Remembering Joseph Guastafeste

Joseph Guastafeste in 1998

The Instrumentalist

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the passing of Joseph Guastafeste, who served as principal bass from 1961 until 2010. He died in International Falls, Minnesota, on September 22, 2023, at the age of 93.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Joseph Guastafeste was born on April 18, 1930, and began his musical studies at a young age on mandolin with the neighborhood Scambini sisters. After two years, he first switched to violin and then later to bass at the encouragement of his older brother Eddie (who needed a bass player for his jazz band), who later arranged an audition for him with Fred Zimmerman of the New York Philharmonic and the Juilliard School. Guastafeste was admitted to Juilliard on scholarship and secured his first orchestral position, in the New Orleans Symphony, in 1949 at the age of nineteen. From 1950 until 1961, he served as principal bass of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Walter Hendl and Paul Kletzki.

In 1961, Guastafeste was hired by Fritz Reiner to the position of principal bass of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a chair he would occupy for the next 49 years. During his tenure, he appeared as a soloist on numerous occasions, including the world premiere of Elias Tanenbaum's First Bassman — commissioned for him by the CSO — under the baton of Daniel Barenboim. Guastafeste retired from the Orchestra in 2010.

Guastafeste also performed in the Chautauqua Festival Orchestra in New York and at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico. He played chamber music with the New York Wind Quintet and the Fine Arts, Vermeer, Emerson and Juilliard string quartets, among numerous others. With the Joffrey Ballet, Guastafeste performed in a piece choreographed by Gerald Arpino entitled Valentine, a work for two dancers and solo bass, with music by Jacob Druckman. For many years, he also was a member of the Grammy Award–winning Chicago Pro Music along with Music of the Baroque and the American Composers Ensemble.

In 2001, Guastafeste collaborated with multiple artists to create a monument to music and the bass, entitled Basshenge. Located in Birchdale, Minnesota, the installation is a collection of 21 representations of the bass all made from thin steel plating. The pairs of instruments around the outside circle are connected by metal crosspieces representing virtues: patience, love and brotherhood. The spiral of sculptures forms a bass clef when viewed from above.

In his retirement, Guastafeste enjoyed cooking, painting, sculpting and hiking in all weather on his North Woods property on the Canadian border in Minnesota.

Guastafeste is survived by his wife, Bronte Jornod; two daughters, Camille (Avellano) and Manon (Spadaro); son-in-law Michael Spadaro; grandchildren Anthony Avellano, Remy Spadaro and Matthew Spadaro; younger brother Albert Guastafeste; beloved nephew Edward Guastafeste and his wife Joan; and many grand-nieces and nephews. 

Additional tributes have been posted at Green-Larsen Mortuary, Double Bass HQ and The Strad. A memorial service will be held at the Birchdale United Congregational Church in Birchdale, Minnesota on Sunday, October 15 at 2:00 p.m. More information can be found here.

This article also appears here.