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Karr Is 2nd Fiddle To Double Bass

February 22, 1986|MARC SHULGOLD

Pity the poor straight man--forever cursed to be upstaged by a more flashy, spotlight-grabbing partner.

Gary Karr is no different from any other second banana. Well, maybe a little different. His onstage cohort is a double bass.

"Everything I read puts heavy attention on the instrument," he says, with a touch of hurt in his voice. "But there isn't enough attention on me . I'm a musician with something to say, but the reviews are always focusing on the bass and the surprising things I can do on it.

"I'm jealous."

But Karr, who appears in concert with the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra at Royce Hall, UCLA, tonight, understands his role as Abbott to his double bass' Costello.

"When I began my solo career (next season marks his 25th anniversary), I knew it wouldn't be easy," he says during a telephone conversation from his home in the snowy, icy reaches of northwest Connecticut. "And I like that aspect. I would be miserable if everyone loved me. There would be no more challenges."

Karr may be jealous of the double bass, but he shows no aversion to keeping it in the limelight. Witness the shamelessly showy display pieces he has chosen for the concert tonight: Domenico Dragonetti's Concerto in A and a transcription of Paganini's violin fantasy based on Rossini's "Moses in Egypt."

"Both are meant to entertain," he admits openly. "The Paganini (played solely on the G string) is as close to vaudeville as you can get."

The music may often be flashy, but, Karr states, he is not a vaudevillian. This is serious work, though he agrees that traveling the world as a double bass virtuoso does have its comic elements: "Whenever I fly, I have to buy two seats--but I get two meals."

Considering all the reasons not to play such a bulky instrument, Karr's decision to take it up came quite easily--he is a seventh-generation bassist.

"I've always loved it," he says. "I really don't like any instrument as much as the double bass. It's chocolate--dark, creamy and rich. And I'm a chocoholic. I won't take on a student who doesn't like chocolate." He's serious.

As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, he never dreamed of a solo career. He fully expected to become an orchestral player. "You name a local community orchestra," he notes, "and I was in it. For a musician, L.A. was a great place to grow up in the '50s."

But three voices--Serge Koussevitzky, Henry Lewis and Leonard Bernstein--convinced him to go it alone, each in their own separate ways. Koussevitzky, the famed conductor and double bass player, inspired Karr via recordings (the younger virtuoso is now proud owner of Koussevitzky's bass, nicknamed "Koussy," a gift from the conductor's widow). Lewis, another conductor/bassist, showed the pre-teen Karr the possibilities in going solo. Bernstein, says Karr, "put me on the map" by inviting him to appear on a "Young People's Concert" telecast in 1962.

Now 44, Karr is recognized as one of the world's top double bassists. As such, he recognizes his responsibility to help expand the woefully inadequate repertory. "Most composers of the past just didn't understand the double bass, and wrote very poorly for it--even in an orchestral setting," he notes. Acknowledging the numerous works written for him, he notes, "Audiences don't want to hear most of them. There isn't much that's listenable."

An exception, he adds, is a recently completed concerto for him by Lalo Schifrin, who will be on the podium at the concert tonight. "He's written an audience-pleaser," Karr enthuses. "I wish the piece was ready for the Royce program. I would love to play it in Los Angeles.

"But you know what I really want to do one day when I'm in L.A.?" Karr asks in a conspiratorial voice. "I would love to go on 'The Tonight Show.' I'd be good! I could tell lots of funny anecdotes."

If he does go on, though, Karr had best make certain "Koussy" gets most of the laughs.

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