Recital features ‘beast of an instrument’ double bass

Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

Standing as one of the tallest instruments in music, the 6-foot double bass still knows how to get low — in pitch.

Distinguished bassist Curtis Burris, the School of Music’s strings chair, leads the Music School Festival Orchestra’s bass section in its student recital from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday in McKnight Hall.

“They’re the basis of the orchestra,” Burris said about his seven bassists. “They’re the foundation.”

Like many things in life, orchestras are built from the ground up. And the double bass is the audial cornerstone of proper sound.

Bass players are frequently borrowing literature, because their repertoire is so limited.

“The bass typically is not a solo instrument, because a lot of people quite frankly have a hard time hearing that low,” he said. “So for a bass player to crawl out of the bowels of the orchestra is always terrifying.”

To accommodate, soloists resort to solo tuning — when they take the regular tuning and crank it up a whole step, which tightens the instrument’s strings. It also gives the bass a more brilliant sound.

“Or it can make it sound like a turkey being strangled, depending on how well it’s done,” Burris said. “It adds that much tension to the instrument. Instead of being that mellow bass sound, it has more of a penetrating sound.”

The bass and the viola can be the oddballs of the string family, because they have projection challenges. Still, Burris and crew will show their worth.

“We’re going to be doing some bass duets, which is a really pleasing sonority,” Burris said. “And then, we’ll be doing three of the standard concertos.”

The pieces highlight composers who championed bass literature, such as Serge Koussevitzky, Giovanni Bottesini and J.B. Vanhal.

Wearing a shirt showing a frantic bass player trying to play the double bass, Burris appreciates his primary instrument but understands the huge undertaking that comes with it.

“It’s such a beast of an instrument,” he said.

Burris has recently retired from the National Symphony Orchestra, as he spends some time in Mexico, where he is based in the winter.