By Clifford Hall | From the January-February 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Kristin Zoernig, bassist for the California Symphony and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, has come a long way from Sioux City, Iowa. Though thriving for decades in the Bay Area’s early-music scene, she has had anything but a conventional journey. After a short stint at Northwestern University in Illinois, Zoernig spent her remaining college years at the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo, Norway, while studying with autodidact bassist/acoustician Knut Guettler. It was in this fertile environment that she had her first experiences with the just-burgeoning early-music scene. When she began, access to early bows and instruments was almost nonexistent. Without even knowing it, that is where she would embark on the journey to find her 1648 Joseph Wrent of Holland bass.
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Tell me about your primary instrument.
My primary instrument is a contrabass viol with four strings. Its string length is a conservative 40.5 inches. It makes up for it with a very deep body; it is ten inches deep at the upper bout and 10.5 at the lower bout. It is also very broad, with the upper bouts registering at 21 9/16, middle bout 15 1/8, and lower bout coming in at 25 7/8 inches.
What do you know about this instrument’s history?
Among the papers I received when I purchased the bass from Michelle Burr (former principal bass player of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra) in 2005 was a handwritten letter dated September 27, 1930, from Ruthyn Turney, who owned the bass at that time. Turney describes how he came to learn who built the instrument and when. In the course of a repair, he writes, “It was necessary to remove the top, and then we discovered, quite legible, this statement, written well up near the neck in the upper part where it could not be seen without removing the top—‘Joseph Wrent, Rotterdam, Holland, 1648.’”
The papers also include a most scintillating story about it belonging previously to a fellow who had been a member of the New York Philharmonic, E.H. Straubel, who retired in 1914 at the age of 77. He was, as documented in his obituary, a close personal friend of Abraham Lincoln and conducted the Eastman Band, which provided music for both Lincoln’s inauguration and funeral cortège. It’s quite possible the bass was played at both of these historic events.
How did you come to play it? What first drew you to it, and how did you know it was the right fit?
I came to play this gorgeous bass after many years of playing next to it, when it belonged to Michelle. I remember always feeling absolutely honored to be in its presence, and I even got to borrow it for a tour once back in 1998, when my own bass was in the shop. I was floored when she offered to sell it to me in 2005, and I jumped at the opportunity.
What gift does it bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
The uniqueness of the tone quality this bass possesses is its greatest gift—not only to me, but all who are lucky enough to experience it.
What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
Its temperament is sweet and caressing. It has a very strong presence that easily fills a hall, but it does so very gently. It has a dark mellow tone that makes the room rumble, but also has a clarity without any harshness. It blends very well.
Does it perform better in certain situations?
Like all stringed instruments, it performs best when it has been in an environment that is stable, in terms of temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure. This can be difficult to maintain, because I not only regularly go all around the Bay Area and many points beyond, I also regularly tune it at A=415, 435, and 440. That said, it is a real trooper and takes it all with a kind of grace only an elder can acquire.
What is its greatest strength?
Its greatest strengths are its beauty and tone.
What are some of its limitations?
I can think of no limitations, though I wouldn’t want to bring it into certain environments, for its own safety.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?
I imagine it would want to know when I’m going to get its (long overdue) new soft case.
Kristin Zoernig’s Gear
Strings: “Top strings (G and D) are handmade plain gut by Damian Dlugolecki. Bottom strings (A and E) Oliv by Pirastro.”
Bows: “I have a collection and use several of them regularly. I most often use a Baroque and a transitional bow by California’s own exceptional bow maker Ralph Ashmead. I have several other original transitional bows of varying styles that I love to use for different things, as appropriate. Although I am mainly an overhand player, I also play underhanded at times, depending on which bow I choose. For my modern playing, I’ve mainly been using a Morizot Frères bow lately.”
Case: “I’ve been a devotee of Mooradian cases for as long as I can remember, but now that they have stopped production, I am considering a case by Messina.”
Rosin: “I use Pop’s rosin. I find it to be superior to any rosin I’ve ever tried—reliable in the broadest of conditions and never turning ‘waxy,’ unlike many others I’ve tried. It is best suited for orchestral playing, but when used sparingly, it can also work very well for solo and chamber music purposes.”
Additional Gear: “I love my wooden (aged African ebony) endpin, and I believe it contributes greatly to the beautiful timbre of my bass. I also like to use different mutes for their range of tone qualities. Some are wooden, some are rubber, a mix of rubber and metal, and I even have a leather one, which I adore. I find it fascinating to explore the sounds of different woods and designs.”