The Closet Soloist (Diva Wannabe)

As a bassist I spend most of my musical life as an accompanist. It’s a special skill and one I quite enjoy – doing everything I can to make other musicians sound good. In a jazz setting I frequently get to “solo” – to improvise melodies while others accompany me – but most of the time it’s laying down the harmonic foundation and playing with the right nuance and subtlety to allow the “real” soloists (vocalists, violinists, saxophonists, etc.) to shine through. It has been said that every bassist is a closet cellist – that instrument that imitates the sound and range of the human voice more than any other. And it is true, I have dabbled in cello playing ever since I fell in love with Elinor, a cellist in Junior High orchestra who was a year behind me in school. Playing solo Bach on the cello is gratifying but not something I would do in public. There are so, so many who can do it much better. But in recent years playing for English country dances (where I get to play the tune) and other folk and classical settings has satisfied some of my need to spin melodies while others toil around the harmonies. 

Yes, I know of and have played many of the various bass concerti, sonatas, and the like. But it’s just not the same. And, to tell the truth, it’s just plain too much work. Give me an instrument that plays naturally in the singing range without having to go to extremes. Enter the viola da gamba. About 25 years ago UNC professor Brent Wissick introduced me to the bass viol by way of the violone which I had started playing with The Society for Performance on Original Instruments (later known as Ensemble Courant). Here was a bass instrument that could play the foundation role in a continuo band, be an equal partner to any vocalist, or being the searing, soaring soloist in an intricate Marais composition. And it has frets. It’s incredibly easy to learn to play and devilishly hard to master. But there aren’t 7 million (grossly exaggerated guess – I mean, how many people DO play the cello worldwide?) other folks out there doing the same thing so I sometimes get my moment in the spotlight.

So a couple of times a year or so I get to be the soloist or one of the soloists on viol and this weekend is one of them. I’ll be playing a Buxtehude Sonata for viola da gamba and violin with Baroque violinist Andrew Bonner and accompanied by harpsichordist Beverly Biggs in a Baroque and Beyond concert at the Chapel of the Cross church in Chapel Hill. Ironically, Andrew was a nerdy young violin student in my Intermediate Orchestras at the Duke University Precollegiate String School many years ago (I won’t say how many!) and is now making his way as one of the many young, talented professionals in our area.

I’m planning on enjoying my diva moment!