Jeffrey Beecher on Dark with Excessive Bright
For TSO Principal Double Bass Jeffrey Beecher, stepping up as a symphonic soloist is familiar territory—close to a dozen times over the course of his 17 seasons with the TSO. His solo work extends far beyond the orchestral realm: for the Empress of Japan as well as at the United Nations General Assembly, and, most recently, with Paul Simon in front of 50,000 people at the Newport Folk Festival. We caught up with Beecher for ten minutes, in the thick of rehearsals for the TSO’s recent tour.
When did you first hear the piece, and how did you feel about getting to play it?
My first introduction to the piece came while I was on tour in Australia. In between performances at the Sydney Opera House, I was able to meet up with my colleague Maxime Bibeau, Principal Double Bass of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who originally commissioned the piece from Missy. We met up on Bondi Beach, which isn’t a bad place to talk about bass concertos, and he played me some snippets from his phone. I fell in love with the piece instantly, and then it was just a matter of getting my hands on the music, and finding a time to perform it.
Was this your introduction to Missy Mazzoli’s music, or just to the piece?
I've been a huge fan of Missy’s music for some time. At this point, Missy is a verifiable compositional superstar. Her story’s not too dissimilar from mine, kind of: a suburban kid gets to go to the Tanglewood high school program, a fish out of water, but suddenly feels connected to all these people that are simpatico. I have always had an ear for her music, her operas that she’s perhaps even more famous for, and the beautiful symphonic music that keeps the world turning right now.
So what’s special about the music?
She has this unique gift of a harmonic language that is neither all sugar and tonality, nor abstraction and dissonance—that has some nice crunch to it but never feels like a challenge to listen to. And, whether in an operatic setting or here in a featured-soloist setting with orchestra, she’s such a lovely storyteller. She has clear mastery over form and structure and, as well, a real emotional gift to know how to shape that story—a grabby introduction, which keeps listeners on the hook, a great peak, and a clear finality. It’s an ultimately elegant, seamlessly composed 14 minutes of music.
How much one-on-one did you get with Mazzoli the first time round?
Social distancing actually helped! She was so accessible through Zoom, and ready to answer, whether in a two-hour session, or responding to any question I had, like, “Hey, what’s the title about?” I’m glad I asked that one, because I had recently gone down a rabbit hole about the title—it’s a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost. So I assumed there was an important association, and read the book cover to cover hunting for meaning. I even audited a Yale course on it! And when I asked her about it, she replied, “It has nothing to do with Milton, I just loved the way those words sounded together. I’m always on the lookout for great titles—I scribble them down on scrap paper, and stick them in a drawer to dig through later.” Missy felt like the phrase Dark with Excessive Bright fit the timbre of the double bass. And after getting to know the piece, those words do quite literally resonate for me as well.
Interviewer: Tat Read; Editor: David Perlman
Dig into an extended Q & A and more on Missy Mazzoli at TSO.CA.
That’s a funny story. So a lot of unnecessary preparation?
Yeah, unnecessary prep, but also a diversion from a huge amount of necessary prep. One of the very interesting things about the way that she’s written for the instrument is that it calls for a slightly obscure tuning of the bass, which means one of the strings is tuned higher, unusually. So it’s not the way we typically read music; it literally requires you to go note by note by note—to learn more by ear than by reading the music. So the prep was a huge labour of love. I got out my computer, and not only created my own part, down to where I put my fingers on the string properly, but I also entered the whole piano part into my computer to create a MIDI piano accompaniment. No one was gonna come play piano during the pandemic, right? So now I have my own digital accompaniment that I can put into my ear when I’m practicing. All of that homework has paid off dividends.
Are there new challenges the second time around?
The piece demands a lot physically from the bass player - it covers the whole range of the fingerboard, including the highest notes on the bass. It’s like practising yoga, Ashtanga yoga at all moments. Raising the physical and technical bar is, I think, a compositional demand of any new piece. From the 19th century on, increasing the virtuosic demand on players became the expectation. The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was unplayable when it was premièred! Violinists complained, “no this is too hard!” but now it’s normal and expected from all violinists. So Missy, as I think every composer does these days, takes on the challenge of the instrument, and doesn’t flinch if the player complains. The player has to meet the challenge of the new standard.
Last question on our list was whether a piece like this calls for muscles the player didn’t know they had, but you’ve kind of covered that one.
One very “bass nerd” detail I could add is about my thumb and the significant pressure Missy has placed on it! I’ve explored placing the string’s contact from the side of the thumb knuckle to well beyond the thumb nail - and that exploration has been extraordinarily painful in its ultimate rewards.
One other additional tidbit: Missy writes in the score an indication for the accompanying string players to have paper clips! So off I went to Staples to source just the right kind of binder paper clip that she was looking for acoustically—one that rattles on their strings when they’re pizzicato-ing at the audience. Not a mute, a binder paper clip they’ve all put on their strings to rattle.
And the right paper clip ended up being what?
I always have a bunch for our first rehearsal, in different colours. You’ll have to come and see which colour and size my colleagues choose!
Listen in to Missy Mazzoli discuss her work: