We've mostly managed to make do during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of us have transitioned from working at the office to working from home. We've adjusted to staying home instead of dining out as often. We've even learned new technology to stay connected. The same thing goes for the performing arts groups, who have stepped up to the challenge to stay connected with their audiences and find ways to provide entertainment.
One such group is the Houston Symphony, which instituted a weekly performance schedule named the "Living Room Series." Taking place on Friday nights and live-streamed directly from the orchestra members' homes, the hour-long recitals have given audiences the chance to get to know the stories of each musician.
More interestingly, we've gotten to know some of the stories of their instruments — which have their own captivating backgrounds. That got Houston Press to wondering...if we are getting only a few of the abbreviated backstories between performance selections, what are the stories we don't know? Lucky for us, the players were ready to spill the tea all about the interesting histories of their own instruments.
Robin Kesselman: Principal Double Bass
Viewers will get to hear Kesselman's recital during Friday's edition of the Living Room Series. In it, he will play the double bass that, unlike many other string instruments, is barely two decades old.
He was a music student in Los Angeles when he was presented with the opportunity to purchase a double bass made by Dan Hachez, one of the premier American bass luthiers.
"The Los Angeles Philharmonic emailed my teacher about someone in the area who was selling his Hachez double bass. It was this incredibly rare situation to have this reputable instrument being sold because they're usually collected. I chased it down that day. I hopped on an LA city bus, got the bass and dragged it back to my school. It was this unicorn that dropped into my lap, and it's the instrument I have to this day," he said.
Kesselman mentioned the reason these types of double basses are coveted is their tremendous evenness, clarity and quality of sound. Additionally, string instruments have a special quality to them. The more they are played, the better they perform. Since Kesselman's bass was relatively new, it was a chance for both the player and the instrument to grow together.
"It was commissioned by an amateur as a hobby instrument, and then it sat in a closet for seven years. It was brand new. The interesting thing about a new instrument is the wood is still changing, so it takes on the fingerprint of the player. If you play at a certain place on the string and close to the bridge, it starts to open up in that place, and it takes on those qualities. It takes on the X-factor, Harry Potter wand-making voodoo," he said. "Even when I play other instruments by the same maker, they all have a different signature to them. Mine is by far my favorite of his bases. Essentially, it woke up and found its voice as I developed my technique and learned how to play at a professional level. We learned how to play bass together. It’s a special partnership."
"I’ll never sell this bass as long as I live. It’s a part of me. But I’m looking for additional instruments to add to my arsenal," he said, regarding the fact that he owns only the single instrument.
Part of why he's like to add to his collection of basses is the transportation component.
"I practice a lot and need to do that to feel comfortable on stage and to develop my own skills. I drag my bass to and from the hall for every service. A lot of the other bass players have two basses: one to keep at the hall and one for home," he said. "It does wear on the instrument. You’re going to bash it on a door frame once in a while. That’s why those old basses look like Hell - they’ve lived some life."
Brinton Averil Smith, Principal Cello
Unlike Kesselman's, Smith had to search for his instrument, which requires lots of time and money.
"When you search for a cello, you can't just go into a store and buy one. You have to spend time with it. You have to go out of town, go to all the different shops and try them, and then you fly them home. You buy an extra seat on a plane, play it for a week or two, and decide if you want to keep it or send it back," he said. "We spent almost two years searching for my cello. There was a time my daughter thought there was nothing else in New York City than cello shops."
When he found the cello he wanted to play, the seller didn’t know the maker. If sellers can't name the maker, they usually give it a blanket label of "a 1700s Italian cello," which drops the price significantly. In other words, it becomes the price of a house and not a mansion.
Naturally, he wanted to know the age and maker of the cello. It turns out, that would require him to take a transcontinental journey if he wanted answers.
"I bought it in 2009, and we began a long process to see if we could find out who made it using dendrochronology. By measuring the spacing of the rings in the cello and comparing it year-over-year to something of a known age, you can get clues. The wood's youngest rings were formed in 1692, so the cello was probably built in the 1700s," Smith described. "When Houston Symphony was on tour in Brussels, I was able to take a train to London and have Charles Beare, 'the Pope of Cellos,' compare it side by side. He determined it was made by Katano Pasta between 1710 - 1720."
This came as good news to Smith. The golden age of cello-making was in Italy from the 1600s to the first half of the 1700s.
"You can’t think of a lot of other areas of technology where the height was reached in the 1700s, and we haven’t been able to duplicate it. But that’s what’s going on for string instruments. These instruments actually get better over time," he said.
