National Youth Orchestra: uOttawa bassist builds a bridge to his future

uOttawa Masters student Patrick Bigelow is performing with the National Youth Orchestra.

Patrick Bigelow was enjoying a new bridge for his double bass on this day. For the uninitiated, that chunk of maple wood does a lot more than just hold up the strings on his instrument.

Compared to a smaller stringed instrument, the bridge on a double bass is pretty big. It’s about eight inches high, Bigelow said. The bridge is not glued to the rest of the instrument. It sits under the strings and transfers the vibrations into the rest of the instrument.

His new bridge has, Bigelow said, made his bass sound more “unique and interesting and darker.” All of that makes the instrument better suited to orchestral performance.

That’s important because this week he is with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada during what is being called the Frenergy Tour of four Canadian cities. The NYO is touring with the European Union Youth Orchestra. The tour arrives at the National Arts Centre on Nov. 17.

The NYO is one of the world’s-longest-operating youth orchestras. The orchestra has given concert tours in every major Canadian city as well as trips to other countries. About 30 per cent of the musicians in Canadian orchestras have previously played in the NYO. It was founded in 1960 by Walter Suskind, conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as a vehicle to help young musicians gain experience.

The joint performance with the EUYO is a first and it will feature young musicians led by the  Viennese conductor Sascha Goetzel. The Canadian violin virtuoso, Blake Pouliot (an NYO alumnus) is the featured performer. He’ll play the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto. The rest of the repertoire includes Stravinsky’s Firebird, some Wagner, Rossini, Ravel and Canadian composer John Estacio’s Frenergy for orchestra.

Bigelow is originally from Montreal but these days he’s in the first year of a Master’s degree at the University of Ottawa. He did his undergrad at uOttawa too. He came to the capital to study with Joel Quarrington, the principal bassist of the NAC Orchestra and a respected performer and innovator.

The National Youth Orchestra is one of those important places on the path to a professional career for young Canadian musicians. It has a higher age range than the name might indicate. There are younger players aged 15, 16, but the oldest one can be is 28. Bigelow is 25.

“It is something to aspire to,” he said. Many of the performers do go on to professional careers. “Everyone across the country is invited to participate and you end up with a pretty good roster of musicians.”

This has been Bigelow’s first year with the NYO.

He attended the summer program which, he said, “really challenges the students.” The summer period offers an intensive instruction in the repertoire.

What that means, he said, is the “when we actually get to the stage, it’s a really high level of playing.”

The November tour is something of a unique opportunity, he said. He did have to juggle his classes, but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, he added.

Bigelow started with the violin as a child. But even then, he would “often turn it upside down on my lap like a cello. I enjoyed the lower strings when I got a chance to play on them.”

He moved to the viola and then in the youth orchestra he was playing in a bass position opened up. “I was really excited to try it,” he said and it was love at first sight.

Why? “The bass is visually impressive. I was also attracted to its ability to go beyond the classical genre into jazz and folk. To be able to do that was a great perk for me.” Bigelow does perform in jazz, folk, and bluegrass groups in town. 

That said, “I am working towards a career in orchestral playing, but I have found myself inside projects where I do some of the other stuff too.”

The double bass is also still evolving as an instrument. Contemporary composers are finding new capabilities in the instrument to explore and that is also an exciting prospect, Bigelow said.

He said he has enjoyed his experience with the NYO.

“I definitely felt like I was getting my hands dirty in an intense period of practice and focus that I hadn’t gotten before. I felt that it has given me a great momentum as I move into my Master’s degree.”

The Frenergy Tour
With the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and the European Union Youth Orchestra
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Nov. 17 at 3 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.