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SA Bassists With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Leon Bosch

Meet Martin Simpson –

Leon Bosch is one of South Africa’s National Treasures. He’s a very well respected musician worldwide and has appeared on a huge number of recordings as well as featuring on some wonderful recording with Pianist Sung-Suk Kang. It was indeed an honour when Leon agreed to this interview. This is what he told me in September this year.

[Martin] How long have you been playing Leon, and what made you choose the double bass?

[Leon] I started playing the double bass thirty one years ago in 1979, and it was more a case of the instrument choosing me. I spent my first year at university, in Cape Town, as a cello student, but it was my cello teacher, Edna Elphick, who introduced me to Zoltan Kovats, my first double bass teacher. Zoltan was at the time principle double bassist of the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra and is, in my considered opinion, still one of the best double bass players and teachers in the world. After about 12 months of lessons I first began to realise that the bass and I were really meant for each other and so began a love affair with the instrument that has grown in intensity with every passing day.

[Martin] How many people do you know who can claim to be doing the thing they were born to do?

[Leon] Well I’m extremely fortunate to have found my mission in life and hope never to be deflected from that path.

[Martin] Have you tried your hand at any other instruments since picking up the bass?

[Leon] Not seriously, but I do regret not having practised the piano more diligently when I was receiving lessons in my youth. I truly wish that I was more proficient at the keyboard and every now and then I resolved to do something about it, and have to that end bought a volume or two of Czerny etudes and also some Scarlatti Sonatas. There is a particular Scarlatti sonata, one in E Major, which I would dearly love to be able to play, properly, but somehow I fear that is not likely to happen, at least not until I have retired, life is too busy at the moment.

I did however play the violin, viola and cello before arriving at the bass, so I don’t feel particularly deprived in this sense, but am of the opinion that specialisation is not all bad. To excel at anything one does have to eliminate other ‘distractions’ and almost single-mindedly pursue the perfection of one particular aspect of human endeavour.

[Martin] What instruments would you like to have if money were no object?

[Leon] I have a complete and utter obsession with sound and because I can hear, in my imagination, the perfect double bass sound, the quest to find the instrument that makes that particular sound has become a lifelong quest.

I am fortunate however to have two exceptional instruments in my collection, a Gagliano and Landolfi. Between them they perform, with alacrity, all the musical challenges that come my way and they do of course sound and behave incredibly differently. I have come to understand and value their respective merits. They provide me with close to 95% of what I would like to be able to hear, and that of course means that I am constantly on the lookout for the remaining 5%. If I were to have access to unlimited funds, there are a number of instruments I would covet!

I have over the years had the privilege to see and play on a few Gaspar da Saló instruments, the bass player’s equivalent of a Stradivarius. Some were better than others, but one of them suits me particularly well and makes a sound close to the sound I have in my mind. I was unfortunately ‘gazumped’ in my attempt to acquire this instrument a few years ago, but access to the necessary funds could surely bring it home?

There are a number of other instruments I would like to have too, but again for purely artistic reasons.

My first disc of British music for double bass was recorded on a beautiful and magnificent sounding Hill double bass. This instrument is sadly no longer in my possession and before I can record a second disc of British music therefore, I will need another fabulous British instrument. I think I have found the ideal instrument for this task, it is a Royal Forster, commissioned by and made for King George III in 1789. It is a beautiful instrument and sounds even better than I imagined it would. It came up for sale recently, an opportunity which unfortunately passed me by owing to the lack of funds…….something which is quite normal for musicians!

My recent immersion in the music of Pedro Valls has also allowed me to discover and to explore the instruments of some of the great Spanish luthiers and with unlimited funds I would wish to own an instrument by Guillame. Pedro Vall’s used a Guillame and it was seemingly the preferred instrument of other Spanish virtuosi too, including Anton Torello.

And before I continue to rattle off a never ending list, allow me to conclude with another instrument which I have seen and played, and love to bits. Testore is a well known name in the rich vein of Italian luthiers associated with great double basses, and there is a truly wonderful Carlo Giuseppe Testore instrument which I would very much love to add to my collection. It would make an exceptional solo instrument.
We all know however that with these exceptional instruments come pretty eye watering price tags and more often than not such wonderful instruments are out reach for most artists, however successful they may be.

[Martin] Do you have a similar interest in bows?

[Leon] For sure….!!

Instruments do of course embody certain qualities, but it is the bow which draws the sound from them and we probably pay too little attention to that aspect of our art.

When I came to the UK as that idealistic young student, I did not possess a bow. I had borrowed one from my second teacher in South Africa, Max Rünge, and sadly had to return it to him when I left for England. Upon arriving in the UK I borrowed another bow from Rodney Slatford with whom I had come to study and I knew that I would have to get a bow of my own, but money was a problem.

I soon began to play some competitions however and won enough money not only to live on, but also to buy a bow. Rodney Slatford arranged for Klaus Trumpf, who then lived in East Germany, to bring an excellent bow for me on one of his visits to the UK. The bow in question is a Dolling and I still have it in my collection. I used it exclusively for many years, until I finally began to experiment with other bows.

