A Bassist Abroad

An article published in 4 installments by Classical New Jersey (vol. 3, nos., 16-19) about a recent trip to Brazil

Anthony Scelba

It was October 27, 2002. My plane landed at the airport in São Paulo as Brazilians across the country read the headline in their morning papers, "Lula Presidente".

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the candidate of the leftist Workers' Party had won the run-off election by two to one. For only the second time in Brazil's history, an elected president would be allowed to take his position without interference of the military; the first time that a left-of-center politician would be permitted to take office. It was a victory for Brazilian democracy.

The union leader, newly elected president, known universally in Brazil simply as Lula, was also the first politician to rise from the people and accede to the presidency. In politics for 30 years, and running for president for the last sixteen, Lula's name has never been associated with corruption. Many in Brazil are charged with hope.

Early morning in São Paulo, it was hours before I would land at my destination in the capital city Brasília. There–as I'd been told I would be–I was met by Ricardo. First names only please: in Brazil, to use the full name Ricardo Vasconcelos would be stiffly formal, almost insulting.

I had assumed that Ricardo would be a university student enlisted to assist the international guests of the ABC, the Associação Brasileira de Contrabaixistas, for their sixth International Double Bass Conference. Instead, Ricardo turned out to be the Principal Bassist of the Orquestra Sinfonico do Teatro Nacional (the full-time professional orchestra of Brasília), an instructor at the Escola de Música de Brasília, a composer, an arranger, and a publisher.

The weather was hot and dry–very hot and very dry. Although the seasons in Brazil are the reverse of ours and therefore early spring, it felt here in the middle of the country and near the equator like a summer day in Arizona.

Ricardo suggested that we kill a few hours in Brasília and make the two-hour drive to Pirenópolis, where the conference would be held, in the cooler early evening. I was very tired from my travels but agreed to visit his school and kill some time.

The Escola de Música is the only magnet school for music in Brazil. We walked into a large open-air building with wings of office rooms, storage rooms, classrooms, studios, practice and rehearsal rooms. All the spaces were hot and cramped and acoustically porous. The hundred or so stringed instruments that I saw stored together in a cubicle were of poor quality and in dismal repair. The wind and other instruments that I saw at the school were no better. These conditions, typical in Brazil, are unworkable and yet everywhere music rang out.

Ricardo and I found one of his students, a girl of 14, practicing. He kissed her in the universal greeting of teachers and students (and, it would seem, everyone else in Brazil). The girl lit up when she saw us, and Ricardo was happy to show off the excellent progress she was making after only a short time of study.

Elsewhere, it would seem in every available nook and cranny, students of every size, age, and race were cheerfully at work practicing. Rehearsals were in progress, and the atmosphere throughout the school was joyous. I couldn't help but remark to myself, how much these talented and gregarious people do with so little.

Ricardo told me that most of the students at the school were quite poor. Indeed, on the drive to Pirenópolis that evening, we passed shanty towns and pockets of grinding poverty–the worst that I had ever seen. Brazil still has a vexing problem of chronic poverty. Hence Lula.

We arrived at our destination around 8:00 PM still early for dinner in Brazil. The community of Pirenópolis itself is a preserved 200-year-old mining town. It was in the local theatre that Brazil's first national double-bass performance competition and the other activities of the ABC conference would be held. The acoustically excellent Teatro, built in 1899, is located across the street from the historic cathedral recently restored but tragically lost to fire last September 7, Brazil's Independence Day. Pirenópolis, now a poor town supported by Brazilian tourists, has no fire department.

After dinner, I retired to my room in the Inn where all the guests would stay. I woke the next day to a light rain that moderated the temperature and the humidity. I had arrived a day ahead of the conference to give myself time to adjust to a strange, borrowed instrument and to rehearse with the chamber musicians with whom I would perform later in the week. I had never met these musicians and was a bit apprehensive. The hours of the day passed (not unpleasantly) but with a double bass or an ensemble nowhere to be found.

I began to get a bit nervous toward evening. Double basses are not standardized. Like violas, but unlike violins and cellos, they come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. While it is difficult to play a chamber recital on someone else's violin, it frighteningly difficulty on someone else's double bass. I knew that it would take considerable practice time with a strange instrument (and a few Hail Mary's) to be able to grapple with its peculiarities.

