Monday, September 16, 2013

Ivan Zugelj: The man in the shadows

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:

Like most concertgoers, I had no idea that he had a string instrument repair shop, served as President of Local 342 of the American Federation of Musicians since 2009 and was an avid amateur astronomer, working on the Observatory Committee of the Charlotte Amateur Astronomers Club. (The CSO will dedicate its opening concert to him; appropriately, that show also includes "The Planets.")

For me, he remains a symbol of all the unsung musicians who underpin the sound of any symphony orchestra without seizing our attention.

Cellist Alan Black knows he'll get a lovely third-movement solo whenever a guest artist plays Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. Oboist Hollis Ulaky knows she'll have a chance to shine in the adagio of Brahms' Violin Concerto. The tone of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is set by clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo's first upward slide. Many musicians get a time to sparkle somewhere throughout the season, even if only for a few bars. 

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.


Anonymous said...

A very nice tribute -- thank you. Orchestra players have got to have so much talent to play at this level, but also enough humility to be able to subjugate themselves to the music and to the collective effort. I think Mr. Zugeli probably had both. RIP, Mr. Zugeli.

ronwass said...

Sorry to hear about this fellow bassist, but fret not for our lot in life. Most of us enjoy the less pressurized situation (compared to a solo woodwind for instance). Personally I like always knowing what the harmony is as I am playing the most important note of any given chord.

Anonymous said...

I've seen him in the CSO for years - thank you for the article. The one time I remember him really standing out was when the CSO performed the Bach B Minor Mass in 2009. He was the only bass on stage and it seemed like he was playing continuously - the only rest he got was between the movements!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this. My dad would have loved it.

Susan said...

Bruce, thank you for this beautiful tribute to Ivan. I already miss him!