The first bow I bought after the Dolling was a fabulous Walter Mettal, and then got my first Pfretzschner. This was over the years followed by many more bows by makers as diverse as Gotz and Rudolf Neudorfer. I have a sizeable and interesting collection now and it includes the bow which Max Rünge lent to me in South Africa. This is a wonderful Le Blanc, which is quite light, but capable of great clarity and definition. When Max retired from the Cape Town orchestra, I persuaded him to sell me the bow, since it possessed so many happy memories for me….it was the bow I used when I learnt the very core of my solo repertoire.

Each bow in my collection produces a unique sound, and observant members of the audience will notice that I often take more than one bow on stage with me!

[Martin] What have been the high and low points of your career thus far?

[Leon] Music has been a real blessing and it has enabled me to live an exceptionally full and rewarding life.

It has been a privilege to be able to perform some of the finest music ever composed, with distinguished artists, in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Music allows one a unique perspective, enhanced in no small measure by the possibility of travelling to parts of the world of which one might otherwise only ever have dreamt.

For me to name a particular high point would therefore be nigh on impossible, so I have selected to share with you a few critical moments in my journey thusfar.

The first and most critical high point in my music journey was leaving South Africa for Europe as a young student, with my suitcase, double bass and brand new raincoat, to embark on an adventure, the outcome of which was at that point uncertain at best. I remember meeting the pianist Lamar Crowson on the flight from Johannesburg to London (Lamar was travelling to Europe for concerts with the Soviet violinist Nina Beilina) and to say that I was filled with idealism enthusiasm and excitement, would be an understatement. That flight was the first small and tentative step on my journey, which has taken many unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Being offered my first job, with the Scottish National Orchestra, by Neeme Jarvi was another high point for me. It confirmed something simple, but important at the same time: that I was, after years of study and practice, good enough to earn a living in the music profession.

I was regrettably unable to take up my position at the Scottish National Orchestra (the British state refused me a work permit to do so) but after a spell as principal double bassist of the Manchester Camerata, a chamber orchestra in the North West of England, came my next transformative moment and unequivocal high point: joining the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. It was and probably still is the ambition of most young string players to join this esteemed ensemble and I was no different in that respect. Joining The Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1995 was therefore ‘a dream come true’ and it continues to be a privilege for me to serve the orchestra as principal double bassist.

Chamber music has always represented an important part of my musical life and one of the most enduring highlights has been working regularly with the Lindsay String Quartet over the last twenty years, until their recent retirement. We enjoyed a rare chemistry which made every performance with them a real joy.

My first teacher, Zoltan Kovats, was a founder member of the World Orchestra for Peace, whose members were all recently appointed UNESCO ambassadors for peace. He has until now participated in all their projects, but was, owing to injuries sustained in a car accident, unable to join them in their most recent concerts, in London and Salzburg. I was invited to replace him and it was an honour to do so, and at the same time to represent not just the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, but also South Africa, in this distinguished ensemble, The World Orchestra for Peace realizes an ideal which our politicians appear incapable of achieving, true co-operation between human beings.

Another dream which all young musicians share is to become ‘recording artists’ and I guess I was no different in this respect either. Realising this dream has however taken some time in my case and I finally started recording as a soloist only a few years ago now. I have an open ended contract with Meridian Records to record as many disc as I would like of repertoire for my instrument. This project probably represents my proudest achievement and unquestionably represents my mission in life.

There has only ever been one low point in my musical life and that was when I finally realized that the interests of music and the interests of the music business itself were diametrically opposed. My admittedly naive idealism was fatally undermined and the inevitable disillusionment nearly drove me to hanging up my bow, but before doing so I fortunately came to the conclusion that it was my responsibility to find a way to ameliorate the worst effects of the music business in my own life at least, and to pursue with vigour and to the exclusion of all else, those things I really believed in.

[Martin] What have you been doing over the last five years or so?

[Leon] Simplifying life to an extent, as much as is possible in the framework of the economic reality/austerity which now envelopes the globe. For those of you who have seen the film, ‘The Bucket List’, what I am hoping to achieve at this stage of my life probably makes sense? I’d like to end up in the position where I can do what I want and need to do….as an artist, there remain a few things I would still like to accomplish but to do so requires me to clear the decks to a significant degree, Musical life in London is essentially freelance, membership of orchestras notwithstanding, and the basic rule of thumb is ‘no play, no pay’ which of course compels musicians to literally drive themselves like slaves. Life in London is expensive and pay is by and large less than generous with the measure of success not always the quality of the phrasing, but how many sessions one manages to cram into a day.

