Robert Oppelt: Well, like other instruments of the violin family, it's basically a wooden box which is a sounding chamber. And the strings are run over the top with a bridge. And the top of the instrument is supported internally by a bass bar on one side that runs the length of the lower side of the instrument, and the sound post runs front to back on the other side. It gets freedom to vibrate and the sound is transmitted from the bridge into the instrument that way.
John Banther: And the sound is transmitted into the bridge, into the body of the instrument, and some of the words you are using to describe, like ribs and sound post, because the instrument's under a lot of tension. It's not just a fully hollow box on the inside. There's things that are supporting it to keep that tension safely from not I guess, crumbling the instrument.
Robert Oppelt: Absolutely. They're supporting members but they also transmit vibrations from the top of the instrument to the back of the instrument. And then there's the sound chamber, which is the interior volume of error, which has to get moving adequately as well. And all of this is transferred and transmitted. Also, whatever the top and sides are made of is instrumental too. The top is made of a soft wood, usually spruce, and the back and the sides is usually maple. It needs a little bit more stiffness there. And then the top is the most flexible part of the instrument, being in the soft wood.
John Banther: It sounds like there's a lot more that goes into this than just carving out a hollow chamber from a tree. The sound resonates and reverberates from the body of the instrument. Now, when it comes to making the sound, you most typically see in the orchestra, someone using a bow to make the sound, rubbing it or pulling it across or pushing it across the strings. Is that bow different than you would find on the cello or the viola or the violin?
Robert Oppelt: Well, I think it reflects the size of the instrument, of course. The bass bow is therefore going to be heavier in weight because the strings are heavier and longer. It requires a little more force to get the strings vibrating with a bow. The bow is not any longer than those other instruments however, probably because we just couldn't reach as long. If our bows were truly as long as the violin or cello bow relatively, we would have to have an arm about 10 feet long. It's much shorter and the bow's typically made of pernambuco wood, which is from Brazil. Pernambuco wood is incredibly strong and can be shaped very easily. However, lately, it's become more scarce. It's obviously been over farmed, so there are more restrictions on that and we're seeing increasingly, bows made out of carbon fiber, which seem to perform very well. I don't own one but I see more and more musicians using them.
John Banther: That's interesting that it's not longer than the other bows that you find typically, but it's heavier. You would think that it's a little bit longer but of course ... Yeah, your arms would have to be quite huge to do that. Something a lot of people don't know is the sticker shock when it comes to buying a bow for your instrument, because the bass is important but the bow itself is also very important. These can cost on the low end, as much as your car or on the high end, as much as a very nice house. And when you're watching the orchestra play, you can see sometimes in the orchestra, in the bass section, that they're not all holding the bow the same way, there's this French versus German style of bow. What is the difference happening there?
Robert Oppelt: Going way back in the day when bassists were basically coming out of the viola da gamba period in the Renaissance, the bows for those instruments were held underhandedly. And I think the bass bow initially continued with that, especially in Italy, holding it underhand. It became a little more beefed up and engineered for more modern techniques. And then there was also an offshoot where this bow we call now the French bow, where some school continued holding or preferred holding the bass bow like a violin bow, which would be more on top in a pronated position. The German style is more underneath, supernated position, I guess you might say.
John Banther: Just to jump in, can you also describe this as underhanded being like you're trying to do a pull up with your palms facing towards you and then the French overhand, that's like you're trying to do a pull up with your palms facing away from you. Does that make sense, to give a visual representation?
Robert Oppelt: Yes, absolutely. I think the main advantage if there is one, of the German, is the arm is the power is ... In the actual grip, the power is unreleased. In other words, it's pent up in the ability to pronate the arm to the left, into the string. Whereas the French bow, the arm is pretty much already pronated but because you're over the stick more, you're getting more weight of the arm and the bow going directly into it.
John Banther: It sounds like there's differences in how the weight or the energy is brought onto the strings but overall, it's a personal a preference. It's not a problem if someone in the bass section is using a French versus a German bow.
