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Bass Legend Victor Wooten and the Boston Symphony

Victor Wooten
Courtesy of the Artist
Victor Wooten

Saturday, May 28, 2022
8:00 PM

The celebrated electric bassist is the soloist in his own concerto, La Lección Tres, and the BSO's Thomas Wilkins conducts music from Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Hiawatha and Duke Ellington’s The River.

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Thomas Wilkins, conductor
Victor Wooten, electric bass

Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Suite from the ballet Hiawatha
Victor WOOTEN La Lección Tres, for electric bass and orchestra
Duke ELLINGTON Suite from The River

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Hear conductor Thomas Wilkins describe his longtime friendship with Victor Wooten, why Coleridge-Taylor's ballet music for Hiawatha is a relatively new discovery, and Ellington is a natural fit for the BSO with the audio player above (transcript below).

In a conversation with WCRB's Brian McCreath, Victor Wooten describes the artistic opportunities of bringing his musical voice to the symphony orchestra, and why he's perfectly comfortable being out of his comfort zone:

Interview with Victor Wooten

Interview Transcript (Victor Wooten):

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB. I'm at Symphony Hall with Victor Wooten, and Victor, what a pleasure to have you here. What a cool piece you're playing. Thanks for taking a little time to talk with me today. I appreciate it.

Victor Wooten [00:00:09] It's my honor, my pleasure, Brian. Thanks for having me here.

Brian McCreath [00:00:12] This piece, "La Lección Tres," is the lesson, the third lesson, or the third version of the lesson, I guess, is the right way to put it, right? A piece that, or music you've worked with for a long time in various guises, now this is the third version with symphony orchestra. And I guess I was wondering as I listen to you play the piece, how much this opportunity to do this with an orchestra only sort of allowed you to play out things already in your mind, or, if you know, working with an orchestra allowed you discoveries and opportunities with color and textures that you didn't even really think of before.

Victor Wooten [00:00:49] Right, right. All of the above, Brian. You hear it in your head, but you don't hear it like this. You don't hear it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You can't totally imagine it. So all of a sudden, I'm, when I'm writing, OK, I'll try to make this quick. It starts in my head. But then I have what's called midi instruments, meaning fake violins coming from a keyboard or computer. That's the second thing. So now I'm hearing it out of my head. But as of yesterday, getting to hear it with real musicians, it's unbelievable. So there's no way to totally hear it in your head, but live always takes the cake.

Brian McCreath [00:01:25] And so with this new context, with this experience, I can't imagine you're not even thinking further about maybe a new version of "La Lección" after this experience.

Victor Wooten [00:01:37] Very, very possible. But my mind right now is totally in the moment. Getting this performance as right for the people that are here now. Afterwards, when I can look back, that's what's going to help me look forward.

Brian McCreath [00:01:50] Sure. Now, one of the things that even from the description of the program that jumps out is electric bass. So rare to have an amplified instrument with an orchestra that has acoustic instruments. And so was that ever a concern of yours, how these instruments blend? Or did you just decide, "I'm going to show up on stage and we're going to see what happens?"

Victor Wooten [00:02:11] Right. No, I think for some of us musicians who have played long enough, it's not a surprise because we understand that the instrument doesn't make music, no more than it's your mouth that's talking. I'm not listening to your instrument when you talk, I'm listening to you. So whatever instrument a musician plays, the person comes through. So this may be the first time the electric bass is with the BSO, but I'm not thinking of it that way. It's music, so we're all working with the same ingredients, but only I can express myself the way I do and the way I express myself the best is with an electric bass.

Brian McCreath [00:02:47] Nice. Well, and speaking of the electric bass itself, it's not just one instrument you're using in this concerto. You've got two. Describe these two instruments and what's distinct about each of them.

Victor Wooten [00:02:57] Sure. The new one is a bass that I bow, and it's from my childhood time of playing cello. Most beautiful instrument, and I wanted my electric bass to to be able to sustain, to have a bow-like quality. And I tried different techniques, electronics, could never get it, and I realized the bow is the best. You need the hair on the string and rosin, and you need the grit. So I had a bass made with the arched finger top. Basically it's like an electric cello in a sense. It's like a hybrid between an electric bass and a cello. But I hold it the way I'm familiar, like a guitar. But then it causes me to have to bow quite differently. But it's working. Yeah, I will say this too, but I switch basses throughout the night because I want to be comfortable at some point. So I pick up my main electric four string, which I've played for decades, just to go "Ahhh" for a minute.

