Serious Bass -
She walked onto the stage, a mane of wild dark curly hair. Sensual yet elegant in a long black evening gown, she sat down in the first chair behind a huge double bass. The music started to play. Her hands flew up and down the beautiful bass. The instrument came alive and became a living, breathing being charged by the energy of Mary Scully's talent.
On the audience's left side of the stage, the first violin, Jonathan Carney stood in perfect contrast to Ms. Scully. A giant of a man, he physically towered over the well-known conductor, Daniele Gatti. Carney played his tiny violin with great emotion and physical expression. On the opposite side of the stage sat the beautiful Mary Scully and her giant burnished double bass. Carney played the violin with his entire body, moving up and down and all over in his small chair. The animated and equally emotional Scully sat mostly hidden behind the giant instrument. But it did not dwarf her musical ability. The intensity of her playing and the electricity of her talent captured my attention and my heart.
Music in its purist form gives wings to our soul. It transports us from the fast passed hysteria of our everyday life to the peaceful meadows of our inner thoughts and secret feelings. When the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played Beethoven's No. 5, my thoughts took wing and flew beyond the stars.
Mary Skully is a rare bird; a woman with exuberance for life; she radiates a warmth and energy that is irresistible. Not a salad-picker or a wine-sipper, she tackles her food with pure enjoyment. After an exhausting international flight, she can spend two days: 12 hours per day in the rehearsal hall, and go out all night drinking with friends. With a blink and a wink of her sparkling blue eyes, Mary dons her evening gown, grabs her $50,000 pair of matched, hand-strung bows and struts on stage ready for another electrifying performance. When I asked her where she gets her energy, she answers with a grin. "I don't know. I'm Irish." All I know is to spend 24 hours with this talented, Irish lass is to fall in love with her.
Gigi Krop: Give us a little autobiography of yourself. Lets start with your childhood and the city where you grew up.
Mary Skully: I grew up in Northern Ireland in a place called Omagh. It's quite a famous town; Two years ago there was a big bomb that killed many people. I went to a convent school and stayed there until I was 19. The convent had a very good music department with a double bass, but they wouldn't let me play it. The nuns didn't think it was suitable for young ladies so I played the cello for 13 years.
My piano teacher decided to set up a special program for an Irish folk band that would play traditional music. I was about 16 or 17 at the time, and she asked me if I would play the double bass. I said, "Oh yes" because I always fancied it, probably because I wasn't supposed to play it.
I loved playing the cello but it wasn't quite the same somehow. So that is how I started playing the double bass. My father was furious. He said, "I'm not having you play that in the house. You will have to keep it in the garage."
(Lots of laughter and giggling)
Why do you like playing the bass?
It's so big and not many people play it very well. That really attracted me and when I got to play it, I knew it was right. You know what I mean?
It just felt good?
It felt absolutely right!
What motivated you to become a professional musician?
In Ireland there was a local youth orchestra and I played the cello in that for a while. When the conductor heard me play the double bass in the Irish folk group, he asked me to change instruments because there were very few double bass players at the time. So I said, oh yes! Then I got into the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I was one of two members from Northern Ireland to become a member of that prestigious orchestra. I was 17 at the time. It was a very high - powered youth orchestra with all the best talents of Great Britain.
I realized I wanted to play it professionally. I went to the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama in 1979. I studied with an American gentleman by the name of Thomas Martin.
When I saw such a slender, lovely woman making music on such a giant instrument it reminded me of "Beauty and the Beast". You played the double bass so well, that I really wanted to talk with you.
Well, how nice of you. I'm quite pleased.
I'm told that you are a guest performer for the Royal Philharmonic. What orchestra do you normally play with?
I play the principle bass with most chamber orchestras in London. I have played with the English Chamber Orchestra, London Mozart Players (See Discography) and the Philharmonia Orchestra. But basically I do studio work. When I get back I'll be doing a pop session.
What do you mean by pop session?
String orchestra back-up for a singer.
Do you get to meet famous musicians?
Yes, I do. I've met Paul McCartney. I've done lots of stuff for him. He's a very nice man. He always comes up and talks to me. I've done work for Madonna. I did a session for her before Christmas and she had her daughter with her. Her daughter was fascinated by my bass, she kept looking at it. Madonna's very nice and friendly and terribly full of herself.
Well, she's gotten a lot of attention from the press; fame and fortune often change people. You're accent is an interesting combination of the Irish lilt and the English accent.