Robert Oppelt: No, I should say it's been interesting in the history of this thing. Up until recently, you couldn't get a job in Germany unless you played the German bow. You weren't even allowed to audition for the orchestra. I'm assuming that has changed. And then orchestras like the Concertgebouw were traditionally French bow, and also some of the London orchestras. The Concertgebouw now has ... Or in the last 20 years, has had a couple of German bow players in there. The national symphony bass section, when I joined the orchestra in 1982, I was the only German bow player for the first 13 years I was here. And since then, just coincidentally, when we've had auditions we've recruited some German bow players. Now, we have better representation. We have 50/ 50, we have four German and four French. It's just totally coincidence and it's a fun situation for me.
John Banther: It sounds like this is something that's happening in a lot of different sections in the orchestra over the last couple of decades, especially where what was typically seen as, " This is how you do this exactly in this country, in this region, in this orchestra."
We're starting to see those kinds of barriers and walls being broken down, more of a mix. And I guess, you can see that 50/50 French versus German bows. Now, the bow itself, you also have to do something to the bow to prepare it play right. And this is something you don't usually see on stage right before a performance of an orchestra, and that is you have to put rosin on right, this sticky sap like substance.
Robert Oppelt: Sure. Well, you have to first adjust the tension of the hair. And usually, there's a knob at the end of the bow as you can tighten. And I'll just go straight to that because it's important, because we don't always have the bow sitting on the string. There are other techniques where we play off the string, where we bounce it. And so therefore, the tension ... Just like a basketball, if it's under inflated, it's not going to rebound appropriately. You need to get the tension set first. Then usually, it's something we have to judiciously apply to our hair. We put this rosin on there, which is derived from pine trees, I guess. I don't know. And that helps the hair grip the string.
Yeah, there're all different types of rosin. And for bass rosin, we need something that's a lot more sticky than what a violin would use for instance. And we spend a lot of our time, especially as bass players, playing, 'off the string'. Or the Italian term for it is spiccato. And this is really important for bass players because the bass tends to be ... Especially if it's not played well, can sound very muddy, relative to the violin of course. It's very low, strings are thick. We need to be extra clear on those lower registers. We might play off the string, when the violins might be more on the string. We really pride ourselves in having just super clear sound in the national symphony bass section.
John Banther: That's what you do most of the time but you also see of course, pizzicato, plucking the strings with your finger. You hear that most of the time in jazz, not as much of course in your orchestral music. Is that as complicated or involved as using a bow or is that simply just plucking the string?
Robert Oppelt: No, it's not nearly as complicated. I think a professional classical bass player and probably jazz too, has to understand that you have options still if you're doing pizzicato. In other words, just like when you bow, your bow is placed close to the bridge and there are good reasons for that in terms of good sound production. Also, when you pizzicato, if you pizzicato near the bridge, you get a more focused, direct, louder sound. But if you want a softer sound pizzicato, you back away from the bridge, you get more toward the middle of the length of the string and you get a more diffuse, rounder quality. These are things that we can adjust as musicians, depending on the music. If we're playing at Debussy and we need some dreamy, really soft round pizzicato, then we would go more toward the middle. If we want something like Shostakovich explosion, then we want to get closer to the bridge and really pull very, very hard. But it's fun, as an artist, you can adjust every aspect, whether it's with the bow or with pizzicato.
John Banther: Also, when I'm looking at the bass section, you see the variety in terms of some use German or French bow, some are slightly different in size, some look really old, some look really new. It looks there's a lot of variety. What's going on there? Are there some new instruments, some old, what's happening?
Robert Oppelt: Like fine wines, instruments require time to season and reach their potential. We have eight bass players. The best orchestral basses are very old instruments, at least 200 years old, well seasoned wood. Most of them are made by luthiers from Italy or England. It's a very individual thing but to have a bass in the bass section, it needs to be incredibly powerful, a loud instrument moving a lot of air, have punch. You'll find quite a lot of variety. My instrument that I use in the orchestra is purportedly an Italian instrument that's over 200 years old. My stand partner has an instrument which probably should be kept behind glass in the Smithsonian. It's a wonderful instrument constructed in 1620. That's probably the oldest instrument in the orchestra. What people don't realize what you're hearing with a live symphony orchestra is not only the artistry musicians but it's so special to have these instruments assembled. They're some of the greatest works of art these instruments, and the sound is so unique and we've lucky enough to play those instruments, a truly unique acoustic sound that you're hearing.
