String bass player Peter Rofe takes his instrument seriously, but the mere sight of his unwieldy bass provokes banal humor from nearly everyone he encounters.
"At least once a day, when I'm walking my bass to work, someone tells me, 'I'll bet you wish you played the piccolo!' Then they go off laughing, as if I had never heard that comment before."
Tonight, Rofe will tote his bass to center stage in Symphony Hall to play Richard Rodney Bennett's Concerto for Contrabass with the San Diego Symphony. As might be expected, the 34-year-old musician is a great advocate of his chosen instrument. But he is not uncritical. "I don't necessarily consider the bass a great solo instrument, just as I don't consider the viola a great solo instrument," he said.
Actually, Rofe might best be described as a reluctant soloist. Symphony music director David Atherton had to twist his arm to get him to solo with the orchestra. "David had been lobbying me for about two years to do some concerto with the orchestra," Rofe said. "But I have a problem with solo literature for the string bass--I don't like it. Most of it is trashy music. I would have been embarrassed to try to present a piece that wasn't really good. I have too much respect for my colleagues to say, 'Hey, accompany me on this piece so I can show off how good I am.' "
While Rofe articulates his views with an air of comfortable sophistication, he is no musical snob. "I didn't start playing the string bass until college," he said. "But I had been playing music all through junior high and high school--mainly rock 'n' roll." From playing popular guitar and electric bass, Rofe graduated to the string bass.
"My idols then were the Beatles," he admitted. "I still like the Beatles--I have all their albums."
Rofe touted as a real advantage his not beginning with orthodox instruction in classical music. "Because I got a lot of my earliest musical experiences in an improvisatorial field," he said, "my ear developed in a way that was different from most classical musicians'. So often, young musicians just learn by rote--they don't hear what they see on the printed page."
From his present vantage point as the San Diego Symphony's principal contrabass, the 12-year symphony veteran sees his coming here as a fluke of fate.
"I was graduating from UCLA, where I had been studying the bass, and was on my way to attending one of the Eastern conservatories," he said. "One day my teacher came in and said, 'There's an audition down in San Diego--take it.' "
Rofe started playing with the symphony that fall, the beginning of the 1973-74 season, under then-music director Peter Eros. To learn the Bennett concerto, a recent work of challenging rhythmic complexity that has yet to be recorded, Rofe turned to the battery of electronic machinery that lines the walls of his studio. "I wanted to know this piece backwards and forwards," he said. "For once, I wanted to know the score better than David (Atherton) did.
"First I programmed all of the various rhythmic patterns on an electronic drum machine; then, with the help of a friend, I realized the rest of the orchestra part on a synthesizer." In effect, he produced a kind of computerized "Music Minus One" tape of the concerto against which he could practice his solo.
After he learned the piece, Rofe visited Bennett in New York City to see if his interpretive ideas were on the right track, which they were. But one of the composer's ideas took Rofe by surprise: "He suggested to me that I amplify the string bass in performance. Even though the concerto is lightly orchestrated, Bennett wanted the bass to dominate." Bennett came to this conclusion, Rofe noted, after hearing the concerto's first performance. When a new edition of the score comes out, he told Rofe, he will indicate such electronic amplification.
After intensive preparation, Rofe can now sing the angular contrabass solo in its entirety at the drop of a hat. He stated with utter confidence, "I think I know the piece better than any other person on this planet--except for maybe the composer."
This performance of Bennett's concerto will be a West Coast premiere. Most people, if they recognize Bennett's name at all, associate him with film scores to successful movies such as "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Equus."
The versatile British composer wrote this concerto for an international contrabass competition held on the Isle of Man in 1978. Rofe said the contest winner had the privilege of premiering the work under the American conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
As a souvenir of his meeting with Bennett, Rofe has his own copy of the original orchestral score with all of Thomas' notes penciled in.