Brian McCreath [00:03:57] Do you ever, are there parts, because I didn't notice as I was watching, but are there parts where you actually pluck the new bass, the one that you bow with? Do you actually pluck that one sometimes?

Victor Wooten [00:04:07] Yes, I play it with my fingers as well as with the bow.

Brian McCreath [00:04:09] OK, OK. And so this is a new instrument, you say. Like, like how old is it and how long have you been sort of getting used to it?

Victor Wooten [00:04:18] Well, I'm going to say it could be as many as five years old now, but I haven't played it much. My life is touring, you know, playing jazz and R&B with a regular electric bass, supporting a band. And then I get to do this every once in a while. So over the last few weeks, maybe even months, I've been trying to play it a lot to get ready for this, you know, like once in a lifetime performance. So it's still new. When we talk about instruments, five years is an infant.

Brian McCreath [00:04:46] Yeah, yeah. So when you think about your experience playing in front of this orchestra, there's the constant tension of the sort of orchestral world, of everything on paper, everything planned, the nuances, everything very subtle. And the music that you're most well-known for, largely improvisatory, all kinds of things can happen. What's it like to straddle that? What's it like to sit right on the middle of those things? Do you feel the freedom in this setting to allow that improvisatory voice to come through?

Victor Wooten [00:05:22] No, I'm not as free, which is good for me. It's really good for me, I grow when I can be pulled out of my comfort zone. One of my favorite quotes says life begins at the end of your comfort zone. So I'm not comfortable here, but I know I'm going to be better through the process. I'm still playing music. The hardest part is to remember who I am, not who I'm supposed to be because I have, we all have an idea of what classical music is supposed to be. I'm supposed to wear a tie. Got to stand up straight. Don't move too much. But I have to remember to be me. That's why they called me for something different, not to be something I'm not. And that's hard, though, because I'm in a new arena.

Brian McCreath [00:06:05] I feel like you're pulling me into "the lesson" itself because because it's all about creativity. And what you say, you caught me off guard because you said, "No, I'm not comfortable. But that's just great," because it gives me this sort of sense that the creativity that we sometimes look for sometimes only comes with obstacles or impositions or limits put on us.

Victor Wooten [00:06:30] We learn to walk because we fail hundreds of times, and now it's hard to fall, right? So we grow through the obstacles. As you say, we don't have growth without it. When we're first learning to play, our fingers get blisters. Now they don't. Because we're better, so, you know, don't be afraid to be uncomfortable.

Brian McCreath [00:06:48] Would you say that that's sort of the, one of the main messages of "the lesson" in general? And I have to confess, I haven't read the book, but tell me more about the underlying philosophies of "the lesson."

Victor Wooten [00:06:59] That is the total idea behind the book. The story in the actual written book, it's called "The Music Lesson." It's the story of a teacher and a student. And the student's doing everything right, practicing scales and all this stuff you're told to do, but not feeling fulfilled, not getting gigs, not getting work. And so we realize that learning to speak is more than just learning the words. So this teacher shows up, named Michael, and makes the student a little bit uncomfortable, but guiding, in a safe way. It's what parents do, you know, in a safe way. And this musician, this young student bass player in the story discovers himself, and that's the best way to discover anything is through the self.

Brian McCreath [00:07:46] Beautiful. Well, and it's so wonderful to hear that take musical form in "La Lección Tres." Thank you, Victor Wooten for being here. And again, thank you for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate.

Victor Wooten [00:07:56] Brian, thank you. And you can actually teach me how to say "La Lección Tres." I wrote it, but I can't say it yet.

Brian McCreath [00:08:03] [Laughs] I appreciate that too.

Victor Wooten [00:08:04] You're good, man. You're good. [Laughs]

Interview with Thomas Wilkins

Interview Transcript (Thomas Wilkins):

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Thomas Wilkins, the conductor for the BSO. A conductor with a number of titles, actually, as it turns out: family concerts conductor, artistic advisor, lots of great things that you do here. Thomas, thank you for taking a little bit of time to talk with me today. I appreciate it.