John Banther: That's such a great point to remember. It's so beautiful I guess, in a way, when you're looking at for instance, the bass section, everyone's playing together the same music, something new by a new composer but these are instruments from different centuries, different makers, different countries, different regions, different types of wood, different builds, there's so much that's going on there but yet everyone is playing together, creating this unified sound. Now, there's one thing that you can also notice when you go to an orchestra concert. When you look at the bass section, most of them now have this device that is on top of the bass and it looks rather retrofitted, that it didn't come with the bass originally. What is that device? What is that doing with the instrument?
Robert Oppelt: Right, right. We call it an extension because that basically explains its function. It extends the lowest string of the bass from E down to C. And the reason we have that is because historically, the bass has doubled the cello instrument. The lowest note of the cello is the low C. There have been limitations for instance, in Beethoven Symphonies or whatever, when we should follow the cello line down below our low E where we can't do it, so we'd have to transpose or something. Some smart German in 1880 decided, " I'm just going to cut my scroll and put a length of fingerboard up there, and get a longer string and have some lever to close that, shut off that fingerboard or open it so that I'll be able to get down to low C"
We have now the full low range of the cello. It's unwieldy, you can't play a lot of notes, can't play fast notes. It's best for therefore sustained notes, but we really enjoy the fact that we can augment our range and go pretty darn low, basically one of the lowest sounds in the orchestra is our low C.
John Banther: And that has to have a huge filling section in the orchestra when it's the whole bass section doing that, especially when they're doubling also the cellos, it must add a lot of extra depth that you certainly don't hear all the time. It's not used that often from what I've seen.
Robert Oppelt: Right. And I will add also, that it's something that we require of a new player coming in. We just tell them, " If you want to be a professional symphony or musician bass player, you need to have this capability."
Sometimes a musician, a bass player will audition. The instrument doesn't have the extension. They might win the job on their bass, and we'll say, " Hey, nice bass. But you need to be able to do this. This is what you signed up for. You need to have the extension."
It's not complicated. It might cost a thousand dollars to have one as you said, retrofitted on the instrument.
John Banther: And I'm certain everyone says yes in that situation, " Of course, I'll get the extension added on there."
Now, thinking about where the bass came from, where it evolved from, earlier you mentioned an instrument that is not so familiar as the bass, that is the viola da gamba, this instrument that is similar to a cello in how it's hold and it's upright and your sitting quite often when it's played, and it has frets on it. Talk about the history here I guess, where did the bass come from? Was it from this viola da gamba?
Robert Oppelt: Right. Well, it's hard to tell when the earliest basses existed, perhaps they had them back in ancient Greece. I don't really know but it appears that they were common in the Renaissance. I did a little reading here, and I think the first mention in writing was from 1493, in reference to some Spanish musicians who were on tour in Italy. But yes, they came out of the large vials. And if you view Renaissance paintings, you can quite often see a group of musicians singing and playing instruments, perhaps in a church. And you'll spot a very large bass fiddle back in the corner. There were large bass vials and actually, a German composer who was a predecessor to Johann Sebastian Bach, I have this quote here in front of me that he articulated back in 1636. And I'm just going to read that to you because I think it's really cool. He says, " The violone or the (inaudible) is the most comfortable, charming and best instrument to give the music a special color."
In support thereof, are the most famous musicians in Europe who use this instrument everywhere these days. I agree with him, it's a charming and comfortable instrument. It came out of the Renaissance and going into the classical period, I think it was termed mostly in Vienna with the term, the violone. That was back in the time of Haydn. As instruments and orchestra spread throughout Europe, the bass went along with it.
