February 19, 2022: Koussevitsky comes to the Comancheria

Nicholas Scales Recital on the Koussevitsky Bass February 6, 2022: Fine Arts Recital Hall, WTAMU

Say the title fast, three times. It sounds like a tongue twister developed by speech therapists to war against the slow-talking Panhandle palate.

Yet it refers to a real event when Dr. Nick Scales, principal bassist for the Amarillo Symphony and music faculty member at WTAMU secured the incomparable double bass owned by the legendary Serge Koussevitsky and treated a lucky audience to a memorable Sunday afternoon recital, February 6 in WTAMU’s Fine Arts Complex Recital Hall.

Serge Koussevitsky was the iconic conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 -1948. He was also a composer, and a musician specializing in the double bass.

His instrument’s creation was long attributed to the Amati family of Cremona. Later research pegged construction as French, dating around the mid-eighteenth century, qualifying it as vintage, by any standard.

After his death, Koussevitsky’s widow gifted the upright to Gary Karr, the preeminent American bassist. In 2005, Karr donated it to the International Bassist Society, which has subsequently loaned the bass viol to artists all over the planet. Sunday marked Nick’s time to bow and fret this magnificent example of the luthier’s art to the delight of some forty privileged attendees.

Maestro Scales, like Maestro Koussevitsky, is determined that the double bass deserves acclaim as a solo instrument, not an orchestral back bencher. His crusade was abetted by the rich sonorities and luscious, complex overtones unlocked by his bow.

Accompanied by Mila Abbasova on the piano, his program intentionally showcased the upright’s immense range and capacity. Two of the works, long considered staples of the bass repertoire, are noted.

Koussevitsky, as mentioned, was also a composer, and his short piece Valse Miniature featured his artistic specialty. The majority of this work involves intricate yet lyrical multi-octave runs on the strings while the piano plays a rhythmic 3/4. Towards the end the parts become somewhat contrapuntal, the bass mirroring the keyboard.

It’s as if both men dared the audience: “just listen to this!” We did, and came away convinced.

A second number on the program worth noting was Concerto No. 2 by Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), a composer of the Romantic Era, who was also the first to advance the overhand bow grip for bassists. And, like Koussevitsky, his agenda was to promote the versatility of an instrument long relegated to the non-melodic end of the scale.

The Allegro Moderato involves sequences of runs covering the octaval range, some with some quite intense sawing. The Andante, by contrast, is passionate and lyrical, while the Allegro opens with a pulsing gallop that carries the listener from buzzing lows to squeaky highs.

If Romanticism focuses on the emotions, then Bottesini obviously wanted to startle the listener by the potential of this instrument. By this measure, both the composer and the artist succeeded.

What a honor, in this unlikely place, to hear this incomparable instrument played by obviously a world-class artist!

The fact that artistic offerings of such uncommon quality are not uncommon events here on the Comancheria affirms our commitment to Keep Amarillo Artsy! Keep Austin Weird! Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

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