Thomas Wilkins [00:00:13] My pleasure. My pleasure. Great to be here.

Brian McCreath [00:00:15] This is such a vibrant program. Music that we don't get to hear really often. In one case, we've never heard before. And so I'm curious about whether this program began with your long time friendship. I mean, decades long friendship with Victor Wooten. Is that, was that the beginning of your thoughts about this concert, or is that sort of the last piece of the puzzle to come in?

Thomas Wilkins [00:00:39] It was actually indeed the last piece of the puzzle to come in. Well, it was in the mix, but it certainly wasn't there at the beginning. I mean, I was thinking about what kind of program I wanted to share, and I wanted to share the "Hiawatha" for sure, because it's new. And by new, I mean that we finally got a set of really beautifully engraved parts, and so now orchestras can get their hands on it. They don't have to sort of wiggle their eyes to the chicken scratch that was there before, and it makes it more possible. So I wanted to bring that right away because I had already done that in a couple of other places. But then starting to build around that, for me, the issue is what repertoire can I bring to Boston that they probably haven't heard before? That's fresh to the players and, you know, exciting for everyone. And so I knew that there was another Ellington out there that I wanted to do, for example. And then, believe it or not, out of the blue Victor came to mind because I had remembered that he had done a bass concerto. And so I said, "Well, let's just find out." So I texted him and said, "Dude, can you come to Boston with me to do this bass concerto?" He goes, "Wait a minute." He goes, "I'm just now finishing my own bass concerto." And I said, "Well, all right, then bring it!" And so that's how we got there. And here we are, you know?

Brian McCreath [00:01:57] Well, and what a nice alignment too, that Victor teaches right down the street at Berklee. So he's in town a lot anyway. Right? But you go way back with Victor. Describe your first inklings of friendship with Victor Wooten.

Thomas Wilkins [00:02:10] Well, it's actually Victor's brother, older brother Roy, who he and I were really good, good friends. We would jog together. We worked together. And then by extension, I met the rest of his family, his mom and dad and his four brothers. And sure enough, at the tail end of this group of five brothers, all of whom were very serious, accomplished musicians, was this little dude hanging out. And he was 11 at the time. And, you know, I'd go over their house and they'd be playing, and all of a sudden I saw this little dude playing the bass, I went, "Holy cow, how is that possible? How are you doing that at 11 years old?".

[00:02:50] And so he was just, he just hung out with us, you know, and his mom would cook meals on the weekends. I was a single dude, I was just hanging out. I go over there, eat food, and then we, all of us would share music on the weekends, sitting around doing nothing, and I was playing Shostakovich and Beethoven and Brahms and Mozart for them. They were playing John Coltrane and, you know, and Miles Davis for me. And they really, we really informed each other about the musical worlds that we were existing in. And we were, Victor and I were saying yesterday that it really sort of had a tremendous positive impact on how we now make our living because I'm kind of known in the business as Mr. Versatility. I can do Shostakovich one night and Duke Ellington the next night, and I'm equally comfortable. And those guys felt the same way because we spent those weekends sharing music.

Brian McCreath [00:03:43] That's beautiful. That's beautiful. I'm interested in how "Hiawatha" is now more accessible, because at one time it was, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's music was wildly popular, but decades and decades ago. So why do you feel like it fell out of the common circulation of concerts? And what have we, what's now added, now that we have him back in a way?

Thomas Wilkins [00:04:06] Yeah, well, a couple of things. At the most basic level is, and this has happened to a lot of African-American composers, publishers wouldn't engrave their parts. And so everything was written in hand, and sometimes it wasn't very good hand. And that made people, myself included, less inclined to do this music. It was just too much work to try to figure it out, what was real and what was Memorex, you know, on the page, and of late people have started to invest in, because now that we're discovering these composers sort of out of a social, sociological necessity, people are actually starting to invest in getting these parts done. And you're right, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, this music is it's actually his "Hiawatha Ballet Suite," which is not related to the oratorio. The oratorio was the second most performed oratorio in the 19th century, second only to Handel's Messiah in Europe. It's amazing, right? And this man died young and a pauper. And that's sad. But the beautiful thing is that he left us so much rich music, the orchestra is totally stoked by it because they hadn't played it before. And that's what, to your question, that's what is now to gain, is all of that stuff that was sort of left behind. We now get to experience and make it a part of the canon that we have already enjoyed. I'm not interested in removing Brahms and Beethoven from the canon. I'm just interested in adding so that we have a richer palette to choose from.