John Banther: Its early popping into fruition in the Renaissance time, this is roughly 1400 to 1600 this time period, it sounds like it came out of necessity. They needed something lower to fill out the sound, especially when you think of these cathedrals and churches that had huge spaces and you could really fill that sound, maybe that had something to do with it as well. It sounds like from the Renaissance period into the Baroque, the time of Vivaldi and Bach, it was not to say hodgepodge but maybe people were coming to this instrument from different sides. And then by Joseph Haydn around 1750 and a little bit later, is that where you see the bass in its current form now appear?
Robert Oppelt: Well, in terms of the size of the instrument, it's hard to know what those instruments were like. There were very large basses made obviously to use in the churches, but when you're going to be playing in an orchestra, like for instance Haydn had at the (inaudible) palace, there would need to be adequate facility of the player and the instrument would need to be of a shape that was conducive to that. Not overly large and Haydn of course used the instruments in his symphonies and such but he also enjoyed spotlighting the violone, so quite a few of his symphonies have solos within the movement itself on the violone. And actually, a number of those we ask on modern day symphony orchestra auditions.
John Banther: And we're going to have pictures on the show notes page at classical breakdown. org, this violone instrument and also pictures of that extension you mentioned earlier. It sounds like in its early life, it came out of this necessity to fill the sound. It is playing a lot of the foundation elements in terms of harmony. There's a lot of tonics playing the roots of the chords, providing rhythmic propulsion as well in the bass, which is something it's absolutely doing today in pretty much all genres. Now, when did it start to creep away from this double bass meaning, meaning it was doubling the other low instrument, like the cello? When did it start getting its own lines? Is this also in the classical period, thinking Haydn and Mozart, or is that a little later, with Beethoven?
Robert Oppelt: Right. Well, I think it probably went in two directions because the bass still functions best as the foundational instrument, often doubling for instance, the cello line. But I think you could safely say in the 19th century, that as symphonic music progressed, the instrumentations got more complex with certainly Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss and Wagner, the more creative these composers became, the more they wanted unique sounds. And then they would utilize every instrument in the orchestra to the max, whether it be the Piccolo or the bass. You would find the basses playing certainly more by themselves. We were pretty much just at the mercy of the composers and the evolution of music through classical period into romantic period and modern music. But we still are basically the foundation of the ensemble. Obviously, any composer nowadays has heard the bass in every form, every role, and they have the option to do that. We can be just the foundation in a movie score or we can have a complete solo, like Saint- Saëns Carnival of Animals, where the bass section plays by themself, an entire variation.
John Banther: I like what you said with you're at the mercy of the composer, because it really seems like that sometimes. Early on, you see nice parts written for the bass but they're not overly complicated or super technical in the way that I think most bass players could sit down and play them without much trouble today. But then just a few years later, you get someone like Beethoven who in his symphony number six, writes this almost absurd line in the basses. I feel bad when you watch a bass player play this line because they're going all over the instrument working ... It's like the Olympics for the bass and it's not even always coming across in that music.
Robert Oppelt: Yeah. I think you're talking about the storm scene of Beethoven's six symphony. And obviously, Beethoven knew that the notes weren't going to be playable. It's basically an effect, it probably sounds like a gliss. I don't know. I guess, in teaching it, I've worked with students and we tried to get it as clear as possible but basically, it's just the sound of thunder and hysteria. It's more like a glissando and you try to finger it as well as you can and make sure you articulate it well with the bow. But I think it's an effect and Beethoven probably chuckled as the ink was drying with that one.
John Banther: The gliss, meaning a glissando, you're getting some of the notes in between the notes that are written on the page, because it's very fast ascending or a line that's going up, isn't it, in that bass part?
Robert Oppelt: Right, you're not hearing every single note. You're hearing the beginning and the end mostly, and it's slippery in between there.
John Banther: And going from there to the later part of the 19th century, when do we start to see solos written for the bass, not just in terms of there's a moment that maybe Haydn will give a nod in a symphony or something else, but a full on solo for the instrument with accompaniment.
Robert Oppelt: Oh, you're talking about within the orchestral repertoire or in a solo realm?
