Had Ivan Zugelj lived another three weeks, he'd have begun his 40th season as co-principal bassist for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. Destiny was especially unkind to Zugelj: The basses play in virtually every piece of orchestral music yet virtually never get a spotlight. Yet when the CSO opens its Classics season Sept. 27 at Belk Theater, it'll play Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" -- which includes a section demonstrating the value of the lowest strings.
I first met him when he called himself John Zugel, before he embraced his Croatian roots (and the new spelling of his names) and grew his hair into a long ponytail. He always seemed to me like a kind of elder statesman, so I was surprised to learn he was just 66 when he died of pneumonia Sept. 9. Here's his official symphony photo:
For me, he remains a symbol of all the unsung musicians who underpin the sound of any symphony orchestra without seizing our attention.
The basses occasionally have a moment of their own, but it's almost always a unison moment: striding forth in a Beethoven symphony, setting a somber mood in Wagner. Almost nobody in the audience would know whether Ivan Zugelj was making a significant personal contribution or not.
Yet there he stood at the left of the stage all those years (as we faced him), invariably with a serious and attentive expression, contributing his sonic thread to the overall tapestry. Without the basses, that tapestry would fray. So here's a toast to one unheralded man who helped the CSO rouse us, soothe us and speak to our souls.