Again to the rescue, Ricardo offered me use of his double bass which is a 19th-century French instrument. It is the best bass that I have seen owned by a local musician. Most of the Brazilians play instruments that are student grade, many of which in poor condition. Ricardo's bass was set up in a way that put the top most string at the very edge of the fingerboard. Playing it made my fingers execute a high wire act and fear an embarrassing stumble. Despite my apprehension about the bass's set-up, I was happy to get to work on the unfamiliar instrument.

At 8 AM, the following day, the other judges and I assembled to discuss the criteria to be used in ranking the competitors. We established the usual fare: technique (rhythm, tempo, intonation, articulation, dynamics), musical comprehension and expression (phrasing, style, vibrato and other technical matters used as an interpretive devices, delivery of form), and presentation (stage presence, communication with the audience, relationship with the accompanist, fine points of ensemble).

The final round of the competition began later that morning. The finalists played works of their own choosing and a competition piece commissioned for the occasion from the Brazilian composer, Denise Garcia. Garcia's composition, Em algum lugar para contrabaixo solo, was an unpretentious work of stuttering rhythms and contemporary effects.

In addition to some arrangements of Bach cello suites and a few other works, a full three quarters of the contestants played the double bass concerto by Serge Koussevitzky. It seems that the Koussevitzky is a particular favorite for auditions and competitions in Brazil. If I never hear that piece again it will be too soon, and I say this despite the work being a standard in the repertoire for my instrument.

With Koussevitzky's ghost still flying around the hall, the judges deliberated and settled unanimously upon a winner. First prize was given to a shy, 18-year-old woman for her remarkable virtuosity and the suave sophistication of her playing. Larissa Caridade began studying at the Escola de Música de Brasília at the age of 13, and last year moved to Rio de Janeiro to attend the university there. Of all the contestants, she was the most reticent to perform and yet, when the chips were down, shown most brightly.

Second place was awarded to Daniel Abreu, a 28-year-old who also started his double bass studies at the Escola and has recently been studying in Holland. A very mature and centered young man, he speaks excellent English and was therefore someone the Americans got to know well. Another young woman, Tais Gomes, 17, very much impressed the judges. She is a star in the making.

These talented and dedicated musicians are the future leaders of the ABC and will, in the years ahead, replace the present generation of artist-professors in the federal and state universities of Brazil. With artists like these being developed, Brazil's musical future looks bright.

The competition over, the remainder of the double-bass conference comprised recital, chamber-music, concerto, and jazz performances, masterclasses, roundtables, and workshops. The quality of the presentations was on a very high international level, and excellent concert performances were given two per day.

Masterclasses, when offered by accomplished teachers, are always interesting to audit, and I had a chance to see a few. The dynamic of finding technical and musical matters in a student's playing and furnishing the correction in universal principles that will enlighten both the student and those watching is no small feat. The masterclasses of Diana Gannett, Professor of Double Bass at the University of Michigan, were a clear favorite among the students. Gannett has given so many masterclasses over the years that her work in one is a veritable stage act complete with a bag of props–blindfolds, weights, and other paraphernalia that she uses in her teaching.

All the international guests at the conference were treated with great deference. The enthusiastic greeting I received from double bass students from across Brazil left me a bit heady. To be recognized for my work is very flattering. Some of the students had been assigned to read my Juilliard doctoral dissertation (a 2-volume, 30-year-old work!). Others had read my articles and had been guided in their work by my writing. Some were studying and performing my compositions. I acceded to their requests and signed autographs. After all, it's not every day that a university professor and free-lance musician is treated like a celebrity.

Late in the second day, I asked when the pianist and violinist who would perform with me in a few days would arrive. I was told that they would be in Pirenópolis that evening. As evening passed, I learned that it would be the next morning. The next morning I was told that the violinist had to rehearse with his orchestra and that they would certainly arrive by that afternoon. Car trouble delayed the arrival until evening. Our concert was looming and I had not even met these musicians. I was fit to be tied.

By the time they got into town, it was nearly time for the evening's recital. The suggestion was made that we begin our rehearsals at 10:30 P.M. after the performance. It was actually after 11:00 when be began rehearsing and after 1:00 AM when we concluded. The rehearsal was–shall I say–a bit rough.

I walked out onto the street and the party was just beginning. Brazilians are the most sociable and convivial of people. Every evening the streets in towns like this are full of folks eating sandwiches, drinking beer, telling jokes and stories, and enjoying each other's company. Their happy-with-life attitude is very infectious.