John Banther: I guess, both. I'm not sure which ... I guess, chicken and the egg, which came first.
Robert Oppelt: Right. Well, there have been virtuoso soloists of the double bass going back to the Barque period, especially back in Vienna. And I think in the 19th century, we had some pole bearers for that. We had Dragonetti and Bottesini, players who were ensemble bassists but they also felt they had more to say than that. And they found ways to come across as virtuosi with their instrument. Again, Dragonetti and Bottesini, fantastic players and all bass players today still play music written by them. And then I think the next virtuoso of note would be Serge Koussevitzky around the turn of the 1900, was a virtuoso bass player and also played in orchestras in Moscow. He eventually became the conductor of the Boston symphony orchestra. We have had bass soloists and there are also some today. And we are expected as bass players, modern day bass players, to pretty much play solos as well as any violinist or cellist.
John Banther: And that's something that not everyone understands or assumes, and that is the bass can do quite a lot. The low instruments can often play just as fast, just as technical as higher instruments. We've learned a lot about how the bass functions, the different parts of the bass, how you make a sound, where it came from, how it's evolved and brought us to today. Coming up next, I think we're going to hear some excerpts from the bass, that's right after this. Classical Breakdown is made possible by WETA Classical. Listen to the music anytime day or night at wetaclassical. org or on the WETA Classical app. It's free in the app store. Okay Robert, what is the first thing you're going to play for us?
Robert Oppelt: Okay. Well, what I'd like to play is the very opening of Mahler's second symphony, the resurrection. And the reason I'm playing that is because I'm actually practicing it, preparing it now. Michael Tilson Thomas is going to come and conduct the national symphony and this is one of the works that we're going to be playing. It's also significant because it's also a passage that we ask on national symphony bass auditions. All bass players who want to be professional musicians, they know this passage.
John Banther: That is quite an incredible sound coming from the bass in the beginning of this symphony. There is so much happening. You're hearing different dynamics, sounds like different accents attacking notes different ways. And I love the clarity of those low notes and just how they start immediately. There isn't this woof or sneaking in sound. You think it's a huge instrument being unwieldy but it just pops right in there, even with those low notes. Tell us what's going on with this one and what makes it challenging for the bass? What are you focusing on?
Robert Oppelt: Mahler wants it to sound incredibly violent and ominous. What we're actually doing is employing ... We talked about the bow before playing on the string or off the string, much of this is played off the string to get as much clarity as possible. But in the beginning, there are two individual strikes, as you might say. And then we go into this thematic material. And Mahler's very, very specific about what he wants. He always is specific about the tempo, the articulation, whether it's loud or soft. And he gives sometimes some very, very specific even instructions that don't even seem musical really. Yeah, where you're expected to use your imagination, I guess you might say. But in this case, this excerpt is about clarity and consistency of rhythm.
John Banther: And Mahler is a reason why a lot of musicians know a bit of German, because as you said, he's so specific with what he wants in how parts are played and how the music is interpreted. And also, as you said, sometimes he's writing sentences that you have to interpret that aren't so musical, but give I guess, that visceral violent feeling from that opening. That's quite an imposing way to start a symphony, especially with the bass section. Now, what is another example of the bass you can play for us?
Robert Oppelt: Okay. Well, I mentioned Michael Tilson Thomas will be in town. One of the things we're playing with him is his own composition, it's called Four Playthings of the Wind, based on poems of Carl Sandburg. And one of my duties as principal bass player is to play solos that appear within the orchestra repertoire. And in this particular case, there are a number of them. I just have the music here, I've never heard a recording of the piece. I have metronome markings, so I basically know how fast it goes. I practice the music beforehand, sometimes months. In this case, three weeks. And I try my best to put it together as well as possible so that at first rehearsal, it sounds good but I'm also going to have to be flexible in case he wants me to change some things. This first excerpt is a boat excerpt and it's very short, but it's actually cool. It goes from a mid range to a very high range, and then there's a tremolo. It's a very fast flutter with a glissando which slides up at the very end.
