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March 27, 2024

An Interview with Ed Barker: Leading by Example

Ed Barker, Principal Bass, Harold D. Hodgkinson chair, has been with the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1977. His accomplishments are plentiful, his list of accolades long, and he has travelled the world with the orchestra. He was even present when the orchestra didn't have a music director and still performed. He has a calm energy, a great laugh, and a sensible motto of "lead by example" - which he does so with grace and integrity. Read our interview with Ed to learn more about his journey with the BSO, and how he has grown and continues to grow as a musician.

As one of the longest standing orchestra members, can you share how your career unfolded?

That's a wild question for me to answer because my double bass career started as an accident in the fourth grade with a mandatory string program. My teacher suggested I play the bass, which I thought was a bass drum, and you can see where this goes. The first time I heard an orchestra I fell in love with the strings. With supportive parents and great teachers, by the time I was 15 years old, I was playing professionally in the Vermont Symphony and the Albany Symphony. I was coming to Boston every month to study with one of my teachers who at the time was the principal bass of the BSO. That was my first experience with the BSO.

College can only be described as a period of swift, methodical movement. I came to the New England Conservatory (NEC), where three or four of the bass teachers were members of the BSO. Those bass teachers were my heroes. In 1975, during my senior year at NEC, I was a finalist for the NY Phil and was hired to play with them for half of their season. I won an audition as a permanent section player with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti, so I left the NY Phil. I returned to the NEC, graduated with honors, and then immediately began my new position with Chicago. In that first year with Chicago, I won the Principal Double Bass position with the BSO. I wanted to gain more experience, so I stayed with Chicago until September 1977. It was then that I came to the BSO, becoming the youngest principal player in the orchestra's history. Participating in three major orchestras within a year and a half at such a young age is something I'm still very proud of.

The first time I set foot at Tanglewood I was 21. I was surrounded by people who were all just as motivated as me. I'd be back stage warming up, and Seiji Ozawa would walk by. Leonard Bernstein would just walk by. Oh my gosh, there's Aaron Copland. These were people I had heard about and read about. I got to work with them all. It was a profound, intense experience. The music-making is gorgeous and we were all so focused. Little did I know that two years later I'd be on the faculty at Tanglewood. I was meeting my heroes - a huge growing experience.

The bass and music have always felt like a part of me, a part of my life. Could I have imagined it all turning it out this way? No. But could I have dreamed it going any other way? Absolutely not.

What would you say to your younger self?

Be true to the art form and have integrity. Know when to follow and know when to lead. And when you lead, lead by example.

How has touring the world helped you become a stronger musician?

Touring is hard. I'd love to tour and not play concerts - ha! When we're touring, we give our best representation of what Boston offers culturally in terms of music-making. It's fascinating to play in other countries, in the presence of other cultures. In some places, audiences listen to classical music not as just mere entertainment, but with reverence that is on another level. You can feel it in the air. I felt that in 1978 on a tour to China with Seiji Ozawa. The country's economic reforms created a hunger for western music. We had people from all over China coming to our master classes. It was so powerful. It hit me as an artist at the time, and made me a stronger performer.

More recently, we went on tour to Japan with Andris Nelsons, and frequently the audience applauds and will keep applauding and applauding after a performance wraps. The orchestra will start to leave the stage and pack up to move on to the next city. This night, as I typically would, I left my bass on stage when I went backstage to change my clothes to leave. I went back out to my bass, and there was this 12-year old boy in a school uniform, standing in front of my bass clapping. He was so grateful for the performance, he just couldn't stop applauding. That boy's appreciation has never left me. I treasure it. I brought it back with me and channel it into every note I play in Boston.

When you're touring, the repertoire becomes a part of your DNA, you get really comfortable. And then sometimes, it just catches fire on stage. With Andris, it happens all the time. You feel his excitement and we all feel it too. That fire, that connection with the conductor is magic.

What is the best thing you’ve eaten when touring?

It's not so much what we eat, but more how we gather - with fellow BSO members, and meeting members from other orchestras. Those are have been some very memorable - and interesting, ha! - nights!

You are an associate professor at Boston University College of Fine Arts and have teaching affiliations at the TMC and the National Orchestral Institute at the University of Maryland. What do you find most satisfying about teaching?

Passing on the attitude and ethics of being a fine musician and applying that to what we do. Music-making is a craft, you are developing a set of skills, and if you have the inspiration to create an artistic process, then you can do incredible things with your skills. I have students in all of the major orchestras in this country and some in Europe, and it's fulfilling to see those positive attitudes and ethics of fine musicians passed on - to see students caring about what they're doing, paying attention to the details, understanding the connection between the technical aspect of playing a string instrument and the process of music-making - the two are deeply intertwined. For me, it's so fulfilling to see them develop in that way.

You’ve been with the BSO for many years. Can you describe the ways in which the orchestra has experienced positive growth?

The unity and camaraderie is as high and positive as I've ever felt. Over the last three decades, there were times when we didn't have a music director and we had to rely on ourselves. Today, the woodwinds are like a choir; the brass section, the blend and color they produce is stunning; the strings, they've always been a luscious, wonderful section; and the bass section, we're all on the same wavelength, that's important. That has to do with leadership - Andris, his leadership trickles down in so many ways. He's so collaborative; he listens, responds, leads. He also lets the orchestra play as well. We're in such a collaborative place right now.

Is there anything you'd like to share with our donors reading this newsletter?

Sincerely, we all know the BSO is a non-profit. We understand how important our donors are to our work. Boston has the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Patriots, and sometimes they're winning teams. But the BSO is consistently a winning team for Boston. Symphony Hall is the Fenway Park of concert halls and Tanglewood is Gillette. We have our donors are to thank. We couldn't do it without them.

If you'd like to see Ed perform live, he will be playing the TLI Presents: "The Legacy of Serge Koussevitzky" at Tanglewood on July 26. Ed is performing Koussevitzky's Double Bass Concerto. For tickets, click here.