It was spring break in the late 1950s, specifically 1958. As in every spring break, we stuffed 4 of my fellow Eastman School of Music classmates plus a couple of tubas in my 52 Chevy 2 door, and started the early Saturday morning six-hour drive from Rochester to New York City.
I was scheduled at 8:00am on Sunday morning to have a lesson with my hero, the legendary William Bell, the iconic tubist in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The lesson was in Mr. Bells Studio on 48th street one floor above the famous Red Lobster Restaurant. At 7:30 on a Sunday morning walking on the streets of New York, it felt like a ghost town. The cleaning staff, which was at work in the Red Lobster, was happy to stop working, talk to me, and point out the stairway to Mr. Bell’s studio. They all knew him. He was late that morning. During my lesson one of my friends was a block away on 49th Street; he told me could clearly hear me playing the Stravinsky Petrushka bear solo. I’ve often wondered how many sleeping New Yorkers I awakened on that Sunday Morning.
During my high school and Jr high school years I listened to the Sunday afternoon broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic, many times with a score in my hand; I learned much of the repertoire in that period. My teacher then was Robert Marsteller, 1st trombonist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. He was a genius teacher and he guided me both as a soloist and as an orchestral tubist; much of my orchestral thinking was developed from the point of view of being a 4th trombonist or a contrabasstrombonist. Mr. Marsteller spoke frequently of a contrabasstrombone that William Bell sometimes played in the NYPO. I was fascinated by that and could only imagine what it must have sounded like.
During that early morning lesson with William Bell I brought up the subject of the contratrabasstrombone and after the lesson he invited me to go with him to the NYPO locker room and he would show it to me. We took a taxi from 48th Street to the Carnegie Hall stage entrance and went into the locker room. He opened his locker and took out a tattered old brown corduroy bag. He opened the bag and took out the tarnished bell and slide of the contra, put the parts together and handed it to me. I played on it, handled the slide as best I could and the sound it made was just as I had imagined.
He then said “Well, you seem to really enjoy playing it, I’ll be happy to sell it to you if you’d like”. He asked me if I could afford $450, Of course, I quickly agreed, then he said I could pay it when I wished; I took me a year with $50 payments. I saw it then and still see it as an unbelievable gift.
Fredrick Fennell, conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble through the mid 1950s took a special interest in this instrument and wrote a letter to the Conn Company asking for any historical information; they returned the following sparse information: the instrument was made before 1909, this they knew because the Conn factory was burnt to the ground in 1909. Conn only could tell us that there were two contrabassstrombones built. I had the opportunity to play the other one once while visiting the Conn Factory Museum in 1961. It was a strikingly inferior instrument then the one I got from William Bell, in which the second slide was a larger diameter; the one in the Conn Museum was the same bore size on both slides. This caused it to be very stuffy.
The vague verbal history tells the instrument was made for Mr. August Helleberg, who is still known for his famous Conn Helleberg mouthpieces. He was known as a great tuba virtuoso and had played with the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and finally with the Metropolitan Opera. He also played with the Sousa Band from 1898 to 1903.
It’s surmised that during Helleberg’s years with the Metropolitan Opera he encountered a need for contrabasstrombone in the four Ring Cycle operas of Wagner. This need is probably what inspired the collaboration between August Helleberg and the pre 1909 Conn Company, which resulted in the two contrabasstrombones and, of course, the Conn Helleberg mouthpieces.
That contrabasstrombone was my most valued possession; I would show it off at every opportunity. Once when the Philadelphia Orchestra came to Rochester to play a concert in the Eastman Theater, I went back stage after the concert to meet Abe Torchinsky, the tubist; He was a jolly, good natured man but visibly skeptical of the way the tuba of the time was evolving. When the subject of instruments came up, of course, I took him to my room in the Eastman Theater to show him my contra. His voice suddenly rose in both volume and pitch and he was clearly agitated in a balance between anger and humor and it was clearly directed at me. Mr. Torchinsky was a William Bell student and they were good friends.
It was made clear to me that the contra was a Christmas gift to Mr. Bell from Mr. Torchinsky several years prior! There was more to the story; the instrument really belonged to the Philadelphia Orchestra!! As with every symphony orchestra, there was a storeroom full of unused or non-functional instruments. Mr. Torchinsky discovered the contrabasstrombone and presented it to his teacher and friend as a Christmas gift. Although I’m sure Mr. Torchinsky viewed me as some kind of tuba troublemaker, we eventually became good friends.
William Bell had told me that there was an American composer named Vittorio Giannini who always wrote for contrabassstrombone instead of tuba. When I returned to Rochester the first piece I encountered in the Philharmonic was a work by Giannini called Frescobaldiana, which had a part for contrabasstrombone. I tried my best to learn it but getting my nonexistent slide technique functional enough in 3 days for a Thursday night concert was not realistic; I played the part on tuba. The following school year I was fortunate to become a contrabasstrombone student with the great and famous trombone Maestro, Emory Remington. I was his one and only contrabasstrombone student.
I tested my theory that the contrabassstrombone would be a suitable instrument to use for tuba parts in the symphony orchestra. Specifically, I used it in Brahms 2nd Symphony and Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony, both very much orchestrated like the fourth part in the trombone section. Brahms and Tchaikovsky knew what they were doing; the contra sounded fine but tuba was the right instrument!
When the contra was right, it was overwhelmingly right. In 1961 I used contra in an Eastman Wind Ensemble with Fredrick Fennell for an album called THE GABREILLI’S OF VENICE; I learned that for Italian Renascence music the cylindrical sound made by a contrabassstrombone was far more idiomatic and simply correct than the wider sound of a 20th century tuba. Having played an entire concert of Gabrielli with the brass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in San Marco’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy, Gabrielli’s musical home, I became even more convinced that those gorgeous bass lines sounded far more appropriate on a cylindrical instrument.
In the summer of 1960 I got my first studio job for the movie SPARTACUS, it was three days of exciting work and it was all orchestrated for contrabasstrombone. Of course, I also used it in the LAPO when we played music from the Wagner Ring Operas and the Gurrelieder by Arnold Schoenberg.
In 1963, during my first year in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I had an F attachment installed on the instrument, that made the instrument much easier to play and extended the low register into a very functional contrabass range.
After my retirement from playing in 2001 I sold it to a very good friend who was a basstrombonist in one of the major orchestras. He had never told anyone how much he paid for it, so I won’t tell either; I will only say that considering the $450 I paid for it in 1958, it was the best investment of my life. The instrument has now found its way back into the Hollywood studio world and from what I understand it is used frequently; I’m happy about that.
Because I bought it from William Bell, because of the story that came with the horn and because every experience I had with it throughout my career was a happy experience, it was my most treasured possession. I loved that horn.
April 16 2020, Oaxaca, Mexico