Profile: Lawrence Wolfe

Wolfe plays his piece "Scenes from an Opera--Recitative and Aria"

Lawrence Wolfe, assistant principal bass with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and NEC faculty member, is listening to a Conservatory bass student play the Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1 (here arranged for double bass) in preparation for a recital. He hears the whole first movement with rapt attention. Then he quickly compliments the performer on his detailed preparation. Focusing on a few spots where the intonation had gone slightly awry, Wolfe is characteristically gentle and humble. He points out how the tone had gone sharp in relation to the piano accompaniment. It’s what happens sometimes when you have to play with an instrument that uses fixed equal temperament tuning, he explains. Unlike a string instrument that can adjust a pitch minutely and on the spot, the piano can’t. “She’s stuck,” Wolfe says about the pianist. “So you have to match her.”

This reminds Wolfe of an experience he had early in his career. “I was a young pup playing in the BSO and wanted to make a recording. After completing two days of recording, I listened to the playbacks and I thought, ‘Oh, my god, I can’t use any of this’ because I was sharp to the piano throughout. So I tell you this from bitter personal experience. I’m here to keep you from making the same mistakes I did.”

Clearly, Wolfe hasn’t made many mistakes during his career. A 1970 alumnus of NEC, he won a position in the bass section of the BSO even before he graduated, becoming the youngest member of the orchestra at the time. He began teaching at NEC in 1972. And, in the 1981-82 season, he was named BSO Assistant Principal and Principal Bass of the Boston Pops, positions he proudly retains—as he celebrates his 44th season in the orchestra.

From the earliest days, the bassist impressed listeners with his virtuosity and his musicality.  In 1975, for example, he gave a faculty recital at NEC in which music critic Michael Steinberg praised the complete musical package that Wolfe presented. 

It is, however, the right hand, or rather the right arm, that is so astonishing. Wolfe’s bow technique is deft and resourceful, sometimes almost beyond belief, and the tone emerges so pure, so transparent, so varied, so far from even the slightest suggestion of growl or grumble, that most of the time one forgets totally that everything is happening in the sub-basement.

Indeed, the best and most important thing I can say about Wolfe’s mastery of the instrument is that it allows you, without obstacle, to attend to how beautifully he plays music. In fact, he plays music so beautifully, with simplicity and concentration that the performance disappears and only the piece remains: it was at the end of Schubert’s Arpeggione that I realized that for 20 minutes my mind had been wholly on the piece, not on the playing of it.
—Michael Steinberg, The Boston Globe, January 11, 1975

With stature and hands commensurate with the instrument, Wolfe is a big personality, amiable, outgoing, eloquent, thoughtful, and passionate about music—whether playing it, composing it, listening to it, or teaching it.  His manner with his students or his younger colleagues in the orchestra is warmly avuncular—or, maybe, it’s that of a gifted older brother. He is prone to illustrating his points with homely examples from his own life, sometimes repeating himself three or four times, much to the amusement of his students.

He talks a lot about responsibility. It’s almost a mantra with him and it comes up repeatedly in conversations and interviews. If you ask him how he stays positive after four decades as an orchestra player, he will tell you that he “still loves it,” that he was “born to do it,” and, significantly, that he owes it to his colleagues, particularly the younger ones, to play at the top of his game. Similarly, with his students, “they deserve my best efforts.” 

Although the orchestral music world has become even more Darwinian since Wolfe auditioned and was accepted into the Boston Symphony, he makes it clear that his job is to prepare his students to “get my job.”  His mission is to teach them “how to play symphonic bass, how to win the job and hold the job.”

That said, he also feels a responsibility to level with his students, to tell them where he thinks they might stack up in the fierce competition for positions. “It would be wrong not to tell them,” he says, “because if they find the competition is too fierce and they have put all their eggs in one basket, they might become embittered.” Whatever their professional outcome, all his students are different, Wolfe says. “So how I teach evolves as the student evolves. I have to be sensitive to what each needs.”

In addition to regular one-on-one studio lessons, Wolfe leads a weekly two-hour group class that he describes as “a free-for-all.” “It’s two hours of the most intense, detailed work in which we concentrate on repertoire, technique, states of mind, context. It’s exhausting,  but the most wonderful exhaustion. And I do it because I owe them that. Or rather because they deserve it.”

In class, “I use myself as the bad example,” Wolfe says. “I tell them, ‘when I was your age, I was basically noted for being able to play fast, really fast. But much of that was playing fast just to play fast. Through the years, I’ve gone back and done my homework.”  As an example, he cites Rehearsal Number 9 in Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben, a notorious passage that causes bass players “to jump and wince.” “I used to just play it,” he says, but, because his students deserve it, he has dissected it, teased out the role it plays at that particular point in the score and again later when it reappears more fully articulated. He’s examined the harmonic and rhythmic structure and what the other instrumental sections are doing. He may sing or play along on the piano (or both simultaneously) so the student understands what he needs to do within the complex musical tapestry. And he will suggest different options for overcoming any physical difficulties.

Nash Tomey ’14 appreciates Wolfe’s analytical approach. “He’s a born, natural player,” Tomey says of his teacher. “Few people have the luxury” of such facility. “But he takes the time to figure out how he does something so he can help his students overcome an obstacle. Then he will come up with four different ways to fix it.”

For example, Tomey and fellow student Yizhen Wang '16 both marvel at Wolfe’s spiccato, the lightly bouncing bow technique. “I don’t know how he does it,” Tomey said. The two of them describe a session in which Wolfe suggests several exercises for the technique. “’Try bouncing the bow against your right knee,’” he tells Wang, who now calls the exercise “kneepiccato.” Then, “’It’s in the fingers...Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe for you, it’s in the wrist… No, for you it’s the fingers.’” As he zeros in on a solution, “you see a little moment of improvement that happens really quickly,” Tomey says.

When it comes to auditioning for an orchestra job, Wolfe has much advice to impart. Just as he stresses his own foibles and imperfections in lessons, he points out that audition committees are made up of a dozen people similarly imperfect. “Keep that in mind,” he tells the students. “They want you to be so good that you make the judging easy. You want to make them put down their pencils and just listen. You want them to think ‘I could listen to that, I could sit next to that, I could vote yes to that.’ Your voice has to be secure and complete. You have to sell your interpretation and your personal style. You can’t over-play. If you do, it sounds student-ish. If you underplay, it will sound bland.” And sheer technical perfection alone won’t do it. “I have written into my audition notes on occasion, ‘Not a note missed. Why?’”

Imitating one’s teacher is not a good tactic either. As Nash Tomey relates, Wolfe warns his students, “‘No one gets into an orchestra by doing exactly what his teacher tells him.’” The auditioner has to strike the delicate balance between “what he wants to do with the excerpt and what the excerpt wants.”
As for nervousness, Wolfe advises his students to “be nervous, but don’t sound nervous. Deal with your nervousness (and not, he cautions, with beta blockers!). Nerves will give you the edge. Nerves are your body and mind’s message that this is really important. And if it isn’t important to you, you’re not going to play like it is, and, therefore, someone behind that screen is going to sense it.”

Music’s central importance to Wolfe is manifest in the way he teaches. “I’m committed to my art,” he concludes. “I continue to be because my students expect nothing less. And here’s the selfish part. If I really, really, really give them my best teaching, in the highest detail and the highest finesse, usually I find out something about my own playing and it helps me keep my playing in shape. A lesson well taught is as good for the teacher as it is for the student.”