The Oregon Mozart Players, with Kelly Kuo conducting, open their season on Saturday night at Beall Concert Hall with a concert featuring two solo performers – bassist DaXun Zhang and violinist Cho-Liang Lin.
They’ll play a program that includes Mozart’s Second Violin Concerto, with Lin as soloist; Respighi’s neo-Baroque suite “The Birds”; and Bottesini’s Gran Duo Concertante – a work composed for two double basses, but usually now performed by a bassist and a violinist – with Lin on violin and Zhang on bass.
We talked with Zhang about the joys of playing the double bass, a musical instrument so large that it sometimes costs more to take it with him on an airplance than he paid for his own ticket.
It’s tempting to ask how you happened to take up the double bass, but you come from an entire family of bassists.
I first took cello when I was 7 years old. My father plays the bass and, when I was 9, I switched to the bass. My father thought there was a better job market for the bass.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Harbin in the northeast of China. When I was 10 years old I went to Beijing to study at the Central Conservatory.
You must have been quite a good young musician.
Well, I come from a family of musicians. The Central Conservatory is probably the highest music institution in China.
What is it about playing bass that’s appealing?
For bass what attracts me is that not everything, including the way of playing, has been finalized.
Through bass I have learned new skills such as arranging. How to put music into computers.
Do you compose?
I try. I haven’t written a lot of music. I haven’t composed a whole piece of music yet. I am definitely working on it, to learn how to compose.
How old are you?
I am 32.
I know you have played with Yo-Yo Ma in his Silk Road Ensemble. Do you play in far-flung genres such as jazz or bluegrass?
Jazz is another thing I am learning right now. I can imitate jazz. I play fake jazz.
Did you say you can imitate jazz?
I can fake it. I can sound like a jazz player. I play a piece called “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin. I had a friend who actually knows jazz help me write both the bass part and a piano part. He wrote in a very jazzy way and I try to perform in a very jazzy way.
Sometimes I’ve fooled real jazz players. They thought I was improvising.
Tell me about playing with Yo-Yo Ma.
Yo-Yo Ma was my idol since I was very young. The first time I heard the Dvorak Cello Concerto, I got a ticket to see his concert. I was sitting in the first row. He was right above me.
He has been an inspiration for me. When I finally got a chance to play for him, he asked me to do a recording with the Silk Road. My dream came true.
Were you nervous?
I was nervous, of course. I don’t want to mess up. It was a great learning experience for me and eye-opening. It opened my mind.
I now can play some Chinese instruments, largely owing to my experience with the Silk Road. It made me think there are more things I can do than just play the double bass.
So in a way he brought you back to your heritage.
That’s right, yes. In the Silk Road Ensemble there are several Chinese musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments, and I had a chance to meet them. I am really glad I was part of it.
Tell me about the Gran Duo Concertante. It was written for two double basses.
Yes. Bottesini was a double bassist composer and a good conductor. He actually premiered the opera ‘Aida’ as a conductor. And he was probably the most famous composer for double bass. He has many pieces for bass.
Mostly he was either virtuosic or operatic.
The Gran Duo Concertante is a combinaiton of virtuosic and operatic. With the violin, I like to think the violin is the woman and the bass is the man and they are singing together. It’s very dramatic. It’s very showy. It’s very entertaining.
Have you played with Lin before?
I have never played the big piece with him on solo violin. But I played the Gran Duo Concertante with another violinist when he was conductor.
He also played in a string quartet, where he accompanied me and the violinist for the piece. He knows the piece very well, he has played before, and he knows me playing the piece pretty well, too. So it’s fun to see him become the solo violinist.
Have you been to Oregon before?
I have not.
You have a treat in store for you.
That’s what I have heard.
Do you like living in Austin?
It’s a lovely place. It’s not a huge city. And it doesn’t take me a long time to get to the airport. Which is very nice.
As a bass player, I have to travel with a bass. A big airport can create more difficulties for me. Security is very tight. Austin is very nice. It’s much more relaxed here.
What is the status of traveling with a bass? Do you buy a ticket for it?
I used to. Some of the seating in aircraft now is not high enough. It’s getting too expensive. Now the best way is to check it as luggage. I have a very strong case made of fiberglass. It’s very heavy. It’s a hassle to travel with it.
Sometimes you get charged a lot. I travel internationally, and I have been charged $800. It’s overweight and oversize. Sometimes it’s more than the ticket.
Does it always come through undamaged?
So far so good.
That must make flying even more miserable than it is for most of us.
Sometimes I travel without a bass. And it’s just heaven.
Oregon Mozart Players
7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 4
Beall Concert Hall