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Jeffrey Beecher is 32, and was born outside New York. The magnificent instrument he hauls on stage each week as principal double bassist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is approximately 10 times as old, and was born at the foot of the Italian Alps. At the time of its creation, most basses “looked like small houses,” Beecher says, but not this one. With its then-radically slim proportions, the instrument, built by the master luthier Giovanni Battista Rogeri, helped set the mould for the three centuries of basses that followed.
We don’t know who Rogeri sold it to, but we do know that by the 19th century it turned up in the possession of various European collectors before being sold for a time to Rodman Wanamaker, scion of the famed Philadelphia department-store family (he apparently staged special concerts to showcase his treasury of priceless instruments).
When Beecher learned the legendary instrument was up for sale in 2007, he flew down to Albuquerque, N.M., to snatch it up – something he was only able to accomplish after a well-connected TSO board member agreed to act as guarantor on what amounts to a very substantial bass mortgage (25-year amortization, variable rate; he’s about halfway done paying it off).
“It allows you to do things you wouldn’t believe would be possible,” Beecher says of Roger, which, inevitably, is what his fiancée calls it. On April 18 and 19 at Roy Thomson Hall, Roger and Jeff will demonstrate just what’s possible on the double bass as they perform a rarely heard concerto for the instrument, by the Russian composer Serge Koussevitsky.
The five pieces of 15th-century Italian spruce that form Roger’s top lend it a rich, subtle baritone that projects right through an orchestra.
Beecher recently had this modern “C extension” installed to allow him to play the ultra-low notes demanded by composers in the eras after Rogeri.
These “sweet curves” and modestly proportioned maple ribs make it much easier to play than the boxy basses more typical of the period.
Inside the f-hole, beside a tag from a Boston repair shop, Rogeri’s original label is still, just barely, visible.