Back to Bassics
Zachary Cohen, 27, became the principal bassist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at 22. That sort of thing never happens, but it did, while Cohen was still a senior at the Juilliard School in his home town, New York.
The MSO’s bass section was always good. Lately, it has been superb in its ensemble and intonation, impressive in its heft and wonderfully pliant.
“We’re all working together as a team to sound great,” Cohen said. “I’m lucky to have a section like this. ”
Cohen’s phenomenal speed, accuracy, ease and musicality rival that of Edgar Meyer, the world’s most famous bass player. You can hear the two of them together at MSO concerts Friday through Sunday, Nov. 12-14. They will play Bottesini’s Passione amarosa for two basses and orchestra. Bottesini (1821-1889), according to Grove’s Music Online (a fabulous subscription music reference source), was an Italian composer, conductor and (per the contemporary press) “the Paganini of the double bass.” He astounded audiences and expanded the compass of possibility of the instrument. But his music is rarely played today, according to GMO, because it is so difficult. Difficulty arises partly from Bottesini’s preference for a three-stringed instrument tuned a whole step higher than normal, a setup that never caught on. It sounds like just the sort of thing for Meyer and Cohen to take on.
“I look forward to playing with Edgar,” Cohen said. “He’s been a model for me. He’s classically trained, but he removed the fear of exploring other types of music. And I really admire his compositional side.”
Meyer has expanded the repertoire for the bass in several directions. Cohen is doing that, too. He has commissioned several composers to write for him, and has taken up composition himself with great passion. Just now, Cohen is at work on a piece to commemorate the centennial of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which more than 200 immigrant, female and mostly Jewish garment workers died in New York on March 25, 1911.
“I’m doing a lot of listening, mostly to the music of the immigrants, and research,” he said. “My grandmother did a lot of social activism work in New York. Workers’ rights is a timeless issue.”
His new piece will premiere in New York in March, probably on the same eighth floor of the building where fire trapped and killed so many in 1911. New York University now owns that building.
His current commissioning projects, he said, have to do with linking music to social matters. His interest in such things led him to accept a teaching residency at a music school in Myanmar (or Burma), one of the most repressive regimes on earth, last winter. Some have argued that any contact with Burma implicitly supports the regime; others contend that any contact with the outside world helps to keep a flame of freedom alive there.
“I was advised not to talk politics and to stay away from drugs if I didn’t want to get arrested,” he said. “The kids were immediately receptive to contact and knowledge from the outside. I couldn’t speak the language, and just a few of them spoke a little English. Music made a connection in its own way, and it was amazing to see that.”
I asked about his background and home life, but Cohen said he had been interviewed on that subject before and felt uncomfortable with the result and the subject. So I let it go, but the background is out there — here, for example.
He preferred to discuss the Rust Belt Salon, an idea he dreamed up to make Milwaukee a more exciting cultural center.
“This is the perfect time to be in Milwaukee,” he said. “An artistic renaissance is going on here. This is the Third Coast. We’re not Boston or New York or L.A., but we have great people coming through and great people based here. I think the Rust Belt Salon could be an epicenter of that renaissance, where people from here and elsewhere get together in an open, collaborative environment, a place to get people together who might not play together. I want to get different types of artists involved, but we’ll start with musicians.”
We met at Cohen’s Shorewood bungalow, which Cohen has decorated in a beautiful blend of the rough-hewn and exquisite. He’s collected some remarkable furniture, big pieces that somehow leave room for spare open spaces. Austere hardwood floors offset a bright palette inspired by colors he saw in Burma. If the music business goes bad, he could design interiors for a living.
But Cohen was more interested in showing me the basement. It washed out in the July flood and is in rough shape amid restoration.
“I think right over here, I could have a little stage,” he said. “And over here, this could be a recording studio. My idea is to make rough recordings on 8-tracks, with just one take, and mix them and press them on vinyl. Jack Black, of White Stripes, does that in Nashville. Everything’s so over-edited now. I think people would like music that feels hand-crafted.”
Cohen holds a demanding position in the MSO, is fixing up a house, tours with the Music from Marlboro Ensemble, composes, commissions and premieres new works, plays chamber music with others around town, finds ways to connect music to social causes and is starting a salon. Some people like to stay busy.
“I want to develop new areas of artistry and virtuosity,” he said. “I want to make audiences see and hear the instrument in a new way.”
MSO concerts this week are at 11:15 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Ticket prices and links here. The repertoire: Edgar Meyer’s Double Bass Concerto in D; Bottesini’s Passione amorosa; Ravel’s Menuet antique and Pavane pour une infante défunte; and the Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1919 revision).