With all well-used tools, even instruments require a fine tuning or the occasional repair. After all, if the musicians play for a living, they need to make sure their utensils are in tip top shape. When it comes to repair work, Smith exhibits extreme care about who he will allow to work on his cello. It's all about trust.
"It’s almost like going to a doctor. There are a lot of doctors, and there are probably more good doctors than doctors you trust, but when you have a personal relationship and someone you know will help you, they become your partner in a way. The people I entrust for repair work are the people I know because I went to school with them. For me, I need to have known them for a long time, and the people I know are in New York. That means once a year, I’m taking the cello to the City."
It's been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but for Smith, he doesn't like to be apart from his cello for too long.
"In the 11 years since I’ve had this cello, I’ve been apart from it for fewer days than I’ve been apart from my wife or daughter. We’re almost never apart," he said.
Mark Nuccio, Principal Clarinet
Nuccio is unlike Kesselman and Smith. While he still shops for his instrument, he also plays a part in its design.
One major clarinet distributer is France-based Buffet Crampon, which chose five American artists to design their first American instruments when they branched out into the United States. Nuccio is one of those chosen few.
"They have engineers and acousticians [who worked on the clarinets] and we refined it. We told them what was wrong with it and right with it...all the way from the metal to the board design to the shape of the keys," Nuccio said.
The clarinets are made from African blackwood, and the wood is the source of the vibration. The closer the wood originates from the center of the tree, the harder it is and and the harder the vibration. Those are just the physical elements. The more nuanced part of making the instruments happens afterward when they are finished by hand.
"Let’s say they cut the holes in the wrong place or sanded it in the wrong way, it affects the pitch. The idea is to get the perfect piece of wood that is finished — probably before lunch — in Paris rather than after," Nuccio said, referencing the country's affinity for wine.
Even after finding the perfect clarinet, it's an endeavor that many professional players will go through several times in their career.
"Unlike a violin where the wood gets better when it’s played, a clarinet gathers condensation inside of it as it is played. It has to be swabbed out. You can imagine if you’re doing that 30 times per rehearsal or concert, it erodes the shape of the board over time and at some point it changes shape and doesn’t play as well," he said. "You have to replace the clarinet every six to eight years. We might be playing six to eight hours per day. Every time we pull that swab through, we're shortening the life of the instrument. We can’t stop doing it because that condensation plugs the holes and the notes won’t come out the same if we left it alone."
One part he doesn't replace is the mouthpiece. Nuccio's mouthpiece is more than 100 years old.
"It’s all customized to me and how I want to sound. For that piece, we have one repair man in the country who cuts a board design and is able to focus the sound that helps with pitch and projection," he said.
The reed inside the mouthpiece, however, is a different story. Nuccio owns a home in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and the altitude change from Houston makes a difference in the performance of the reed. To adjust, he shaves the reed to a thickness that suits the new setting.
"Reeds come in different strengths. They need to be heavier at sea level than in thinner air. Nothing I play in Texas works in Colorado because the air is much thinner. I would sound like a fourth grader if I played the same size reed. It has to be whittled down," he added.
Too Long, Didn't Read
The moral of the story is that each instrument seen in the orchestra is wildly unique from the one located just next to it — even if they look exactly alike. The dedication and attention that goes into selecting and caring for the instruments is a level of complexity most never experience elsewhere.
"To understand what goes into it, I equate it to a baseball player grabbing a bat, tossing it away, and grabbing a different one. They look the same, but they’re different. The wood comes from a different part of the tree and has a different reaction. Someone who is a homer-hitter would have that kind of feel the same way we do with the instruments," Nuccio added. "That’s why if you listen to ten professional clarinet players, you’d hear a different quality even though they’re playing the same equipment. In one of my auditions, there were 410 applicants, and you wonder how they narrow it down to one. It’s the small things that those of us who win those jobs do to distinguish ourselves."
Kesselman adds, "Every one of these instruments has a whole universe of anal retentiveness and niche nuances. As obsessive as any athlete is about the types of screws that go in their skis, it’s the same for musicians...just on a different scale."
Houston Symphony’s Living Room Series takes place at 8 p.m. on Fridays in June. This week features Robin Kesselman on double bass with guest Allegra Lilly on harp. Next week features Matthew Roitstein on flute with members of his family. For information or to purchase tickets, visit houstonsymphony.org. $10. Visit the organization's social media pages or houstonsymphony.org/listenathome for free daily content updates including musician videos, blogs, archival audio and video performances.
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