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Interview with Catalin Rotaru

Catalin RotaruWe posted a player-watch piece on bassist Catalin Rotaru in July. Catalin has been gracious enough to share his insight into the double bass and his career as a professional classical performer and educator. In case you missed our last post, he served as associate principal bass in the Romanian National Radio Orchestra, principal bass in the Sibiu Philharmonic Orchestra, Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra of Bucharest, Danville Symphony Orchestra, Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, associate principal and principal bass in Sinfonia Da Camera, and principal bass of the Orchestra Sinfonica Europea. Currently he is an associate professor at Arizona State University.

Tell us about your background, where were you first exposed to music? What brought you to the double bass?

The double bass was my first instrument. I was about twelve when I started to play. But it was a couple of years before I took it more seriously, because at that age there’s not a lot of maturity yet, not enough motivation, to start practicing the instrument with a lot of seriousness. It was just a coincidence that I began playing the bass. The fiancé of my music teacher at the time was a bass player, and she introduced me to him. Next time we met he played something on bass, and there was something in the color and depth of the sound that made me decide instantly and I said, “Okay, that’s what I want to play.” So that’s how, to put it simply, I became a bass player. At the more sophisticated level of answering this question, I’d have to say it’s a matter of fate or even better, one of my missions during this lifetime.

You have served as associate principal bass in the Romanian National Radio Orchestra, principal bass in the Sibiu Philharmonic Orchestra, Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra of Bucharest, Danville Symphony Orchestra, Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, associate principal and principal bass in Sinfonia Da Camera, and principal bass of the Orchestra Sinfonica Europea. That’s a serious list! Can you tell us about what being a principal or associate principal bassist entails? To you have specific duties in the orchestra different from the other bass players?

Indeed Evan, the position of principal bassist of a bass section within the orchestra bears with it a different responsibility than being a section member. You are basically in charge of leading the section, cue certain entrances or attacks, providing articulation markings to the entire section etc. In other words, you must ensure that, just like a healthy organ in the human body, the bass section accomplishes all its duties flawlessly within the big apparatus called the symphony orchestra.

In your videos you always use a German bow, is this personal preference or is there a specific quality you find only the German bow has? Have you ever used a French bow?

I started with the German bow since the very beginning and I never played with the French bow. So I can’t say it’s a preference since I never had a reference point. I’ve seen very few bassists that can handle both grips (although one will always be stronger than the other). I also know many bassists who switched from French to German but never vice-versa. There are pros and cons for each of the two styles but there is a common agreement that the German grip will help in attaining a more powerful sound.

Which school of study do you advocate for the double bass (e.g. Simandl, Rabbath, a combination etc)? Did you learn in a specific style?

It’s very difficult to point out one school over another. They are all great and have a lot to offer so I think it is beneficial checking them all out and in the end sticking with the one that appeals the most to you. Of course, your private teacher should be the one making this kind of decision based on a thorough analysis of your advancement level. I was lucky enough to get my formal training as a musician and bass player at a musical institution extremely successful and with a very long tradition particularly in the strings and voice areas. On top of that, the bass studio was considered a school of bass on its own, being founded by the renowned Austrian bass player Joseph Prunner, who moved from Vienna to Bucharest at the beginning of the 20th century. Consequently, most of the bass players who graduated from that university hold now different positions around the world, either with major symphony orchestras or in famous educational institutions. I believe that good posture and technique is crucial for achieving a high level of performance and ensuring longevity in playing the double bass and that is why I emphasize the concept of “being one with the bass”. This unique relationship with the instrument promotes the bass as an extension of the body that contributes to the materialization of the musical-emotional aspects of the individual. Seeing the instrument as almost part of oneself contributes to the increased level of relaxation while playing.

To follow up on that, do you use a predominantly open or closed left hand technique? Can you explain your preference for us?

I definitely am a strong advocate for an open hand concept. It is in many ways similar to the approach that cellists have developed for their left hand technique and it does open up a whole new world of new, previously unknown possibilities. It all started with the desire of breaking the boundaries and going beyond what’s been done. For so many years the double bass was mostly an accompaniment instrument and it’s time to prove to the musical community that our instrument has the characteristics and capabilities to be considered a solo instrument. Who knows, perhaps this would inspire more composers to write good music for the double bass so I think in the end, it will be the bass, who could benefit the most by having its repertoire expanded both, by great new transcriptions as well as new contemporary works.

We always want to know how great musicians practice. Tell us a little about your normal practice routine. How much of your time is spent practicing?

Most of the time I manage to get at least a couple of hours a day six days a week (I always take one day off) but in my opinion the most important aspect in managing practice time is consistency. I tell my students to practice a minimum of 4 hours a day because in the performance world, things are tough and extremely competitive and the only way to make it out there is to rise to the top of the pyramid. One other important thing I do is to always start my practice session with scales and arpeggios; so I sometimes spend a good hour working on scales at different tempos and with different bow articulations. Most people don’t realize how important this “habit” forming is for their technique development.