I've lived in London for 20 years. If you're a musician, you have good ears and you adapt to what you hear. But if I were to speak with my mother or father, I would sound plenty Irish.
Are your parents proud of you now that you've had such success?
I think so. Although they would rather I went to university and did something academic. My parents don't understand what I do and how successful I've become.
What other types of recordings do you work on?
Recordings for music and television…the music for many of the big American films is done in London. The latest James Bond, the Mask of Zorro (See Discography) all the big films like that.
So, you do the soundtracks?
Yeah yeah… it's very very lucrative. If you're very good, you get this sort of work and you can make a lot of money. So I got sucked in to the lure of making huge amounts of money. Then I realized, Mary this is silly you were not born to do this, you should be playing. There is a vacancy in the Royal Philharmonic and they are trying me out for it, I think.
Do different orchestras have different dynamics?
How do you mean?
When you work with a lot of people there is always politics.
Oh yes, each orchestra has a different set of politics. In a bigger orchestra there are less politics. I'm used to playing with small chamber orchestras where the politics can get really sensitive. People argue, shout and accuse each other of drinking before a concert. It's the usual kind of thing.
I wouldn't know I never played in an orchestra.
Well, it's fascinating I can assure you.
Are there ego problems?
A lot of that, but I never got involved with it. I love the music too much. I just want to play.
I noticed a lot of diversity of age in the members of the Royal Philharmonic, does that affect the musical results?
The older musicians have a lot of experience. It's the best way to have it. The Royal Philharmonic is a brilliant orchestra. Fifteen years ago, it was filled with elderly gentlemen and they never would have dreamed of having a woman in a principal seat. Times are changing. The elderly men retire and the orchestra needs new blood. The blend of the experience works well and often the elderly musicians have beautiful instruments that they bought cheaply years and years ago.
We were really impressed with the quality the Orchestra. What's it like working with different conductors?
It's absolutely fascinating. I haven't done a lot of it, because I have spent the last 6-7 years in the studio. The studio is very different. You wear a set of headphones that have a click track in your ear to keep you rhythmical. When it comes to movie soundtracks, the conductor is negligible. The music has to be so precise with the action of the movie; the sound has to match the action scenes. Basically the conductor is just there to make sure everyone is playing the right notes. In a concert, it is very different. When I used to play in chamber orchestras I came across quite a few conductors who were lacking in ability.
When you play with a major orchestra with someone like Daniele Gatti...
I love every minute of it! He's a great musician; I'm not used to it. I was flabbergasted how he managed to create a great musical atmosphere for the orchestra. He loves the music so much that he transfers it to us.
Do you have rehearsals?
Oh Gosh yes, you must have rehearsals. We have a rehearsal every day before the concert. This trip has been a month long.
Are you looking forward to going home?
Not really, I'm going back into the studio. But the orchestra has offered me more work when I return.
When I listened to the orchestra, I think they rose to a higher level of excitement when they played the Beethoven No. 5. Is Beethoven a favorite of Danielle Gatti?
It is actually. In fact we're doing it this afternoon in Avery Fisher. It's a wonderful piece. The better the music, the better you play it.
Who are some of your favorite composers?
Mozart, I love Mozart. I played in an orchestra called the London Mozart Players, so I played a hell of a lot of it. (See Discography) It's wonderful music, so is Hayden, Beethoven and Brahms. I do play in a contemporary music group as well. So I get to play a lot of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and Thomas Ades. It's a great challenge because sometimes the bass has to do a lot of ridiculously difficult things. Play lots of harmonics and climb right up and play up at the top of the instrument. I find that fascinating too.
When a composer writes a piece, he or she hears the performance in their mind. Do you think that various musicians, orchestras and conductors interpret the original music differently then the composer originally intended?
Yeah, that's the whole thing about music. Particularly with Mozart, his music is so wonderful it speaks for itself. You can enhance it in some ways. Some people like to play it slower, some people like to play it quicker. You try to make the best of it and hope that you play what the composer originally had in mind. But you will never really know. Will you?
Unless the music is written by a modern composer.
A modern composer will come up to me and tell me what he wants. That's much easier in a way.
What about you? When you get up on stage and begin to play, do you forget about the audience and just enjoy the music?
Yes, unless the composer is bad and they're wrecking the music, then I get a bit frustrated. I tend to just rise above it somehow. I remember doing a concert with a conductor in London. We were doing three Mozart Symphonies, 39, 40 and 41. They are just sublime. The tempo was wrong. Since the conductor was so weak, I decided to set the tempo and the whole orchestra just followed me, so that was that. In the end it was all right.