Brian McCreath [00:05:50] I think when listeners hear this piece, that's going to become completely evident, that this is just additive, it's another voice from that time. It's beautiful, lush music. It's just gorgeous. And so I can understand why the players are really into it, to do some things they haven't done before. When it comes to Duke Ellington, you said you knew there was some Duke Ellington you wanted to do. Is this the first time you've done "The River," or have you have you conducted it before?

Thomas Wilkins [00:06:17] I've conducted movements of "The River," for the same reason: it wasn't engraved, and one of our librarians, Mark, here, actually engraved it knowing that it was coming up. Right. And so now that piece is going to get more play because, you know, I was in Chicago when he got the score done and he shipped it to me, with the CSO, in the library. He mailed it to his colleague, the librarian in Chicago, and he looked at that score. He just drooled all over it because it was so beautiful, right. So there's, I'm actually doing an Ellington mini-festival with the L.A. Phil later in the year. And so now a lot of that stuff is getting engraved. So I think we're looking forward to seeing his music brought to the fore as well.

Brian McCreath [00:07:01] I love that little window into what really jazzes up a librarian. Just engraving they get really excited about. [Laughs]

Thomas Wilkins [00:07:09] [Laughs] Right? I mean, he sent me like a million emails with questions about, "OK, should I put in a slide there in the first violins? Because it's also in the second violins, I think, I think I see one of them." Just do it!

Brian McCreath [00:07:22] Oh, man. That's what makes them so professional. They're great. Librarians are amazing, amazing parts of the team.

Thomas Wilkins [00:07:28] And it's why I can't do it. You know, it requires way too much minutia.

Brian McCreath [00:07:33] [Laughs] Fair enough. But now when you do Ellington with the BSO, in the back of my mind, I'm sort of thinking, you know, most of these players also take the stage at the Pops. Does that give you a little bit of a head start with what to do with this music?

Thomas Wilkins [00:07:46] Yeah, it does. It does, because sometimes I go to a place and I think, "Oh yeah, they don't know how to swing. We're going to have to talk about this." But no, I mean, the two places that I conduct and I work on a regular basis, the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, and the Boston Symphony slash Boston Pops. Those are the two places that I land over the course of the year that I don't have to worry about what I'm going to put in front of them because they all do everything, even film music, you know? And so, believe me, that's a great comfort because, you know, I say that the thing about these players is that they know the difference between a musical gesture and a musical lick. They can see a rhythm and go, "Oh, that's that lick." And then they don't count it anymore, you know.

Brian McCreath [00:08:33] There was a moment in rehearsal, actually, and I hope this is OK to pull back the curtain on this. When you're doing Victor's piece, and there was a little bit of real, what's the right... the rhythm was unsettled. People were not able to really completely lock in. And at one point you just said, "Don't count it."

Thomas Wilkins [00:08:48] Right.

Brian McCreath [00:08:49] "Just play the lick."

Thomas Wilkins [00:08:50] Right. That's exactly right, right? Because we're trained to go from left to right, and if the rhythm is in front of us, that's what we're going to do, is we're going to read the rhythm from left to right and what I was, basically the point I was making is don't read each bar. Read that, look at that whole thing and go, "Oh, it's just that. That's all it is." And then, you know, so put it out of your mind. Don't overthink it.

Brian McCreath [00:09:11] Pretty much locked in right after that.

Thomas Wilkins [00:09:13] It did, didn't it? It's amazing to have a conductor say, "Don't count." It seems a little counterintuitive.

Brian McCreath [00:09:20] Oh man. But for that, for that, it was perfect. Just play the lick. That's great. Yeah, yeah. Well, Thomas Wilkins, thank you for this preview. Thank you for everything you're doing here at the BSO. I appreciate your time today. Thanks a lot.

Thomas Wilkins [00:09:29] It's always my pleasure. Thank you.