I was somewhat dismayed by the rehearsal we had just played and the limited time we had to put together a rather demanding program, but my Brazilian friends told me that the learning curve for these musicians would skyrocket northward, and they were right.

The following day we arranged to rehearse at 8:00 AM and at 2:00 PM. The performance was scheduled the next day. By 8:15 A.M. the violinist and pianist were present and ready to play (Brazilians outside of São Paulo are notoriously tardy). By the second rehearsal (which also started late) the music was coming together and by the run through the day of the recital we were ready for a credible performance.

My recital was the only traditional chamber music performed at the conference, and mine the only full-length recital program given. The violinist, Henrique Vieira, is the concertmaster of a local orchestra and the pianist, Consuelo Quireze Rosa, a professor at the university. My Brazilian colleagues and I presented three works that I had arranged for the Yardarm Trio: Beethoven's Variations on Se vuol ballare, Haydn's Trio in E, and my own Fantasie on Rigoletto. The concert was an excellent success and we were called upon to perform an encore. This pleased me since I had written, as part of the Rigoletto Fantasie, a humorous encore based on La donna é mobile. Both the Haydn and the Rigoletto were especially well received and we decided to repeat these works in Goiânia the following week.

The recital in Pirenópolis was attended by those at the conference, local inhabitants, and students from a nearby school. Many town's people heard concerts at the Teatro all week, the likes of which I am sure they had never experienced before. It was a special pleasure to perform for such a diverse, enthusiastic, and appreciative audience.

My masterclass was also scheduled late in the week. By the day of my class, the students had worked with a number of authoritative teachers at the conference. I was again flattered to see them come to me wanting to learn still more. I taught bassists of varying levels from near beginners to young professionals. Several were young women. One, named Patricia Silva, has so tiny a frame and such short arms that she can hardly reach the notes at the top of the fingerboard. She was both adorably determined and a remarkable young musician.

Thus far I have not reported about the "popular music" at conference which was split between Popular (meaning largely jazz) and Classical divisions. After all, this other music is not the purview of Classical New Jersey. One aspect should be mentioned however. In Brazil there is a freer mixing of classical and popular styles in music than we find in most other countries. Brazilian composers are especially influenced by the folk and popular musics of their country.

The chorinho, for instance, is a very rhythmical and virtuosic popular music that shows its influence in many Brazilian works. The baião and, of course, the bassa nova also contain a remarkable sophistication in their melody and accompaniment, and have influenced the classics.

An American pair who blur the classical-popular music distinction are Jackie Allen and Hans Sturm. This soprano-double-bass duo  uses jazz and classical idioms to create the most marvelous of art songs. All manner of string techniques–bowed passages, ponticello, sul tasto, and other tone colors, multiple stopping, harmonics, as well as skillful pizzicato–accompany a stunning voice. The lied is alive and well in their hands.

Some of the more memorable classical performances included a concerto for double bass by Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812) played by Tobias Glöckler, Assistant Principal Bassist of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, who had published a scholarly article on this piece in Das Orchestra last September. The work is a worthy one, much in the style of Haydn and Mozart. Glöckler specializes in solo double-bass music of Classical Vienna and a few years ago discovered a lost manuscript of Mozart's Per questa bella mano, the composer's only piece involving solo double bass.

The accompanying orchestra was a professional one associated with the Federal University of Goiás. A bit uneven, it is on the level perhaps of some of our better college orchestras. Diana Gannett performed that same evening with this group and brought down the house with her bravura and charm.

A third of our number who played with the orchestra was Fausto Borém who has the greatest international reputation among Brazilian double bassists–a reputation well deserved. Professor Doctor Fausto, as he is called, is a dedicated scholar and teacher and a performer of enormous musical gifts. He played his own arrangement of a virtuoso work by Astor Piazzolla. This was also a special favorite among the audience.

Recital performances with piano included some by prominent American bassists, among them Michael Cameron, Professor at the University of Illinois, Paul Sharp, Texas Tech University, and others. Cameron had the same challenges that I had in dealing with a borrowed double bass; his prodigious virtuosity nevertheless showed through.

Sharp was one of the few recitalists who brought his own double bass to Brazil. The instrument, packed in a shipping trunk, was late to arrive but was delivered unharmed. The huge, white, scarred fiberglass shipping trunk standing like a coffin in theatre lobby was a reminder to those of us who traveled light why we had done so. Sharp had also planned to bring his own accompanist but the pianist ran into visa problems and never showed up.