I began to realise just how damaging that can be and decided to cease all orchestral playing, with the sole exception of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, where I share the principal position with Lynda Houghton. The Academy retains its reputation as the world’s leading chamber orchestra and its artistic policy ensures that it remains a truly global player and it continues to provide me with a suitable musical challenge. The overwhelming majority of the orchestra’s work involves international touring and sharing this work load is really vital, enabling us both the possibility of pursuing much more diverse musical interests.

Commercial work (recording film scores and pop tracks) now provides a substantial proportion of my income and subsidises, to a large extent, my solo and chamber music activities. It allows me to stay at home every now and then, to practise, essential if one is to do justice to the music one performs and of course to oneself too.

Regaining all this time from orchestral playing has enabled my solo recording project for Meridian Records and. Sung-Suk Kang and I have now recorded two discs of Bottesini, one each of British, Russian and Hungarian music and we will be completing a disc of works by the Spanish virtuoso and composer, Pedro Valls at the end of November. It is my intention to record a least two disc each year for the foreseeable future and there is truly so much ground to cover.

A new departure for me recently has been my participation at major Double Bass Conventions where I am now invited to give recitals and master classes and also to serve on competition juries. My first such experience was at the Convention of The International Society of Bassists in State College, Pennsylvania USA, last year, and what a fascinating experience that was. To be amongst about 1400 bass players and with innumerable events and bass related merchandise of all descriptions was inspiring to say the least. The very next event of this nature which I shall be attending, is Berlin 2010, next month.

I have also, over the last few years, begun to visit South Africa more regularly, to do some coaching, and have so far been involved with both MIAGI and SANYO where I have responsibility for moulding the young bassists into a section which is able, not just to hold its own in the orchestra, but to make a positive contribution to musical proceeding. I am also now a regular contributor at the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival, where my coaching is centred on chamber music.

[Martin] What are your goals currently?

[Leon] My primary goal is to pursue with diligence, my recording projects. I hope to continue recording a minimum of two discs every year, for the foreseeable future and the first milestone would be to get into double digits.

Sung-Suk Kang and I, have completed recording 5 discs and currently in the pipeline is a disc of music by the Spanish double bass virtuoso and composer, Pedro Valls, which we will be completing in November.

Then, in December will follow a disc of Allan Stephenson’s complete works for double bass: The Concerto, Burlesque, Sonatina for cello and double bass. Allan is an exceptional composer and musician of distinction, whose work truly deserves to be known more widely. I shall be travelling to South Africa to record this disc with The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Allen Stephenson himself, and with cellist Peter Martens.

Other projects planned include a disc of Sonatas and Sonatinas by Paul Hindemith, Klaus Dillman, Robert Fuchs and Bertold Hummel, a second disc of British music for double bass, a disc of music by Dragonetti, the complete works for double bass by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Menotti’s concerto and of course more Bottesini!

It has been my intention, for some time to complete a Doctorate in music and the time for this project has finally arrived. Dragonetti will be the subject of my research and the disc of his works which I am planning will be recorded using a Brescian instrument with three gut strings and Dragonetti bow exactly like the one Domenico Dragonetti himself used. I will also prepare an edition of the ‘Solo in E minor’ which was in fact his own favourite composition and one which he performed often.

Another project, which I wish to complete before my 50th birthday next July, is to complete the building of a music studio in my garden at home. It would just be so nice to be able to walk out of the front…no back door every day to do my practise and then to come back home at the end of the day and to be able to successfully separate my musical life from the demands of family life. At the moment the distinction is far too blurred.

[Martin] So what does Leon Bosch get up to when he’s having a break from music?

[Leon] I do, of course, pursue an enduring interest in international relations and given the dizzying pace of developments in the world today, keeping abreast of developments naturally requires a sizeable investment of time, and almost every moment away from music is consumed by my quest for a better understanding of international politics.

Everyone has at least one book they’re bursting to write and I have begun to make notes for the book I intend to write, ‘Lavistown to London’, the story of my generation, the kids who lived through the events of 1976 and were prepared to sacrifice their lives to change South Africa. Many of these, my generation, still remain abroad, having been driven from South Africa at the time, fearing for their lives and even if they are never to receive justice, then at least their story should be told.

My love for reading remains undimmed and online book sellers like amazon.co.uk make a veritable fortune out of me. Non-fiction provides the bulk of my purchases, but I have in recent years resolved to read some fiction too and have now read the complete works of various authors, including the South Africans J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink and Nadine Gordimer.

My wanderlust endures too and I have begun to make a point of going on holiday to some of the places I have previously visited, on tour, as a musician. I had been to Venice for example on a number of occasions, but only really got to know and appreciate its magic when we took a week long family holiday to that historic city a few years ago. The list of places I still have to visit and the ones I need to revisit, is however an extensive one.

I do enjoy the privilege of living in a small Hertfordshire country town, Tring and can literally fall out of the front door here into the fields. Walking in the countryside around my home is just the most wonderful tonic and when I do have a rare day at home I try to start my day with a little foray down to the reservoirs, before I launch into my practice routine.

Visit Leon Bosch online at www.leonbosch.co.uk

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