There are probably reasons I’m not even aware of. Probably, my family had something to do with it, and the music that my brothers were listening to had to do something with it, and the music my parents were listening to. My parents were classical music fans, and I was lucky enough to go to Pittsburg Symphony concerts pretty often, but my oldest brother played electric bass, so I got interested in rock ’n’ roll when I was 10, 11, 12 years old
One of my first inspirations was the band Rush. I was fascinated by how precise their music was, how well-crafted it was, and that was something I listened to in the bedroom with my headphones on, discreetly trying my best to figure out what these guys were doing. Then, later, I made a pretty natural transition to the real bass from the electric bass and got into a local youth symphony.
I still remember the first note we played. It must have been a horrible youth symphony, because the conductor said, “Let’s start with a B-flat scale.” But I was astonished and transfixed by how great it felt to be at the bottom of everything and all the other instruments just stacking on top. From that moment, I thought, “This is it.”
Do you still play electric bass?
Not very often. For fun, I’ll get it out. I’ve played it in a pops concert here and there, but at this point, I’d like to leave that portion to the professionals, even though it’s something I enjoy.
Do you have a favorite bass player?
Some of my favorite classical bass players are onstage with me. I admire those guys very much. In terms of soloists, Edgar Meyer is, of course, unparalleled, and he’s a Nashvillian. There’s also a French bass player, François Rabbath, who has influenced generations of performers, and I admire his playing very much. On the electric bass, there’s really nobody else but Jaco Pastorius, though of course there’s also Victor Wooten, another Nashvillian.
Which composers write the best music for bass?
In my opinion, the best bass music has been written by bass players. Why did Beethoven write such great piano sonatas? Because he was a pianist. The same deal with the bass. If you go back to the earliest virtuoso bass players, it’s probably a guy named Sperger, who was Haydn’s bass player in the Esterhazy orchestra. So Sperger wrote sonatas, concertos, even symphonies. Later on, Bottesini is another virtuoso composer who wrote lots of great repertoire for the bass. In the 20th century, Serge Koussevitzky was the music director of the Boston Symphony and commissioned a lot of great orchestral works. He was a bass virtuoso and wrote a concerto and numerous show pieces. Now today, mentioning Edgar Meyer again, he’s written a lot of great music, mainly for himself to play.
So to answer your question: who’s written the best bass music? Bass players.
Are there orchestral composers who write especially interesting or unique music for the bass?
Out of today’s composers, John Adams. He’s written some really fascinating bass lines and interesting, quirky bass solos pop up in his music. No one can really touch Beethoven, though, in terms of bass lines. There’s something about the energy and spirit in his bass lines that is unmatched by any other composer.
What’s your biggest highlight of the last 10 years at the Schermerhorn?
It’s really not one moment, but when we performed Mahler’s Third in May of 2016, I realized, wow, I’ve actually performed all the Mahler Symphonies, and it’s been in this hall. So for me, that’s definitely a highlight.
What’s the most unusual thing that’s happened to you onstage?
One time at TPAC, with Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting, I forget who the solo pianist was, but it was one of the virtuosos of the day. The pianist made his entrance and realized something was wrong with the instrument. Discreetly and casually, he brought the orchestra to a halt, stood up, and peered into the body of the piano. Then he pulls out a rubber chicken. The entire audience just lost it. The pianist was a great sport — he was laughing, the conductor was laughing, 100 musicians onstage were laughing, 2,000 people in the audience were laughing.
I’d never seen anything like it. Apparently, earlier in the day, some stagehands or piano technicians were playing practical jokes on each other. They just forgot where the chicken was.
Why does classical music matter?
Because it sounds good. That’s really what it comes down to. Nowadays, we are programed to accept musical compositions that last a couple minutes. Most classical music demands a longer attention span. So that may be one of the hurdles. But really, why it matters is because it feeds people’s imaginations.
It also gives us a glimpse into what an earlier era was like, the same as architecture. You can go into a building that was built in 1820 and get a sense of what it was like to live in that era. And you also get a sense of how people haven’t changed, but their surroundings have. It’s the same for music. When you listen to a piece of music written in 1820, it gives you that same context — what people were grooving to back then. People grooved then, and people groove now, it’s no different.
Your wife, Sari, is also a musician, and your kids both play music. What’s it like having so many musicians in the house?
It’s a wonderful thing. We are lucky enough to have a piano, so both our kids will go by the piano, practice their lesson for 15 minutes, and move on. There might be a ukulele, so you’ll hear the ukulele, and then someone else goes by the piano. The best sound I’ve ever heard is when my two kids are singing in harmony, which is happening a little more, because one of the kids is quite a good singer and has a good ear for making a harmony part. That just blows me away. I feel like I’m in heaven hearing my kids sing in harmony.
Favorite composer? Beethoven
Favorite piece of music? Beethoven’s Ninth
Favorite non-classical musician? Jaco Pastorius
Favorite venue other than the Schermerhorn? Concertgebouw in Amsterdam
Favorite sports team? Barcelona Football Club
Favorite movie? Genghis Blues
Favorite Book? The Outlander series — all nine volumes
Favorite place in Nashville? The Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge. Every time I’m up there, I love the view.