Since 2004, double bassist Meredith Johnson has held the position of Principal Bass with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. See him featured this coming Saturday, February 6 in the livestream concert Postcards from the 1900s.
Q: As we all continue to navigate this pandemic, what have you discovered about yourself?
A: As much as anything, I have tried to learn to cherish life’s daily blessings. Each day with my family; the chance to be outdoors, and the hope for better days ahead are things that I focus on more and more in my life.
How do you keep yourself connected to your instrument? How disciplined are you?
I try to challenge myself and keep things fresh. Some of the projects that I have been involved with recently include two commissions of new music for the double bass and learning and performing new repertoire. This summer and fall, I recorded some solo Bach for a virtual benefit concert for Artbeat Studio, a local non-profit organization that provides art studio space to those living with mental illness. I am also a member of the WSO Band (better name forthcoming!) and we play everything from Renaissance to Old Time bluegrass. So that is also an excellent way to keep things interesting on the instrument. I like to think of myself as a reasonably disciplined person, but another benefit of scheduling performances and projects that involve new repertoire is that they have a positive effect on my work ethic and level of discipline.
Can you tell us about your bass?
I am lucky enough to own two instruments. Most of us in the bass section do; it makes things much easier in the winter if you can leave a bass at the hall. My main instrument, which I play in the orchestra, is an English instrument from around 1805-1810. I got it in New York from someone who brought it to the US from Brisbane, Australia. We know that the bass had been in Australia for over a century, so at some point, the bass was almost certainly put on a ship and sailed from England to Australia. I have always enjoyed the fact that the instrument has been around for so long. Each crack and scratch has a story. It is both humbling and inspiring to use an instrument that has had such a long life. My second instrument is a modern Chinese instrument that is a little bit smaller than my English bass. I use it for practice at home and for solo repertoire. I am playing the Vanhal on February 6 on my Chinese instrument because the shoulders of the instrument are a bit narrower which makes it a bit easier to play in the upper registers.
Are there any misconceptions about the bass? And if so, what are they?
There are many misconceptions about the bass and the people that play it. I think one of the more common misconceptions is that the bass is an easy instrument to play. Given that the fingerboard is roughly the same length as a piano keyboard (but you navigate it with only your left hand) and the strings are pulled to around 60 lbs of tension each, it can be a physically gruelling instrument to play and to get around on.
What other instrument do you think you might have fallen in love with if it wasn’t for the bass?
Like so many things, tastes change. I have had periods in my life where I liked a lot of different instruments (oboe, dobro, viola da gamba, flat picked guitar). The two most consistent though are probably the violin and the piano. There is so much great repertoire for those two instruments, I find it hard not to be drawn to them. Right now, I really love the violin. Gil Shaham’s Fratres is a perennial favourite and James Ehnes playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto is a revelation.
Is there a particular piece of music or artist that cemented the bass for you?
I think I was always more drawn to music than any individual instrument (some of my favourite music has extremely sparse bass parts), but my exposure to Edgar Meyer as a beginner was an incredible experience and illumined me to the possibilities on the instrument. It is bewitching to hear the bass played like that.
You’ve played in some pretty incredible ‘all-star’ ensembles. You were a fellow of the New World Symphony and you were invited to be a part of the prestigious All Stars Orchestra. Can you tell us what those experiences were like?
New World was a great experience because everyone was young (at 29, I was one of the oldest members of the orchestra) and motivated. People practiced hard and played hard and South Beach was a great place to be at that juncture in one’s life. The organization has always been exceptionally well funded and therefore, we played the biggest repertoire with some of the biggest names in the music industry. It was an intense three years full of memorable performances. Performing Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra and Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony with Manfred Honeck was one of my favourite weeks in my three years there.
The All Star Orchestra was simply the finest orchestra I have ever played with. It brought together great players from some of the finest orchestras in North America, and the energy and commitment from each musician made for a truly thrilling experience. The first thing we ever played (no rehearsals-we sat down and they started recording) was the fourth movement from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The first violins were incredible. For me, playing with All Stars will always be unforgettable.
During the February 6th concert, Postcards from the 1900s, WSO audiences will be provided the rare opportunity to hear a concerto for double bass by the 18th-century Czech-born composer Johann Vaňhal. What can you tell us about this work?
Vaňhal lived about the same time as Josef Haydn and enjoyed a long life. He was well known by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and was a proficient organist, violinist and cellist. The bass concerto is one of the standard concertos in our repertoire and is a charming example of string writing at the height of the classical period. The piece is in D major and is a spirited and light hearted piece. It is fun to play and I think will be fun to listen to as well!
What is something people might be surprised to know about you?
I was an avid tennis player growing up and my undergraduate degree is in English literature. I come from a musical family, but I was something of a “reluctant convert” to music and decided quite late (21 years old) to pursue the double bass seriously.
Meredith has held the position of Principal Bass with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra since 2004. Described as “a superbly gifted musician” (Winnipeg Free Press), Meredith enjoys a varied and active career of performance and teaching. In addition to his work with the WSO, Meredith has performed across the United States, Canada, and Europe with numerous festival and professional orchestras. In 2012, he was invited to be an inaugural member of the prestigious All Star Orchestra, an ensemble that, since its inception, has garnered many educational and artistic accolades, including six Emmy Awards.
In addition to his full time orchestral schedule, Meredith is an enthusiastic and dedicated chamber musician. Meredith was the Principal bassist of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra from 2004-2013. He frequently appears with many of Manitoba’s other premier ensembles including Agassiz Chamber Music, Camerata Nova, GroundSwell, The Virtuosi Concert Series and The Winnipeg Chamber Music Society.
Hometown: Born in Princeton, NJ but grew up in Tuscaloosa, AL.
Favourite thing about Winnipeg: Winter cycling and the way Winnipeggers embrace outdoor activities year round.
Your go-to snack: Not very interesting, but I do love cheese and crackers!