Well the bass isn't really a percussion instrument but it does set the tempo.
Oh absolutely and it's at the bottom supporting everything else. You have to be on the ball and you have to anticipate everything. The nature of the instrument is that it speaks late. When you hit the instrument with the bow, people at the back of the hall hear it late; whereas the violins speak immediately. The bass should anticipate and be slightly ahead. Do you know what I mean?
Yes, sound travels and the lower notes vibrate slower.
Exactly, so Mr. Gatti looks to me for a big accent. I have to do it pretty quick.
Have any of your performances been recorded?
Oh, yes. I used to be a member of the Guild Hall String Ensemble. There were only 11 players. I stayed there for 10 years. We recorded for a large, well-known label. We won a big international competition when we were kids about 21 years old. The Ensemble traveled and did performances all over the world. A lot of our performances were recorded. There was only one double bass in that group.
Are any of those recordings available?
I don't know. I suppose you could find out from the company that recorded us. (Handel for the Highway, Concerti Grossi, Guild Hall Strings RCA 63142-out of print.)
Were you happy with the sound quality of the recordings?
Oh yeah, it sounds very good. Although at the time my double bass wasn't as good.
Do you listen to recordings of your own performances?
Not really, no. Although I did a recording of the Schubert Octet, just 8 people, live at the Whitmore Hall, one of the best chamber music venues in London, with some fantastic players. They (Chandos Records Ltd.) put us out live on a CD. It was on the cover of a CD music magazine. I had to listen to make sure it was all right. (Note, this CD is no longer available.)
What music do you enjoy listening to?
It's weird, but I tend not. I play so much. If we're traveling on the bus with this tour, and the bus driver puts on some music, we all shout, "No, turn it off!" We have too much music, because we're working all the time.
When I'm not on tour, I listen to Jazz or Mozart. Although a lot of my colleagues listen to their CD players on the long bus trips, I tend to read.
Does the quality of a stereo system matter to you?
Oh yes, of course it does. If it hasn't got a good bass sound, you can throw it in the trash can.
Well, you're the bass expert.
What kind of stereo do you listen to?
At the moment, I have a Sony. But, I want to move to a more accessible location in north London because I drive everywhere with the double bass. After the move, I'll get a new stereo system.
Do you carry the double bass around by yourself?
I carry it on my back. It weighs 49 kilos in the traveling box which I use to transport it on airplanes. It probably weighs the same as an 8-year-old boy.
If you could listen to a recording of your own music that sounded similar to the live performance, would that be beneficial for self - improvement?
Oh gosh, yes, absolutely. In the recording of The Schubert Octet I was talking about, I thought the bass was too much. The Whitmore Hall has wonderful acoustics for double bass. But the bass was too boomy. I think it was the recording.
It could have been the sound system you were listening to.
Oh, It could have been.
While on tour you travel to many different cities, does your schedule allow you any time to enjoy the cities you visit?
We get time in most places. Mr. Gatti is very good. When we do a repeat program we don't have to rehearse that much…maybe an hour. So we have time to have lunch and have a look around. Yesterday I had a whale of a time. We didn't have to rehearse until 4:30 so I went shopping in New York. That's fantastic!
Do you play the same program for each performance?
No, There are three or four different programs.
The orchestra is presently performing in New York City. What concert hall are you playing in tonight?
Avery Fisher. Last night we were in Long Island at the Tilles Center. The acoustics there are very nice. We played in Newark as well.
Do you notice a large difference in sound quality in different concert halls?
Oh yes, I was talking about it with my number two (second chair double bass) yesterday. He said that some of them are really terrible. You're playing away and you don't get any feedback at all. Dry. Dead, particularly with the bass. The violins can sing out in any sort of acoustic, but the bass has to compensate for it more.
When we were at the performance in Miami we found the acoustics to be lacking in the violins, they didn't have any body. But when you played the Beethoven piece, the orchestra totally overcame the acoustics.
They got used to it.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Either with an orchestra or still doing studio work, I suppose. I'm 39, I've never been married and I have no children.
Would you like to be a composer or a conductor?
No, I like to play too much.
Are you working on any special projects?
I'm coming back to The States on May 28th to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to do a concert with an Irish Pianist called Barry Douglas and the Irish Camerata. So that's something to look forward to. I play for another group and that's great too, because I get to play on my own.
Tell me a little bit about your instrument, your double bass.
