How do classical musicians choose which instrument they will end up playing for a living?
Often, it’s hearing a particular performer — Jacqueline DuPré’s Elgar recordings, for instance, could push you toward the cello, or a Wynton Marsalis concert might make you book trumpet lessons.
Zachary Cohen’s eureka moment happened somewhat differently, however, when he was a teenager in the Bronx.
“I remember there was this really good-looking guy who passed by on the sidewalk with a double bass,” he says. “And I was like, wow, I really want to be like that.”
Cohen was 16 or 17 then, and he took his vocation as a classical bassist seriously. “I became obsessed with it. I was very socially awkward, and just practiced all the time.”
Practice rapidly made perfect — at 24, he became the youngest section leader in the country when he won the principal bass job in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Nine years later, in 2015, he moved to a similar position with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
This weekend Cohen steps into the spotlight as soloist in the U.S. premiere of composer Missy Mazzoli’s double bass concerto, the enigmatically titled “Dark With Excessive Bright.” Mazzoli’s work is one of very few concertos for double bass, even though the instrument has been a staple of the symphony orchestra since the 18th century.
Cohen has a reason for that. “You were always a joke if you wanted to play solo bass,” he smiles. “That’s much less the case now, but I think the idea has stuck, and I don’t know if it will ever change.”
Cohen is confident, however, that Mazzoli’s new concerto will radically alter perceptions of the double bass as a temperamentally gruff, slow-moving instrument.
“I think it’s an incredible piece of art,” he says. “Missy is a real breath of fresh air for classical music. She’s a singer as well as a composer, and plays in a rock group called Victoire. The way she hears melody is very different.”
The range of influences in Mazzoli’s music — art-pop, electronica, classical — makes it particularly attractive to Cohen, whose own résumé as a performer ranges widely.
As a teenager he played electric bass in a rock band and a hip-hop group called the Jew Tang Clan — “I played at CBGB’s before it closed,” he interjects proudly of the now-defunct club that launched the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads — before moving into jazz at the Manhattan School of Music.
The year before joining the SPCO, Cohen struck out in another new direction, taking a sabbatical in Spain to study the viola da gamba and the art of historical string performance.
These are unusually eclectic influences for a classical double bass player, but they are particularly useful in interpreting “Dark With Excessive Bright.”
Mazzoli herself describes the concerto as being inspired by baroque and renaissance music, and “slipping between string techniques from several centuries.”
Cohen hears “an unusual color range” in the piece, with the influences of Samuel Barber, Hindustan idioms and indie music seeping through the textures.
With these ingredients, is “Dark With Excessive Bright” even “classical” music anymore? Does it matter?
“Let’s say we don’t think about it as classical music anymore,” Cohen muses. “Let’s think about it instead as a soundtrack for this generation — you don’t need to be a classical fan to get it.”
The title also offers an intriguing insight into where Mazzoli’s inspiration came from. The phrase comes from Book Three of Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost,” where God is imagined “throned inaccessible” in the mysterious splendor of heaven. The composer says this “surreal and evocative description of God” is “a strangely accurate way to describe the dark but heart-rending sound of the double bass itself.”
Cohen senses something even deeper. “I think there is undoubtedly an element of spirituality in the piece, although I’m not sure if it has finally made up its mind about whether God exists or not.
“One painting I think of in relation to it is ‘The Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo, where God’s hand is so close to Adam’s. And I think Missy toys with that.”
In making “Dark With Excessive Bright,” Mazzoli worked closely with the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s bassist Maxime Bibeau, for whom the piece was written.
“That brought my understanding of the double bass to a new level,” Mazzoli says. “The double bass has a very expressive high range that we don’t usually hear in an orchestral context — it’s extremely beautiful in a fragile, vulnerable way.”
But the instrument goes low, too, and Mazzoli has taken it even lower. “I tried to emphasize that low range in this piece by tuning the lowest string down a whole step, so we hear notes that are below the normal range of the instrument. There’s something unsettling and emotional about those very low tones.”
Unsettling, emotional, unusual, unexpected — Mazzoli’s “Dark With Excessive Bright” is all of those things, Cohen agrees.
He also thinks the work is special, not just another concerto in the list of hundreds already in the classical arena.
“For me it’s like a sculpture or an El Anatsui tapestry,” he says. “And I’m afraid that there won’t be another piece like this in a long time.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.