Some time ago I noticed an advertisement for a principal bass in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, Holland. One of the requirements for the candidates was that they play a Bottesini and Vanhal concerto.
In the early days of my career I gave many auditions and was told on several occasions that they didn’t want to hear a lot of harmonics and skating around the top of the instrument but they wanted to hear solos from the lower part of the bass. The sound one made seemed to be the main concern. Because of this I changed my audition pieces to the orchestral range and without boasting, I got a lot of jobs by doing so.
Willem Mengelberg, a onetime conductor of the Concertgebouw, made his feelings known very forcibly as to what a true double bass sound should be, especially a principal bass – strong and authoritative. I can’t write the words he used because they are unprintable.
Edouard van Beinum who became principal conductor of the Concertgebouw sometime later, also had this concern for a big bass sound. I played many concerts for him and, I can tell you, he really loved the sound of the basses, at times flogging us to pull out that extra bit of tone.
In 1946 I listened to the Concertgebouw conducted by van Beinum, in London. The main piece on the programme was Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique, and the basses made a great sound. Later, I listened to the Czech Philharmonic, and their bass section sounded magnificent in Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
Considering that 99% of bassists make their living by playing in an orchestra, (everybody cannot be a Gary Karr – Gary is unique,) I can’t see why some audition requirements are for bass concertos and not the repertoire. True, there are many bassists quite capable of playing concertos beautifully, but they play on a small solo bass, the strings are set lower on the bridge, solo strings are used, and usually the bass is tuned up a tone, thereby making it a kind of bastard instrument, with a much different sound than that of an orchestral bass.
Often transcriptions are made of violin, cello, oboe etc. sonatas and concertos, but what’s the point of playing them for an orchestral audition? I felt so strongly that the average listener would probably like to hear what an orchestral bass sound is like that I made a CD on an orchestral bass tuned GDAE The sound is gruffer than a solo bass, I grant you, but then, a bass is a bass is a bass!
So, all you young hopefuls who have been practicing for years and are now out there auditioning for jobs, take heed of my advice; I’ve been there and done it.