Musician Spotlight

Tony Manzo, New Century Bassist


Executive Director Parker Monroe caught up with Tony Manzo a few weeks ago at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland after a busy day of rehearsals. With the sound of his two children, Adam and Kari, occasionally in the background playing and asking questions, Tony reflected thoughtfully on his career and what makes performing with New Century different and special.

Tony Manzo at home in Chevy Chase, MD with daughter Kari, son Adam, and wife Rachel.


How did you hear about the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and how did you get started in the group?

My first contact was through another musician in the Orchestra, Iris Stone. We’d played together in the Munich Chamber Orchestra for several years in the mid-’90′s before she moved back to San Francisco and rejoined New Century. When I later moved back to the US, Iris encouraged me to audition for the NCCO position. The timing was great, actually, as I was really missing the chamber orchestra life.

Had you had experience playing in chamber orchestras, or conductorless orchestras, before?
I played with the Munich Chamber Orchestra for 7 great years. It also had 19 string players as it’s core, but brought in extra forces quite regularly. Our music director there was a conductor, though we did around 30% of our concerts unconducted — always interesting to feel how the whole vibe of the group would change when no one was standing in front! In addition, I often played with Camerata Salzburg, an association which still continues whenever I can manage it, usually for big events like the Salzburg Festival or a big tour.

Can you talk a little about what appeals to you about being in a conductorless orchestra? How is your role different? Do you approach your preparation differently? How are rehearsals and concerts different from traditional orchestras or ensembles?

An essential part of the attraction of being in a chamber orchestra that performs without a conductor is the chance to be more directly involved in the rehearsal process, and the sense of investment and ownership that that inevitably provides. What comes out is the result of the thoughts and ideas of a whole bunch of great musicians, rather than just working to realize the conception of a single person.

Of course, listening to and trying out all these ideas takes more time — often a lot more time — but it’s worth the effort, and without it, you’re better off with a conductor. But when it’s working, when everyone’s involved and committed, there’s a tangible feeling of ownership and connectedness within the group that clearly comes across to the audience. It’s an amazing feeling when, rather than being led, the whole group has internalized a conception of the piece so that we move as one.

In terms of preparation, I spend the usual amount of time preparing myself to play the bass part, but additionally, spend a lot more time with the score, going a step further in my knowledge of what everyone else will be doing than is necessary when you can rely on a conductor for road signs. But crucially, this time is also spent forming my own conception of how I feel the piece should go, knowing that in this unconducted format I’ll have many more opportunites to offer my own ideas.

Can you talk a little but about what else you do when you’re not performing with New Century? I know you have a very busy career.

I have performed for many years with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in Washington, DC. I also do lots of chamber music all over the place, a lot with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, at festivals like Spoleto and Bay Chamber up in Maine. I also try to squeeze in time to get back to play with the chamber orchestras in Munich and Salzburg.

Unfortunately, racing back and forth so much inevitably leads to schedule conflicts, since it never all seems to line up neatly. But I try to do as much as possible because I love the variety of the groups and cross-pollination that occurs from making music with so many great people.

A member of the audience asked me recently what it was like for you to be a section of one. I answered that the experience was more like chamber music. True or false?

Usually being a section of one is one of the most enticing aspects of NCCO for me, as it gives me much more freedom to respond and react to what happens around me. And the best part is that I never have to write down bowings!

I hope the audience member who asked you about this will feel comfortable enough to come up and talk to me at concert sometime! I think those sort of interactions are great for both sides, and NCCO is full of people who’d enjoy sharing what we do.

Can you tell about your musical education? Where did you grow up, and what were essential elements of your education and musical development?

I grew up in Winter Haven, Florida and started the bass at 13, a product of a strings program in the public Musician Spotlight continued schools that has sadly disappeared from the curriculum. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten where I am without it, and it saddens me to think of the generations that came after me all missing out on the discipline, focus, and sense of camaraderie that was instilled there. My first teacher was Mike Lawson, to whom I will always be grateful, of course for the start he gave me on the bass, but even more so for the love and joy of music itself which he imparted, as that’s what’s made this journey most rewarding.

