Harbison: Pick a Tuning

Harbison: Pick a Tuning
© courtesy Joel Quarrington
“I love the sound of the bass playing a solo line.” So states John Harbison on the eve of the Toronto Symphony’s “New Creations Festival,” which highlights the 1 April premiere of his Concerto for Bass Viol conducted by Hugh Wolff. The concert features Toronto’s own principal bassist Joel Quarrington. The three-movement work was commissioned by the International Society of Double Bassists in a consortium of 15 North American orchestras who are presenting the work in a series of “rolling premieres,” with each orchestra spotlighting its own principal bassist.

ISB general manager Madeleine Crouch comments, “The International Society of Bassists has long dreamed of commissioning a new concerto for double bass by a major composer. When John Harbison accepted our invitation to write a new work [for us], we were elated...music lovers from coast to coast will have an opportunity to hear John’s [piece]. For many, it will be the first time they’ve heard the double bass in the role of solo instrument...I think everyone’s in for a real treat.”

“[The double bass],” Harbison reflects, “has a very unusual quality that I think makes it particularly appealing...” Having previously composed concerti for the violin, viola, and cello, Harbison found this concerto posed one unique challenge. “The only way it affected the actual composition is the factor of the tuning of the bass. The standard issue of the ‘solo tuning’ that a number of bassists choose for their instrument (with the entire orchestra then playing up a whole step) means that there is a pre-thinking involved for the orchestral part — so as to make sure it will work in both key areas. This particularly affects string harmonics and the upper registers of instruments. Then, an added and quite interesting tuning issue is that some very fine players...are playing with an entirely different tuning from either of the two normal ones. This other tuning uses the instrument in fifths rather than the normal fourths. It means, of course, an entirely different set of harmonics and a different range both on top and below. So, while I was composing the work, I was really thinking of three different tunings at once. I wrote only one solo part but [made] sure in [my] mind that it would work in all of these contexts...” *

Next month, on 5 May, Harbison’s concerto receives its US premiere at the Houston Symphony (led by Hans Graf), with principal player Timothy Pitts. Performances continue over the next two years in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Florida, Greenville, Houston, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Minnesota, New Mexico, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle, Toronto, and the University of Iowa.

* As told to Carson Cooman for Music & Vision

“I’ve very much enjoyed working on this piece and I’ve never been as excited about playing a new work... It’s written so well, and it perfectly suits the instrument in its melodic, singing quality. It’s technically challenging in all the right ways. I’m certain it is a colossal addition to the repertoire and it will be popular not only with players but audiences as well.”
— Joel Quarrington

Concerto for Bass Viol c.25'
Doublebass; 2(pic,afl).2(ca).2(bcl).2(cbn)/2200/timp.1perc/pf/str (max 12.12.8.8.6)

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