By: Alex Hanna, CSO Principal Bass since 2012
This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to perform as concerto soloist with the Bellingham Festival of Music (BFM). The Festival Orchestra is made up of many of the country’s finest orchestral musicians.
When the BFM first invited me to play as concerto soloist, the Festival’s Music Director, Michael Palmer and I settled on the concerto in D Major by Johann Baptist Vanhal. We chose the piece for its wonderful musicality. However, it presents many unique challenges as the piece was composed for a completely different tuning system than what is commonly in use today.
Almost all bassists in the world today play in standard fourths tuning, where the strings are tuned to E-A-D-G. The Vanhal concerto was composed for the “Viennese tuning,” where the strings are instead tuned to A-D-F#-A. Despite this, many bassists choose to play the concerto in fourths making a few changes to accommodate the fourths tuning. However, for my performance I chose to learn Viennese tuning so that I could play the piece as the composer originally intended. It was extremely confusing at first—kind of like driving a car where the pedals, gears and instruments are all in different places, but in the end it was the right choice. The concerto sounds much more resonant and natural in Viennese tuning, although there are many obstacles. For example, playing in this tuning required me to obtain a special extended low A string which was made especially for my bass by Pirastro Strings in Germany. Also, there is no sheet music available for this tuning so I had to re-learn the entire concerto by ear. Throughout this past season, I would play CSO concerts in standard fourths, and then practice Vanhal at home in Viennese. The entire process was very challenging!
If the new tuning wasn’t demanding enough, managing the logistics of traveling across the country with a bass can be a real headache. Back in the old days, many bassists used to take commercial flights, buy an extra seat for the bass and take it into the cabin. Now the rules have changed and the only option is to fly with one of the few airlines that allow musical instruments in the luggage hold. The risk of damage to the instrument is very high, so I avoid it at all costs. I now ship my bass air cargo when I have to fly. This last trip to Bellingham cost $600 round trip--more than the airfare for myself!
The bass flies in a special hard case measuring about 7 feet tall and weighing over 100 pounds. The case costs around $4,000. It needs to be shipped the day before I fly myself so that it will be ready for pick-up at my destination. This means a lot of trips to the airport, especially since the bass needs to fly out of Midway, while I usually fly from O’Hare. Upon arrival, I rent a large SUV and put the back seats down flat. The bass flight trunk is so large that it takes up most of the car with the top resting on the dashboard between the driver and passenger. It’s expensive and time consuming, but the safety and reliability is worth it.
As if that weren’t hard enough, the stools on which bassists perch are also an essential part of our setup. The height, material and angle all have to be carefully calculated. My custom bass stool is made by Concert Design in Canada and I don’t play without it. I shipped a very large box containing my bass stool via UPS the week before my arrival in Bellingham. After all of this, packing my own suitcase and getting on the plane was a piece of cake!
All of this preparation, time, money and work was a huge undertaking. It’s crazy to think that we musicians make such efforts, all to play a piece of music that only lasts seventeen minutes. And yet, I look forward very much to performing the Vanhal concerto at home with the CSO this coming season December 17th, 18th and 19th!