I went on to study at Boston University with James Orleans from the Boston Symphony’s bass section. He was a great teacher for me not just because he is an incredible bassist, but also for his approach to music and learning itself, with constant encouragement to take in everything I could from other musicians — “Hey, so-and-so does this really well, why don’t you take a lesson with him next week?”, or “So-and-so’s playing with us this week, come to a rehearsal and check out how they do this…”. He didn’t want me to be cast from his mold, he wanted me to fi nd my own way, my own voice.

From Boston I went on to the New World Symphony, at the time Michael Tilson Thomas’ recently-created brainchild. I still count MTT as one of my most important musical mentors, and my time at New World was a rich learning experience. And looking back — though they were actually my first real jobs — the 8 years that I spent in Europe (in the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway and the Munich Chamber Orchestra) was a period of dramatic musical development for me. I guess, when I look at it that way, I’m realizing that my musical development is still very much a work in progress, especially in an atmosphere of involvement like New Century’s. That’s a big part of what keeps things fresh and exciting for me.

What do you like about performing with New Century?

Several things stand out: the energy, the commitment, the enthusiasm. That always seems to come out. It’s always kind of a ride up along the cliff’s edge — exhilarating, a little hairy at times, but you can’t beat the views from up there!

Tell us about your bass.

The instrument I usually use with New Century was made in Paris shortly before 1900 by Jean Thibouville Lamy. He made it to display at a big instrument exposition at the turn of the century, and probably because of this used some especially fine-grained, beautiful wood that you don’t often see in basses, since you could make something like 10 violins out of the wood for one bass! In addition to it’s beautiful sound, he also spent a fair bit of extra time and effort on the aesthetics, which is reflected in the shaping and decorations on the back, and most clearly in the elaborate lion’s-head scroll.

But most important for me is that it is an instrument that feels at home across the different genres of playing that I do — it has the flexibility and lightness for chamber music, the clarity, projection, and ease of playing that suits well for solo situations, yet still has the heft in the lower ranges to support the bottom end of a chamber orchestra by itself, and to at least hold it’s own in the bass forest of a symphony orchestra.

It’s also got a more recently added feature, which is a removable neck, allowing me to break it down before traveling and fit it into a special case that is much smaller than normal. This change was actually prompted by some serious damage to the instrument several years ago when the TSA failed to strap the bass back into it’s case following an inspection at the airport, which resulted in the neck being torn from the body of the instrument during the flight. Silver lining was having the removable neck fitted when it was repaired, though despite years of legal action by friends at New Century, I’ve never seen a dime of compensation from the TSA for the damage.

Can you talk a little about the other challenges of traveling with your bass?

Between the TSA, the airlines, and finding a vehicle big enough to move it around once I’ve arrived, just moving around with the thing is by far the most stressful part of my career. Every time I arrive at the airport, there’s always a giant question mark hanging over everything, wondering how it’s going to work this time.

What do you do when you’re not making music?

I spend as much time as possible with my family — my wife Rachel is a cellist in the National Symphony, and my kids — Adam, who’s 7, and Kari, who’s 4. — trying to make up for the time lost when I’m on the road! I love the outdoors (one of the reasons I love coming to the Bay area!), and can often be found cycling or running or canoeing. We live just a couple blocks from Rock Creek Park, the National Park that runs clean through DC, with it’s woods, trails, and abundant wildlife. I’m not a city person at heart, so I love that we regularly have an 8-point buck wandering through our backyard, along with nightly visits by foxes and barred owls. Something that most visitors to DC never realize is how green the city is when you get away from the area around the National Mall. You can paddle up the Potomac from the Kennedy Center, and when you go around the bend in the river by Georgetown you’d never believe that you’re just a half mile or so from the White House!

This interview appeared in the December 2012 Soloists of New Century program book.