Though they perform on oversize instruments, double bass virtuosos don’t receive much time in the musical spotlight and play mostly supporting roles.
But that changes, at least momentarily, with a set of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts April 28 and 30 and May 3 at Orchestra Hall and April 29 at the Edman Memorial Chapel at Wheaton College. Principal Bass Alexander Hanna takes centerstage as soloist in the ensemble’s first-ever performances of Giovanni Bottesini’s Double Bass Concerto No. 2 (1853).
Because of his virtuosic skills, Bottesini (1821-1889), born in Crema, Italy, became known as the “Paganini of the Double Bass.” He performed as a soloist internationally and also was an acclaimed conductor. Not surprisingly, he wrote an array of works for the instrument, some of which, like this concerto, are still regularly or semi-regularly performed by bassists today. This concerto has been championed and recorded by famed bassist Edgar Meyer, one of Hanna’s two principal teachers during his undergraduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Hanna was meeting with Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti on another matter in fall 2019 when the maestro told the bassist that he wanted to feature him as a soloist. Muti asked Hanna if there was a concerto that he would like to play. “Without any hesitation, I said, ‘I would really love to do Bottesini,’ ” Hanna said. “Muti is great at everything, but it’s a real treat to get to play this kind of music with him as soloist.”
Muti is one of the world’s pre-eminent conductors of the music of Verdi, who chose Bottesini to lead the premiere of Aida. “You’ll certainly hear influences of Verdi,” Hanna said of the concerto. “It’s very operatic — obviously in the Maestro’s wheelhouse.”
These performances mark Hanna’s third outing as a soloist with the CSO. In 2015, he performed Jean Baptist Vanhal’s Double Bass Concerto in D Major (1773), one of the best-known works in the genre, and last year he took on Missy Mazzoli’s concerto for the instrument, Dark with Excessive Bright (2018), in a digitally streamed performance. “It’s becoming more common for principal bass players to get a shot as soloists with orchestras,” he said.
Of the bass, “there is no instrument that I’ve ever heard that can sing so beautifully and naturally and with such a deep resonance.” — Alexander Hanna
Hanna first took piano lessons when he was 4 but was not completely enamored of the instrument. He switched to cello six years later, and then made a final shift to the bass when he was 13, a move that would change his life. He was drawn to its sound. “There is no instrument that I’ve ever heard that can sing so beautifully and naturally and with such a deep resonance,” he said. “The thing that still amazes to this day about the bass is that you can pluck the D string, and it’s like a wave of sound that washes through the room and sustains for sometimes 10, 15 or 20 seconds. I was just addicted to that sound as soon as I heard it.”
After four years as principal bass of the Detroit Symphony, he auditioned for the same position with the CSO, winning the appointment in 2012 when he was 26. It was not hard to understand his desire to make the switch. “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is arguably the greatest orchestra in the world,” he said. “It’s an orchestra I have admired since I fell in love with classical music.”
Principal bass positions at orchestras of the CSO’s caliber rarely become available. Hanna’s predecessor, Joseph Guastafeste, held the position for nearly 50 years, so when the opening occurred, Hanna realized he’d better jump at the chance, because it might not come around again during his career.
Although maintaining and trying to push the stellar performance standards for his position can be extremely challenging, Hanna immediately found making the transition not to be a major hurdle. “Everyone plays out and plays with a great sound and listens to each other very carefully,” he said. “It’s hard to get in, but once you’re in, things like that are actually quite easy.”
When he took over as head of the bass section, it was challenging to hold his own with such fine musicians. “It wasn’t tough because I was young,” he said. “It wasn’t tough because they didn’t like me or anything like that. They were, in fact, the opposite. They welcomed me and gently nudged me in the right direction if needed. I always approach music-making as a beginner, so I took the first chair of the CSO bass section without an agenda. I just wanted to learn how we could all work together and do our best.”
Hanna was appointed to the orchestra by Muti, and he has nothing but praise for the maestro. “I’ve played with many conductors and many great conductors, and Maestro Muti is my favorite. When you get to that level, there are very, very few people who could even be considered to be in his category.” What really sets him apart, Hanna believes, is that Muti is always prepared and engaged. “I’ve never seen the Maestro come out and have a bad night or even seem uninterested,” Hanna said. “Every single concert and rehearsal, he brings all his heart and all his guts, and it’s just a thrill.”
Hanna can frequently be seen performing as part of MusicNOW, the CSO’s contemporary music series. It features not the full orchestra but groups of CSO musicians typically ranging in size from duos to small ensembles of 15 or so members. Hanna likes performing new music and working with living composers. “MusicNOW has been a great opportunity to do that, and we’ve had such a stellar line-up of composers-in-residence. It’s extraordinary to get to play their music and see them curate the series. It’s been a real joy.”
Because of the unwieldiness of the giant instruments, Hanna generally keeps a bass at home to practice on and another at Symphony Center to play with the orchestra. The latter is an 18th-century Italian bass by an unknown maker, probably from the town of Brescia in the Lombardy region. It was owned by James Vrhel, a member of the CSO’s bass section from 1944 through 1983; he served as principal from 1952 to 1961. “It’s an extraordinary instrument,” Hanna said. “It’s got a really beautiful, rich tone that I love.”