My double bass is anonymous. No body knows who or what. It looks like the front part isn't original. It is a fantastic instrument. It has a huge noise and it's about 250 years old.
Where did you get it?
It's a very sad tale actually. Years ago, my number two double bass was having some financial problems. I asked him if he wanted to sell it and he did. I'm very, very lucky. It's a very beautiful instrument.
I noticed that. I know it makes a big difference and it's important to the musician.
I had it very badly smashed four years ago. It was just awful. It was knocked over by a stage - hand and the whole thing was completely smashed to pieces. I had to have it totally reconstructed and it never sounded the same.
I'm very sorry to hear that.
I'd like another one but they are so expensive and the good ones are very hard to find because of wars and pestilence over the years. They're so big and they were usually left in churches where they got burnt and blown up. So, there are very few good ones.
How much are they, what is very expensive?
It depends. A really good bass in spectacular condition is over $200,000. You could get probably get one for around $100,000, but the really good ones are much more.
How much was yours?
I got mine very cheaply. I was very lucky. I only paid 11,000 pounds for it. It's worth a lot more than that now. But it got damaged. Today it is probably worth between $35,000 and $40,000.
Wow! Are there any craftsman making them now?
There are some people here in England but I don't like the sound of modern ones. There's something about the mellowed wood that makes them special, gives them a special sound and they're very hard to find.
Do you ever play any jazz?
There have been several occasions, in the studio when they needed a jazz part. I told them if you write me something, then I can do it. So they did. When I played the part they wrote, I was able to get into the groove and get the vibes, so they said. (The London Double Bass Sound, Track 2 - Satin Doll;
Thank you so much for your time, I really enjoyed speaking with you. Maybe sometime we could meet in person.
I've enjoyed it as well. The next time I play in The States, come and visit me back stage.
I'd love to, maybe I could visit you in Washington DC. Bye for now.
The last note of Beethoven's Symphony Number 5 reverberated throughout the hall. For an instant there was silence, then the audience burst into applause. They rose from their seats screaming "bravo" and "more". Mary Scully placed her double bass carefully on it's side, and stood-up to take her bows with the orchestra. After several rounds of applause for the orchestra, the conductor and the first violin, the audience slowly moved towards the exit and the musicians left the stage. They changed their clothes and climbed into the bus, ready for their next performance in another city.
The concert was over but the music still lingered in our memory and our heart.
CD's available at: www.chandos.net:
Volume 1 - Mozart - London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley
Volume 2 - Mozart - London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley
Volume 3 - Mozart -London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley
Volume 4 - Mozart - London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley
Volume 5 - Mozart - London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley
Mendelsohn - London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley
Available at: www.calarecords.com
The London Double Bass Sound
The Mask of Zorro
Sir Thomas Beecham founded The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1946.
In 1963 the members of the orchestra incorporated themselves into a limited liability company. Her Majesty the Queen conferred the Royal title on the Orchestra in 1966. The orchestra remains committed, today as in the past, to bringing the highest quality musical experience to audiences around the world.
At present, the orchestra's activity is centered at the Royal Albert Hall and Barbican Center with performances in the United Kingdom and many major worldwide tours. Many of the orchestra's recent concerts and recordings have received international recognition. The media has this to say about this talented group of musicians:
...the rich, fluid and beautiful quality of their sound.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was well-honed and potent in expression.
The media says the following about the genius of Daniele Gatti:
Gatti really can make an orchestra and audience savour a composer anew.
Gatti's forces swept through the opening pages with unbridled passion.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has embarked on many successful tours, including a trip to the United States in October 1997 with Daniele Gatti. They toured Germany, Holland and Austria in February 1998 with Gatti. Last year they also traveled to Vienna with the late Yehudi Menuhin, the Orchestra's President until his death in March 1999; and Switzerland with Matthias Bamert. Future tours to South East Asia and South America with Gatti on the podium are planned this year. The orchestra and Daniele Gatti are going to light up the second millennium with their music on another major tour of the United States.
Many of the world's leading conductors and soloists have collaborated with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Some of its Music Directors have included Antal Dorati, Rudolf Kempe, Andre Previn, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Daniel Gatti, the Music Director of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna has held the baton and directed the Orchestra since September 1996.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, a modern composer of international renown was appointed as Associate Conductor/Composer in 1992. As part of the Millennium Max series at the Barbican, the Orchestra gave the premier performance of his Piano Concerto in 1997. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is dedicated to contemporary music and will continue to present many of Sir Davies' new works in the years to come.