John Banther: In just that tiny little bite of music, there's a lot of things happening. The tremolo at the end you mentioned, it sounds like that's when you're going back and forth with the bow fast to create this fluttering sound. There's a glissando, you're getting notes in between the notes, a lot is happening. Also, am I hearing, is there a harmonic in there as well on that higher note? It sounds suddenly very high, how is that achieved?
Robert Oppelt: Yes. Well, you have your core notes where you're stopping the string against the fingerboard but they're also harmonics, which are notes that just appear in the string itself as the string vibrates, where if you actually lightly touch them, you isolate that particular pitch. There are certain nodes, we call them nodes, N- O- D- E, along the length of the string. And in this case, there's a high F sharp harmonic which appears over the note B at the mid level of the fingerboard. I simply just take my finger off the fingerboard but keep touching the string, and it produces this high F sharp, which is the highest note in the passage.
John Banther: Do you have another example from this piece by Michael Tilson Thomas?
Robert Oppelt: This one is not exactly a catchy tune. It's a pizzicato passage, which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense except it's really rhythmic. And there's a little note from Mr. Tilson Thomas that says, " It's going to be alternating with the electric bass."
I'm not sure what that means. I think there's a smaller group, maybe even what we call a (banda) or banda, playing on stage with electric bass in it.
John Banther: A small, extra band on stage.
Robert Oppelt: Right. And there's an electric bass in that ensemble. I don't know how the acoustic bass is going to balance an electric bass. The volume is going to be quite different, but it's tricky to finger it. In other words, the notes don't lie consecutively near each other, but just going to get it ready and we'll see what happens and be ready for it. Here it is.
John Banther: It really does sound like the notes aren't close together, but they're all coming through there. And so it alternates with the electric bass. It sounds like there's a whole lot that you don't know when it comes to this piece because you haven't heard it, it's not been recorded like this. How do you approach it? You've already said that you need to have it ready and everything of course, for the rehearsal, because then you have to be flexible, " Oh, we have to play it a little bit maybe louder here, or a slow down in this section."
Something like that. What's it like putting something together that's unknown?
Robert Oppelt: Well, you have to be prepared for anything and there's very limited time in the rehearsal. For instance, we're not going to have time to talk, Michael Tilson Thomas and I, in the rehearsal. We're not going to talk for five minutes on stage about this solo. I'm going to be ready to go, trying to play it at the metronome. However, because it's music and Michael Tilson Thomas has his own concepts, I have to be prepared that he's going to want either slower, faster or with different nuances that aren't indicated in the part. I actually try to think of all the possibilities. I might try it faster, prepare it faster, slower. And then with some rubato, where you're taking a little more time here and there. And so when I get to the rehearsal, I'm going to keep an eye on him and do whatever he indicates just by the way he waves his arms. It's possible after I play it, hopefully he'll say, " Hey, that was good. What I'd like you to do is a little bit more this way or a little more that way."
And then I have to adjust. I want to be as prepared as I can be, ready to go but also incredibly flexible.
John Banther: You have one more thing for us here to enjoy. And I understand this is actually from a CD of yours, Just Music, featuring you as a solo bass player. What are we going to hear?
Robert Oppelt: Right. Well, I mentioned Koussevitzky before, and this is one of the pieces he wrote probably around 1900. At that point, his musical mind was of a late romantic period. And this is a piece Chanson triste, which in French is sad song, very romantic style, slow melody, lots of vibrato. It's incredibly sad music but it has also variety within it. We're not going to hear the whole thing but I think it's a good example of how bass players, we are down in the trenches of the symphony orchestra but we also have to develop our musical mind, our musical hearts. And this is one way to do it, by playing expressive music, perhaps with a piano.
John Banther: Absolutely beautiful, Robert. You say it's sad and it has that sad quality to it but there is such passion and emotion in the music and your playing behind it. It's just fantastic to hear the bass in a different light. We've heard some low orchestral excerpts, we've heard something brand new. Now, we're hearing something ... We're hearing the bass in a way that we don't always get to hear it, and that is as a soloist with a piano. And the sound is a little bit different, the sound is a little brighter compared to what we've heard so far from you. Are you playing on a different bass or is the tuning different on the instrument? How are you getting this brighter sound?