Brazilian bassists Ricardo Vasconcelos and Valdir Claudino (Orquestra de Câmera Musicoop) made notable recital appearances, as did Célio Barros, a bassist who uses a flamenco guitar approach to pizzicato and who has the most extraordinary pizzicato technique I have ever seen. A work of her own for piano and two double basses performed by the pianist-composer Francisca Aquino showed her to be a remarkable composer, another in the line of Brazilian classical artists influenced by popular and folk elements.

The ABC encounter in Pirenópolis ended a wonderful success. It was for me a week of great music and great fun. After the "last-night parties," it was difficult to get up bright and early the next day. We did so to make a car trip into the countryside to see some spectacular waterfalls. This jaunt made Paul Sharp and his double bass late for the flight to São Paulo. The only alternate flight he could get was one to a local airport. He was then left to find transportation for his instrument to the international airport. A good-natured fellow, he didn't seem to mind. For all the difficulties I had in playing someone else's double bass, they pale by comparison to the difficulties of traveling with my own!

We journeyed from Pirenópolis to Goiânia by car. After the colorfully painted buildings of the provincial town, Goiânia seemed very much like a European city. It reminded me a bit of Athens. The richer parts are very stylish and the restaurants very chic. It seemed like one could live a comfortable life there except for the street plan. It is more maddening than London; even long-term inhabitants continually get lost. Visitors haven't a chance.

I was in Goiânia to participate in the second Seminário Nacional de Pesquisa em Performance Musical (II SNPPM–Second National Seminar on Research and Musical Performance). It was held at the Federal University of Goiás. The first of these seminars was the brainchild of Fausto Borém, who had invited me to it in 2000. It was at his school, the Federal University of Minas Gerais in the city of Belo Horizonte.

As Fausto had explained it, musicians were having trouble establishing performance as an enterprise equal to scholarly research in the Brazilian university system. In Brazil, as in the rest of the world, academia has taken over patronage of the arts. The university has replaced the church and the aristocracy of old in support of the arts and of artists. But the arts and other research disciplines often have difficulty sleeping under the same academic roof. This is especially true when they are expected to compete for funding, time, space, and other largess from a large institution.

It was Fausto's idea to demonstrate to academia the level and amount of research, scholarly and creative work done by performers. Participants at the seminar were to present scholarly papers and to perform. Scholar-performers from throughout Brazil and a number of international guests participated. The seminar was a resounding success and spawned the birth of Per Musi, a peer-reviewed journal exploring the nexus of research and performance.

For that conference I wrote a paper called "In Defense of Arrangement". I defended arrangement as a means of building chamber-music repertoires for instruments that do not have them. I gave not a historical justification, but a reasoned assertion that compared the arrangement of music to the translation of literature. Platonistic, modernist, post-modernist and other ideas were used to martial an argument. My paper, given with simultaneous translation into Portuguese for the few who did not speak English, was very well received. The test was met: performers also function as academics.

My success led Sônia Ray, the coordinator of the second Seminar on Research and Performance to invite me back. Because of Brazil's recent economic troubles, I was the only international guest this time around. Profa. Dra. Sônia is President of the ABC, and was also responsible for organizing the encounter in Pirenópolis. Despite the exhausting task of organizing two huge events, she found time to present research and to perform.

A strong woman born under the sign of Taurus, she has all the tenacity of a bull. She comes from São Paulo and a poor family of African descent but has risen to become a Professor at the Federal University of Goiás and Head of its Graduate Program in Music. She is one of Brazil's important scholars and performers, who, as of this writing, is in London at a conference on the physiology and psychology of performance, a subject in which she intends to do post-doctoral research.

My paper, presented at II SNPPM, was "The Art of the Arranger: An analysis of the creative processes and decisions involved in arranging chamber music". It is a follow-up to my first paper. Amid all the 20 minute summaries of papers presented at the conference, I was allotted an hour and a half. I delivered the paper with a live performance of the music examples.

Many worthwhile papers and performances were presented. Two stand out in my memory. The soprano, Juliana Parra, and the Silvana Scarinci, a performer on the baroque guitar and the arch lute gave a feminist reading of Monteverdi's Arianna's Lament. The aria from a lost opera is stunning. Its libretto is ambiguous: it can show Arianna as giving up, or defiantly resigning herself to death. The latter is how Juliana and Silvana cast her. The two Brazilians are graduates of Indiana University and are attempting to bring authentic early music performance to their country. They also gave stunning performances of works by Giovanni Sances (1600-1679) and Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677).

