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Recalling Serge Koussevitzky, the superstar bassist

Serge Koussevitzky.
Serge Koussevitzky.

On June 17, as part of a Rockport Music Festival concert, Boston Symphony Orchestra bassist Edwin Barker will perform two works by the BSO’s storied one-time music director, Serge Koussevitzky. The “Valse miniature” (Op. 1, No. 2), and the “Chanson triste” (Op. 2) represent nearly half of Koussevitzky’s compositional output, all intended for the repertoire of the era’s greatest double-bass virtuoso: Koussevitzky himself.

Today, Koussevitzky’s double-bass career seems just an unusual prelude to his conducting, but it was the bass that first made him famous. The story — most dramatically told in Arthur Lourié’s hagiographic biography — is that Koussevitzky, a prodigy, ran away to Moscow to pursue an education, but arrived after the start of term. He nevertheless talked his way into the conservatory of the Moscow Philharmonic, where one of the only scholarships left was for a double-bass student; Koussevitzky completed the five-year course in five months.

By the age of 20 he was in the Bolshoi Theater orchestra while at the same time pursuing a solo career, following in the fretwork of the two greatest bassists of old, Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini. A triumphant 1903 recital debut in Berlin sealed Koussevitzky’s seemingly effortless rise.

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Dragonetti’s power and Bottesini’s brilliance revealed the bass’s solo potential. Koussevitzky added late-Romantic extremes of expression, thoroughly mining the lyrical, soulful qualities and strikingly human-like tones in the bass’s high register. Contemporary accounts emphasize the unexpected elegance of Koussevitzky’s performances, so strongly contrasted with the instrument’s ungainly reputation.

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Koussevitzky left only a handful of recordings as a bassist, dating from the late 1920s: the “Valse” and the “Chanson triste,” the slow movement of his Op. 3 Concerto (performed with piano accompaniment), a few of the morceaux and transcriptions that dotted his recitals. His sound is striking — a penetrating warmth of substantial bandwidth — even if the technique had started to fade. By then, several years into his BSO tenure, he had largely given up the bass in favor of what would be a legendary conducting career.

For years Koussevitzky’s bass stood in the corner of his Brookline study, eventually becoming a source of characteristically Russian pathos. A 1940 profile in Life magazine included a photo of the estranged couple: “With tears in his eyes,” the caption read, “he explains that he is so busy that he has scarcely touched the instrument in five years.” Even in neglect, Koussevitzky could draw one more sad song from his old partner.

Bassist Edwin Barker, violinist Yevgeny Kutik, and pianist Eileen Huang perform at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport June 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $29-$39. 978-546-7391, www.rockportmusic.org.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.