Thomas Van Dyck is a bass player, and he’s exactly what you’d expect: handsome, hip, even athletic, and definitely cool. But don’t expect to see him on a dark, smoke-filled stage anytime soon draped in leather and riffing with his bandmates.
Van Dyck, 32, plays the double bass, or string bass, as one of the newest members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, having joined the nine-member bass section in January. He beat out 257 candidates for the right to dress up in a tuxedo and perform in one of world’s great music halls in front of packed houses night after night.
It’s a long way from growing up in Philadelphia, where Van Dyck, the youngest of three brothers, played electric bass briefly in a garage band with his siblings, Stephen, today an architect in Seattle, and Peter, an artist back in their hometown.
“There can be assumptions about the type of person who plays in a rock band or plays in an orchestra or sings this type of music or listens to a genre different than what we’re familiar with,” says Van Dyck, who calls the English rock band Radiohead one of his biggest musical influences. “But I’d argue all those differences sometimes provide people opportunities to be more whole musicians or to find their niche. It certainly helped in my life.”
Peter Van Dyck says his brother was always a musical kid.
“I guess we all were to some degree,” he says. “But the special thing about him was his interests varied in a way that showed he was learning and absorbing, rather than bouncing from interest to interest because he lacked focus. He had great focus. His interests just adapted to the times.”
Thomas Van Dyck’s interest in performing rock quickly turned to bebop and jazz, while Stephen excelled at guitar, and Peter turned to painting.
“I’d say my musical education evolved with our interests and was constantly moving — moving forward,” Thomas Van Dyck says. “My mom played classical and jazz, so there was that influence.”
Van Dyck also turned to singing, joining the St. Peter’s Choir of Men and Boys at historic St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia when he was 6. Puberty set him on a new course.
“My voice began changing at around 11 or 12,” he says. “And my interests turned again.”
Van Dyck picked up stringed instruments, particularly the double bass. He went on to study under double bassist Paul Ellison at Rice University. He would later earn a master’s degree from Boston University, while studying under BSO principal bass Edwin Barker, who is an associate professor in the Boston University School of Music.
“By my fourth year at Rice, I still didn’t have a firm grasp on whether or not I wanted to play orchestra only,” Van Dyck says.
Nevertheless, in his senior year he accepted a double bass position with the New World Symphony, a group comprising recent graduates of prestigious music programs, in Miami, and played with that orchestra from 2003 to 2004.
“It was my first real exposure with a symphony,” Van Dyck says.
‘I’d argue all those [musical] differences sometimes provide people opportunities to be more whole musicians . . .’
His exposure would blossom further the following year when he landed a Tanglewood Music Center fellowship at BSO’s summer home in the Berkshires. That experience helped cement his growing conviction that orchestral music was where he would concentrate and build a career.
“I’d been heavily influenced by the BSO bass section for years,” Van Dyck says. “I even had as a teenager a recording of BSO performing Schubert, because the contribution of the bass section was so prominent and sophisticated in that recording. But that fellowship had a tremendous influence and it sort of kept me in Boston.”
He has played and studied at the Yellow Barn, an internationally renowned chamber music learning center in southeastern Vermont, and is a core member of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), a group that manages itself and performs its own interpretations without a conductor.
“Working and performing with ECCO has helped me build confidence in my own style and my ability to both interpret music and adapt,” Van Dyck says.
Of his short time with the BSO, Van Dyck says, “I feel about it the way anyone would expect who appreciates the history and tradition in this organization. I’m awed by what BSO has accomplished, and I’m grateful to be a part of it. It is a daunting challenge to live up to the quality and standards night after night, but I also relish the challenge. It’s part of what makes my job fun.”
In particular, the BSO bass players have apparently earned a bit of a reputation, he says.
“I have heard the jokes that the bass players in an orchestra are the bad boys, the jokesters, the pranksters. I’d say we definitely bring a sense of humor and levity to things. I’ve even been on the receiving end of some of the humor. But it was fine. It’s great to belong.”
Van Dyck recalled a Boston Pops show earlier this year, when the other bass players decided to haze him by trying to cue him in before it was time for him to play.
“But I was counting and didn’t take the bait,” he says, chuckling. “I told them it was well played but not sneaky enough. They’ll have to try a bit harder, I guess, next time.”
Barker says he’s not at all surprised that Van Dyck has settled in so nicely.
“Our bassists are extremely comfortable and happy with one another, because they have bonded in a friendly sense over shared or complimentary styles of play, interpretations of music, even timing,” Barker says.
“And because of that level of comfort, we have an unusually happy atmosphere surrounding the bass section. You really don’t see that anywhere.”
The bass players even carry on their friendships outside of Symphony Hall, jogging and hiking together, or going for beers after performances.
Otherwise, Van Dyck spends his down time with his fiancée, Stephanie Fong, and their dog, a husky named Sitka. Fong, a New England Conservatory graduate, is also an accomplished violist who held a position in the San Francisco Symphony and has worked as an extra player with the BSO.
A fan of the outdoors, Van Dyck says he is especially excited to spend eight weeks at Tanglewood this summer. And not just for the musical experience.
“I am doing the Tanglewood Relay Run where we each run a number of 5-mile legs overnight to Tanglewood, so that should be fun and tiring,” he says.
But he’s not a fan of mosquitoes, so he has rented a more “bug proof” home near the concert grounds. “I decided camping for eight weeks was a little too long.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.