In preparation for a performance do you have specific methods for approaching a new classical piece?

The first thing I do when learning a new piece is going over the text very slowly and finding the best fingering which will serve the original articulation of the text. I keep stressing not only to my students, but everywhere I happen to give a master class, the importance of having a good, “healthy” fingering. Then, I keep practicing the piece slowly which in turn will insure the development of good automatic reflexes and “muscle memory”. Again, this is an extremely important step in the learning process; practicing slowly will allow your mind to stay focused and pay attention to every small detail. Consequently, this will prevent anyone from practicing mistakes, which could so easily become habit and would be a lot more difficult to undo later on. As you become more relaxed and comfortable playing at a slow tempo, you can gradually increase the speed without much effort and most of the time this will happen naturally when you’re ready.

As an established professor, what would your advice be for double bass students in approaching a new classical piece?

I guess by answering your previous question I already answered this one as well. As far as I am concerned, there is no difference between the techniques and methods employed when I learn a new piece and the ones I recommend to my students. The only difference resides in the amount of time I spend learning a new piece versus my students, as well as the level of difficulty of the piece.

Your debut album Bass*ic Cello Notes is a collection of beautiful classical works, predominantly Sonatas, what guided your choice in pieces to feature? Are these personal favorites of yours or was there another reason behind their selection?

Well, it’s been said that music is the language of the soul and every time I was listening to these two sonatas as well as the Chaconne, deep in my soul I was feeling an irresistible attraction and vibration to these works. And that’s when I started thinking, “Okay, is there any chance I can play these on the bass?” My first intention is to play the piece – especially cello repertoire – without changing the register for which it was written – and that is challenging, but not impossible. So I performed the two sonatas almost entirely in the cello register without having to change anything. J.S. Bach’s, “Chaconne” on the other hand, I had to tweak a couple of passages to make it play well on bass. But that didn’t stop me and it didn’t change the piece so much that people might say, “That doesn’t sound anything like the Chaconne we know.” It’s just a little tweaking that would allow me to savor and enjoy the beauty of making the piece of a genius come out of my bass. I guess it all starts with developing good playing skills and developing a strong technique, particularly in the left hand, which will eventually have to fly at high speeds on the fingerboard.

You are a professor of both double bass and jazz studies, do you have plans to release a jazz album? Do you use the bow for soloing during a jazz piece?

Actually, here at Arizona State University I’m not teaching any jazz studies but I get involved with the jazz area as often as possible and I strongly help and support them in any way I can. I don’t have in plans to release a jazz album any time soon but I do have plans which hopefully will materialize soon, for recording another classical album so I’ll keep you posted on its progress. For me, jazz is like an incurable virus that once it’s gotten in my blood stream, it will stay there until I go. And I’m happy, because the double bass is such an awesome instrument with almost unlimited possibilities when it comes to performing. You can be fully involved in both areas, and for me one area compliments the other – jazz and classical and that’s really mind opening and rewarding.

Let’s hear a little about your instruments, where did they come from and who made them?

I play on a modern instrument made in Italy in 2006 by Luciano Golia, whom I also endorse as I believe he is a very accomplished luthier. Unlike many other new basses I’ve tried, his basses have from the very beginning a gorgeous tone and sound qualities which are normally found only in older instruments. I guess the recordings and video files you can find on the web are the best testimonials in support of my statements. The same goes for the bow maker, Marco Pasquino, who is also Italian and whom I also endorse for the remarkable qualities of his bows. In the end, I am grateful to both Luciano and Marco for their mastery in crafting such wonderful musical tools which will always have a great impact in the outcome of the final product.

We’ve found a lot of YouTube videos and heard your audio samples from Arizona State University, is there anywhere else we can find you on the web?

Evan, I don’t have a personal website, despite that people all over the world keep telling me that I should have one. So I couldn’t point you to a precise location on the web but I’m sure if you do a search there will probably be quite a few sites having mentioned something about me.

Who are you currently listening to (bands, CDs, performers)?

I listen to a lot of music, making up a wide variety of styles and genres and in general I am open to anything that resonates with my heart and makes my soul vibrate.

Finally, what is your all time favorite piece to play?

Now, this is the hardest question to answer. And you know what? I’m afraid I can’t point to one single piece that I can say “That’s the one”. I take a lot of pleasure in performing everything I learned and I know so far; and in a way, this is the final and most sublime stage a performer can attain and that’s what makes music a form of art: at that level, you’re not playing anymore – you are merely a vessel, serving the music and letting the emotions flow out into the heart and soul of your audience.

Here are videos of Catalin performing the Tchaikovskys Rococo Variations with the Radio Chamber Orchestra in Bucharest.

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