Robert Oppelt: Customarily, when bass players are playing concertos and pieces like that, they might strive for a little advantage over the orchestral instrument, by using what we call a scordatura, it's an Italian word which means we're retuning the instrument. In this case of bass players, we're taking it up one whole step. It's a little bit brighter quality, it cuts a little bit better. The instrument's a little bit more flexible under the hands, you can get a more soloistic quality. Koussevitzky as a soloist, always employed solo tuning. In that particular piece, I had to use it.
John Banther: Now, let's talk about your role as principle bass. What is the role of principle bass in the national symphony orchestra? What does that entail? How is that different from someone else in the bass section?
Robert Oppelt: Okay. Well, the first thing I would say is, I help determine ... Actually, I'm principally responsible for determining the bowings for the whole bass section, meaning when they're swinging their arm right or left, that we're doing it together. And sometimes the technique that we'll be using with the bow, I will be determining as well. Some of that is determined at the rehearsal, some of that technique is also just implied because they're experienced musicians. Another thing I will do is communicate with the conductor, whether during the actual rehearsal if I have to ask a question. Or during the break, I might go up to him, talk to him at the podium if there's something in the music that I don't quite understand or we need to agree upon. Then I also try to play when we're actually performing, try to play in a way that helps unify the bass section musically and for us to play together.
Sometimes I have to be a little bit of conductor, especially when the conductor is more ... Let's just say he is predisposed. He is doing the maestro pose or he's a little bit busy for whatever reason, and the bass section needs to lay down a good pizzicato right on time, all eight of us, then I might have to just lurch a little bit forward or gently somehow indicate where to put that. And those guys are seated behind me, they can see that. That usually works, but that's part of the ... One of the fun things about it is we all feel things together but it's a living organism, sometimes a player here, a player there needs to move a little bit and it helps us play together.
And then I think my final purpose, we've been talking about solos, is again, that I play any solo that appears in the orchestral repertoire. For instance, Gustav Mahler has a pretty important bass solo, even though it's only eight measures long in the opening of his third movement. And I mentioned Haydn, there are quite a few very challenging solos among Haydn. We have to be good with playing solos. And so it's a different mindset. As soon as you have to play a solo in the principal chair, you're going to project it with a little more clarity, a little more character, and make sure it's got enough sound. It's like switching to high gear in a six speed car.
John Banther: A lot of great things there. Well, first that soul you're talking about in the third movement, that's from Mahler's first symphony I believe, that's what we're hearing in the background right now. You have to play the solos that are coming from the bass section. You're determining the bowings, acting as a liaison with the conductor, a lot of things that all the other principles also have. Also interesting, very important when you're talking about sometimes you need to lead the section in an entrance. For example, when the conductor is bringing someone else in or otherwise focused, they're all looking to you. When you're watching a concert, you can see principle players in the strings and pretty much all of them but especially here, looking at the bass, give a little more of an exaggerated gesture to really land on that entrance it sounds like. They're interpreting for us maybe how we would breathe on a brass instrument or a wind instrument to come in, adjuster with the arm or maybe even breathing as well.
Robert Oppelt: Exactly, exactly.
John Banther: You mentioned playing a solo with the NSO, which you've done a couple of times in recent years, what is that like going from the back of the stage where sometimes you have to bring the section in because the conductor's otherwise preoccupied, to now the conductor being right next to you, you're right at the front. What is that like?
Robert Oppelt: Right. And you're correct, I played a solo back in June, a piece by Giovanni Bottesini, one of the 19th century virtuosi. It was called (inaudible) and then in December, a Mozart concert aria for bass singer and double bass. And what's it like? Well, I will just be honest and say it's pretty intimidating because I don't do it very often. I think even for instance, a correlation could be a race car driver. The first time they crack 200 miles per hour, it throws them off. But if they do it every day, you learn to survive and flourish in that, right. I don't do it very often either. I train as well as I can so that I'm not intimidated as much when I'm actually up there. I'll rehearse with a pianist, I'll play for all kinds of people, even in my house, so that when I get up there, it's not a shock.