Following the early baroque performance, pianist Maria Helena Del Pozzo performed three harsh and strident modern works by Aylton Escobar (b. 1943). Her performance was also brilliant. Both the piano pieces and the earlier vocal works were embraced by the audience who are much more open to a variety of musical styles than are American audiences.

All the activities of the conference took place in an excellent, air-conditioned concert hall. It was, nevertheless, not difficult to remember where I was–at a Brazilian university some 30º from the equator. The university music school is located just steps from a nature preserve replete with monkeys. The monkeys are a star attraction there and often interact with students who feed them despite the signs admonishing such behavior. It would seem that everyone at the conference saw the monkeys except for me. And this failing was due to no shortage of effort on my part. Despite several walks through the preserve, I caught neither sight nor photograph of one. I considered this my only failure in the 15 day trip. When I complained about the shortcoming to Dr. Glacy Antunes de Oliveira, head of the music school, she told me that she was surprised. Everyone sees the monkeys! They are everywhere! One time a monkey stole into the university president's office and made away with her glasses. The office secretary has photographs of the president trying, unsuccessfully, to negotiate with the animal the return of her eye wear.

Since my Brazilian trio and I were to perform the Haydn E Major and the Rigoletto Fantasie again, we decided to rehearse in Goiânia to allow me a chance to become familiar with yet another instrument. We held the rehearsal in Consuelo's apartment, a sumptuous suite of rooms richly appointed with natural mahogany. After the rehearsal, I had a chance to chat with Consuelo's husband over afternoon tea. Hector Rosa is Head of Gastroenterology at the University Hospital. He is also the author of five published novels and other works of fiction. He is part of a Brazilian tradition of "literary doctors". Hector's latest novel The Enigma of the Fifth Symphony (Beethoven's, of course) is being translated into English by his German publisher; he gave me a proof of the first chapter.

In what I thought was polite chatter, Hector asked me what Brazilian composers I especially liked. I, of course, mentioned Villa Lobos first, but then said that I liked the music of Camargo Guarnieri and thought him very under-appreciated. Hector's face lit up. Did I know that Consuelo studied with Guarnieri and that the master was a close family friend until his death in 1993?

I was led into the study where I was shown the "Guarnieri archives". The Rosas had letters from and to the composer including one in French from Artur Rubinstein thanking Guarnieri for a piece he had written for him. I was handed a vinyl disk recording of Rachmaninov performing his second piano concerto given to Guarnieri by Krushchev after having judged the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. Finally, Consuelo handed me a work in the composer's hand, a concert etude that he had dedicated to her.

Our performance of the trios was another success. The pleasures of success, new friendships, and exotic experiences made my farewell a sad one, but by Noverber 12, my duties at home and at Kean were calling.

The travel agent who had booked my flights gave me a 7-hour layover in the São Paulo airport. The sentence of 7 hours in a vinyl seat was reprieved by Paulo Gomes, an outstanding luthier whom I had met in Pirenópolis. Paulo met my flight from Goiânia and took me to his home where I was able to inspect his meticulous workshop and see his marvelous craftsmanship. I met his family and we were joined by Valerie Albright who came with a friend and her daughter, Marta, a cellist and a charmer.

Valerie is a co-founder of the ABC, a professor at the state university in São Paulo and Principal Bassist of the Municipal Orchestra of São Paulo. She was one of several Americans whom I met who are now relocated to Brazil, living and working there. Valerie is particularly successful and is taking over the presidency of the ABC from Sônia Ray. Musicians to the core, for dinner we had pizza, Brazilian pizza!

My 7 hours passed quickly and pleasantly and with an overnight flight I was delivered safely home to be met by a slew of performances and a mountain of paper work. The latter keeps me dreaming of my next adventure abroad.

I close my reminiscence with an expression of profound gratitude to Kean University for making my experience in Brazil possible. I am indebted to the University for all the generous subvention it provides me. Kean has supported production of my Yardarm Trio literature, the writing of my articles, the building of our Affiliate Artist Program and its concert series, and other ventures. It is very good to work for a university that takes its responsibility to the arts seriously.