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La Lección Tres, for electric bass and orchestra

The BSO’s performances, October 28-31, are the first in front of a live audience.

Victor Lemonte Wooten was born September 11, 1964, in Mountain Home, Idaho, grew up primarily in Southern California and Newport News, Virginia, and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He wrote his bass guitar concerto La Lección Tres—the third version of his piece The Lesson—for the Chicago Sinfonietta. The premiere, originally scheduled for June 2020, was delayed due to the pandemic emergency; Victor Wooten was soloist in the first performance, which took place in a livestreamed online concert on June 5, 2021. The BSO’s performances, October 28-31, are the first in front of a live audience.

In addition to the solo electric bass guitar, the score of La Lección Tres calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet (doubling 2nd clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players minimum: I. suspended cymbals, ride cymbal, triangle, crash cymbals; II. gong, castanets, claves, snare drum, field drum; III. bass drum, wood block, castanets, pu’ili (split bamboo) sticks (or Blastix); IV. temple blocks, snare drum, shaker, slap stick, medium and large basket shakers, wood block, gong, triangle, pu’ili sticks, tight shaker (cricket-like), Vibraslap, samba whistle, slide whistle, rain stick, maracas, shaker (metallic); plus marimba, vibes, castanets, and shaker), harp, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 24 minutes long.

“If you grow up in a family that speaks five languages, you speak five languages,” Victor Wooten says. The youngest of the five extraordinarily musical Wooten brothers, Victor grew up speaking the language of music. Although their parents weren’t performers themselves, they were musically inclined, listening to a wide range of styles from gospel, jazz, and classical to the Grand Ole Opry’s country and roots artists. Family lore tells of the brothers dancing so fervently in the aisles during James Brown and Chubby Checker concerts that they were brought onstage to dance among the musicians. Their musicality was nurtured as they grew older, and by the time Victor was born, each of his brothers—Regi, Roy, Rudy, and Joseph—was an accomplished performer on guitar, drums, saxophone, and keyboards, respectively. When Victor came along, he was immediately designated the bassist of the family. By age 5 he was performing with his siblings as the Wooten Brothers, opening for such acts as The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, and War.

Victor describes his early musical education as entirely natural: like his brothers, what he heard he played, not worrying that he wasn’t yet as adept as his brothers, not concerning himself with artificial boundaries between genres and styles. He compares the process with that of learning language as a child. “When you’re learning a language, you start out jamming with professionals.” This perspective has carried over into his own teaching and underpins the philosophy of his books The Music Lesson and The Spirit of Music. Expanding on that philosophy, he established nature-based music camps that developed a holistic approach to musicianship and life, culminating in the Nashville-area Wooten Woods camp, home of the Victor Wooten Center for Music and Nature. He also teaches regularly at such more conventional institutions as the Berklee College of Music.

It was during the Wooten Brothers’ early professional careers that they first encountered the tuba player and conductor Thomas Wilkins, who, like them, grew up in the Norfolk/Newport News metro area at the southern end of Chesapeake Bay. When Victor was in high school, the brothers played at the Busch Gardens theme park in Williamsburg, Virginia, and Roy Wooten played drums with Wilkins in the park’s German Band. Victor recalls that Wilkins, on tuba, held the band to a very high standard, one that Roy strove to maintain after Wilkins left.

The broadening of Victor Wooten’s musical horizons continued steadily during his high-school years. He began playing cello in sixth grade and was exposed to the orchestra and to classical music, some of which he had first encountered in Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny cartoons. Deep dives into funk and soul led him to the subtle world of jazz harmony, a gateway to exploring the foundations of music. In 1988 Wooten and his brother Roy (aka Future Man) became founding members of the Flecktones, the band assembled by avant-garde bluegrass and jazz banjoist Béla Fleck. It was with Fleck that Victor and Future Man made their Symphony Hall debuts, performing with the Boston Pops and Keith Lockhart for Evening at Pops in May 1996.

Victor Wooten’s virtuosity and musicality have led to widespread recognition as one of the finest bass guitarists in history. He was the first multiple winner of Bass Player Magazine’s Bassist of the Year title and Rolling Stone magazine ranked him as one of the top-10 bassists of all time. He has won five Grammy Awards. In addition to his work with the Wooten Brothers band and the Flecktones, he has a thriving solo and recording career and has worked with numerous other groups.

Wooten’s first experience writing for a symphony orchestra was his collaboration with the composer Conni Ellisor for The Bass Whisperer, a concerto co-commissioned by the Nashville and Colorado symphony orchestras and the Chicago Sinfonietta. It was premiered in Nashville under Giancarlo Guerrero’s direction in 2014. The Chicago Sinfonietta’s performance led them to commission a new solo concerto from Wooten. In writing the piece, he was determined to acknowledge the classical roots of the concerto genre, reflected in the three-movement form and the relationship between soloist and orchestra. He also acknowledges his friend Edgar Meyer, the double bassist and composer, as clarifying his ideas about the concerto as a historical idea. His hope is to bring two audiences—the symphonic and the avant jazz/funk—closer together by using a musical language that speaks to both traditions. Wooten places the soloist in the Paganini-like virtuoso role, concerned with exhibiting the wide expressive capabilities of his instrument, from aggressive, punchy, and rhythmic to soaringly lyrical. Solo cadenzas are another nod to the concerto genre’s history, but Wooten also includes passages for the solo bass in its familiar role of accompanist, background to the orchestra’s melodic excursions.

As mentioned above, La Lección Tres is related to the composer’s earlier solo bass piece The Lesson, which Wooten wrote concurrently with his thoughtful and somewhat mystical book The Music Lesson; each phrase of the piece corresponds to a chapter of the book. The second version of the piece is a big-band arrangement included with the 2010 audiobook of The Music Lesson. In using The Lesson as a basis for the concerto, Wooten could approach this familiar material from a new direction, using the symphonic world’s expansive durations to develop his melody in new and unforeseen ways and combining his own instrument with the coloristic resources of the symphony orchestra. Wooten uses two different basses in performing the piece: his customary fretted, four-string Fodera “yinyang” bass along with another Fodera instrument made especially for him that can be bowed like a cello, giving the performer a wide range of timbral possibilities.

La Lección Tres begins with a slow and uncertain introduction. The main part of the movement is dominated by a flowing melody in 6/8 time, first played by solo oboe. Taken up by the bass, the tune often covers more than three octaves in a short span. Wooten colors this melody with syncopations and shifts to other meters that temporarily destabilize the flow and anticipate changes in musical character, such as a circus-like episode that brings a new kind of energy in opposition to the minor-key lyrical tune. At its conclusion, the movement winds down like a tired clock.

The second movement opens with the bass in 5/4 time, a figuration that’s soon revealed as an accompaniment to slower-developing music beginning in the lowest depths of the orchestra. Following a quick waltzing passage, percussion highlights in the ensemble persuade the bass solo to become a percussion instrument itself before returning to its quasi-accompaniment role. After an extended major-key groove, the movement ends again in uncertainty. In an interlude preceding the finale, Wooten widens the spotlight to take in the entire orchestral bass section in a lighthearted exchange that segues to the energetic finale, propelled by a repeated, march-like rhythmic figure. The middle of the movement is atmospheric and colorful. The return of the ostinato march figure, enhanced by snare drum, restores the confident energy that brings the concerto to a close.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.