Again, if I did it every week, I'd probably be quite comfortable with it. But as it is now, I do it only every two or three years. And I only have 15 minutes to rehearse up there. I want to be as prepared as possible and condition myself. Just like an athlete would, you practice and practice and then when you're up there, hopefully you feel comfortable enough to be a successful musician and fool everybody.
John Banther: Well, that is a big part of being a musician that people don't know in that yes, you practice your music but you practice performing as well, especially when it's like this, where it is different from the usual. If you do it every week, then yeah, you do it every week. But if it's only every once in a while, you have to prepare yourself for that, it'd be irresponsible to just wing it and hope it just turns out. But rather, you play for friends in your house, you play for colleagues, you work with a pianist. There's a lot that builds up to the actual performance. That must be very special to take that bow at the front of the stage every few years as a solo instrument in the front.
Robert Oppelt: Yeah. I think it's a great honor that the conductor has confidence in me and feels I'm up to those challenges. And I think any principal should be capable of getting up and playing a solo concerto or whatever in front of the orchestra. And I hope to do it again. It was a lot of fun. Again, definitely the pressure is turned up and I have tremendous respect for the soloists who do this for a living. They fly different city every week and they get up there and they have 30 or 40 different concertos committed to memory. And also, our concert master, Nurit Bar- Josef who plays solos basically on a weekly basis, and also concertos, have tremendous respect for these people.
John Banther: And so now we've learned so much about the bass, where it came from, how it makes a sound different parts of the instrument, how it's been used over the years. We've heard you play some big moments from Mahler's symphony, a new piece we've not even heard yet, solo work with the piano, all the stuff about being a principal bass player. There's one more question I have, and it's a question I love to ask. And you can change the names if you need to or the time period, anything at all. And that is, I'm wondering, what is the craziest or just most odd thing that's happened to you on stage?
Robert Oppelt: Right. If I think back over my career, there have been some things and some of them, I probably would be embarrassed to mention, so I'm going to steer it another direction, which is I think probably one of the most memorable moments of my career, which was when the national symphony orchestra went on tour to the Soviet Union in 1993. We made two trips to Russia with Rostropovich, Mstistlav Rostropovich, the great cellist, and who was lost his citizenship for supporting human rights in the Soviet Union. In 1990, his citizenship was restored so we went back to celebrate that and that was his grand return. In 1993, we were invited back and we were to play a concert in downtown, right in red square, right in front of the Kremlin, ostensibly, we were there to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the death of Tchaikovsky, but it just so happened that Moscow was in the grip of a constitutional crisis at the moment. There was a lot of political significance.
And this was basically October 1st, it was below freezing, the wind was howling. You've heard of the phrase, the show must go on. Well, guess what, this show had to go on. And so we were all in our winter coats, hats, gloves, everything you can imagine, just like it was a snowstorm. Somehow, we got the music off for a hundred thousand people there, including Boris Yeltsin standing next to Rostropovich's wife Galina, just 50 feet from me. It was just surreal and just an incredible, intense historical moment that I will always have photographs in my mind from for the rest of my life. It was just an incredible moment.
John Banther: What an experience, that was such a historical and significant event, Rostropovich going back and remember ... Yes, taking the NSO on tour there. Yeah, what an incredible experience of just being there, all those people, the freezing cold. That's the same, the show must go on. There are incredible things that happen behind the scenes sometimes right before you go on stage. And of course, the show always has to go on. Well, thank you so much Robert Oppelt, for just sharing and enlightening us to all the great things about the bass.
Robert Oppelt: Well, thank you, John. It's been a pleasure talking with you today and I hope I was instrumental in recruiting some bass fans out there.
John Banther: Absolutely. That was quite a demonstration of the bass, wasn't it? I'll include some of those orchestral moments and solos on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown. If you have any comments, questions or ideas, send me an email at classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. And if you've enjoyed the podcast, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther, thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.