Bass Journey

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Donald Martin has been playing bass with the St. Louis Symphony for 50-plus years. He played with the orchestra when its concerts were in the former Kiel Opera House, and made the move to Powell Hall when it became the Symphony home in the late ’60s.

The other morning, before a Lost in Space concert rehearsal, he was about to pull his instrument from its case once again (the basses are kept in their touring cases for this part of the summer since they are going back and forth between Opera Theatre and Powell). Don said, “Do you have your camera?” Of course I did.

The opening of the case
The opening of the case

Don Martin opened the double bass case and exposed all the dark padding inside.

Don and bass on stage
Don and bass on stage

Don and his bass return to the Powell Hall stage. He sets a few things down on his bass box.

Don's bass. Detail.
Don’s bass. Detail.

“This looks kinda beat up,” I said to Don. “Think you’ll be in better condition in 200 years?” he quipped.

On stool. On stage
On stool. On stage

After more than 200 years, Don’s bass is still in tune. He said that he was told that his carbon fiber bow was “indestructible.” That is until he broke it. As you can see, it’s back in shape again.

A few measures of "Zarathustra."
A few measures of “Zarathustra.”

With “space” as the theme of the concert, of course Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is on the program. Don and I talked about the ubiquity of the theme. It’s heard on commercials, soundtracks, ringtones, but we agreed that Stanley Kubrick made best use of it, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I told Don that longtime Principal Timpani, the late Richard Holmes, once told me the famous opening timpani part was easy. “You could come out and play it,” Rick assured me. Don observed, “The timpani part may be easy, but not the bass.” He showed me those few measures above. “But for this show we only do the opening fanfare,” he said with some relief.

Don's bass box
Don’s bass box

“What’s in your bass box, Don?” “Today there’s a lot of pencils, a piece from an old candy bar, some cough drops.”

Different Drums

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Principal Timpani Shannon Wood was on stage taking pictures of a brand-new set of timpani Thursday morning prior to rehearsal of Puccini’s La Rondine. I wouldn’t say he was as excited as a child on Christmas morning, but he seemed pretty happy.

Shannon Wood with new Walter Light Mark XIV Timpani, handmade w/custom altelrations
Shannon Wood with new Walter Light Mark XIV Timpani, handmade w/custom alterations

He was taking photos so the maker could see them on the Powell Hall stage (see caption). Proof! Shannon told me the previous timpani, played on by the late Richard Holmes, were from the 1960s. Although this sounded as if they were prehistoric to me, Shannon explained that he had a set from the 1950s. He pointed to the pedals on the new set, a Dresden pedal, he explained, which timpanists can adjust with a flex of the ankle. Another set of timpani were placed center stage for the Puccini, which Shannon told me were used by the Youth Orchestra and by Associate Principal Tom Stubbs. Those have a Berlin pedal, Shannon said, which require a musician to raise his or her whole leg to adjust. “Not bad,” Shannon told me, “just different.”

The new timpani were fixed with plastic drum heads, rather than calf skin. Shannon said he used both types of drum head, and chose between the two “mostly due to weather.” The calf skin absorbs moisture more, and so will tend to drop or sag if the humidity is high; or rise when the humidity is low. “Calf is not so good in the orchestra pit” at Opera Theatre, he said.

Powell Hall has improved climate control on stage. Shannon shook his head imagining the logistical conundrums Rick Holmes faced during his 40 years on the job.