By Greg Cahill | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Call it love at first sight. At age nine, after watching a demonstration of Saint-Saëns’ “The Elephant” from The Carnival of the Animals, British musician Toby Hughes knew he had to have a double bass. “The thing that grabbed my attention was actually its size,” he recalls. “It’s like wanting the biggest present at Christmas. I had to play it.”
By the time Hughes had taken his grade 5 exams for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, he had mastered the Saint-Saëns piece.
“I always felt very cool carrying around such a big instrument,” he says, “because you’ve got to be strong to do so, obviously.”
He has stuck with the double bass, and “The Elephant” also has stayed with him throughout the years. “I recently recorded it with the Kanneh-Mason family for their Carnival of the Animals CD,” says Hughes, 28, who joined in the pandemic safety–conscious Abbey Road recording sessions. “I recently moved from Manchester, where I had lived for the past eight years, to London. I’m looking forward to things getting back to normal, so I can see what it’s actually like to live here!”
Careerwise, Hughes had a lot lined up last year, before the coronavirus lockdown brought the world to a near standstill. Now, he’s ready to move forward. With a charitable grant from the City Music Foundation, he has several solo concerts lined up and his debut solo album, recorded in late 2019, is set for an April 30 release. The album was recorded at Champs Hill, an estate in West Sussex administered by the Bowerman Charitable Trust and home to a concert venue and Champs Hill Records. With pianist Ben Powell, Hughes recorded Mišek’s Sonata No. 2, Glière’s Four Pieces, and Bottesini’s Elegia. “I’ll have my album launch in May at Bart’s Great Hall in London, if the pandemic restrictions permit, and this will be my first solo performance in over a year.
“I am very much looking forward to it!”
So, how did Hughes choose the repertoire for his debut album? “The Glière suite is a set of four pieces I had been wanting to learn for years as a young bassist,” he says. “They are tremendously beautiful and really show the bass’ full capability—each work can stand alone and fits perfectly into any program. The Mišek Sonata is one of the most important sonatas we have for the bass. From its heroic themes throughout to its gorgeous second movement and challenging third, it has everything. It was actually the sonata I performed at Champs Hill where Mary Bowerman heard it and said we had to record it. The Elegia is possibly my favorite piece. It’s the title of the album and dedicated to the memory of Corin Long, with whom I learned the piece. I would not be speaking now if it were not for him.
“I feel a sense of pride being able to play such wonderful music written specifically for my instrument, and a great sense of responsibility to bring this music to as many people as possible. Every time I play, people say they have never heard of most of the pieces, and often of the composers themselves.”
Hughes, whose first Wigmore Hall performance in 2017 as part of the Tillett Trust’s Young Artist Platform (now Tillett Debut scheme) drew rave reviews, has worked tirelessly to build a career as a soloist. “I think the reason I found the response so encouraging that night was that you don’t get many double-bass recitals happening that often, especially in Wigmore Hall,” he says. “It showed me that there are people keen to hear more of the double bass and the repertoire it has to offer.”
The first bass teacher to have a major impact on Hughes was the late Corin Long, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal double bassist who died in 2007 in a diving accident. “His passion for life and music was enormously inspiring,” Hughes says. “He helped me learn the pieces I wanted to play and always encouraged me to challenge myself. I then learned with the brilliant Graham Mitchell, who took my playing to the next level and sent me off to study with the world-renowned Božo Paradžik. Under his guidance, I developed a bulletproof technique and mastered repertoire that I still play today. I then returned to the UK and studied with Jiří Hudec until 2016; he helped me shape my own unique musical style.”
Still, convincing people that the double bass is a must-hear solo instrument with a lot to offer in terms of a unique sound and a rich, diverse repertoire has proved challenging, despite the fair amount of classical repertoire for the instrument. “I enjoy performing Romantic and post-Romantic works, and have found many contemporary pieces I love performing,” he says. “The most successful way I have found to face that challenge is to apply for trusts, such as the Musicians’ Company and City Music Foundation, and also participating in competitions. Many of them have relationships with venues and promoters and with their reputation they can encourage promoters to give me an opportunity to perform.”
Hughes also is commissioning new works—he recently premiered a piece written by Leo Geyer on the Musicians’ Company YouTube channel. “I am in talks with Geyer to expand on the concept we came up with for his latest piece for bass that involves using a loop pedal,” he says. “The result was amazing, and we hope to build on the idea in the future.”
He also performs in small chamber ensembles and is a full-time member of the 12 Ensemble, a conductorless string group that performs new music throughout Europe. But it is his mission as a solo artist that drives him. “My main goal is to bring the solo double bass to as many audiences as possible,” Hughes says. “I hope that by doing so it will encourage more venues to consider the bass as a viable solo instrument, and expose the instrument to more potential young players. In terms of what I hope to achieve artistically, I truly love performing and hope I can pursue a career where I can explore and commission more solo repertoire and concertos for the bass in a concert environment.
“You’ll always run into people, as I have, telling you that this or that is not possible and a solo career isn’t a feasible option. We need as many aspiring young bassists to achieve as much as they can, to help bring the bass out of the shadows and into the spotlight.”
What Toby Hughes Plays
“I now play a fantastic Derek High bass that I had built back in 2019,” Hughes says, “and before that I played my Paul Bryant bass that was built in 2001 that I still love—I owe a lot to that instrument. My Derek High bass has an extremely rich and sonorous tone that is very versatile. I currently play using a Brian Tunnicliffe German bow that is light and nimble, but with great sostenuto capabilities. For strings, I use a mix of Pirastro Flexocor Deluxe on the top two strings and Thomastik-Infeld Belcanto for the bottom two.”