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Bass quartet enjoys Breakfast with the Arts

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By Greg Summers

Neal Zarrelli didn't know whose idea it was to bring the National Symphony Orchestra's double bass quartet to the Lancaster County Council of the Arts Gallery for a Breakfast with the Arts performance, but they got it right.

After hearing musicians Richard Barber, Paul DeNola, Ira Gold and Jeffrey Weisner play a chamber music concert Tuesday morning, Zarrelli's stance on the effectiveness of the nation's capitol has changed somewhat.

"Every once and a while, Washington does something pretty good and this was one of those times," said a laughing Zarrelli. "This has been absolutely wonderful."

Headquartered at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center of the Performing Arts, the National Symphony Orchestra is in South Carolina through Saturday as part of its 2008 American Residency Program.

"Each year, they select one state to tour and this is our year," said David Platts, fine arts coordinator for the Lancaster County School District. Platts said the school district and LCCA co-wrote the U.S. Department of Education grant to get the quartet here through a partnership with The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The grant also brought the Columbia City Ballet to Lancaster in November for a performance of "The Nutcracker" as part of a renewed local emphasis on the fine arts.

"The one thing we have learned is that the arts are essential for every child we serve," Platts said.

Part of the visit to South Carolina gives musicians the opportunity to participate in more than 150 education and special performance activities across the state this week. More than 70 people attended the Tuesday morning chamber music concert.

Barber, who has been with the National Symphony Orchestra since 1995, said playing in an intimate setting like the LCCA's Wachovia Room is a welcome change.

"We enjoy playing in out-of-the-way places because we get to actually meet people," he said. "There's not much opportunity for that when you're on a stage."

Lois Zarrelli agreed with Barber's sentiments. She said nothing compares to hearing trained music professionals up close and watching how they feed off each other when they play.

"I've never heard four bass players like this before," she said. "It vibrates something inside of you and you can feel the music coming up through the floor. I was actually crying."

She wasn't the only one. Maggie Bowers was also moved to tears by the music.

Weisner, who has traveled the nation as an orchestra member and music teacher, said that most musical arrangements for bass quartets are written just to play with friends and colleagues.

"There were not very many pieces written for them, so they got together out of sheer frustration," Weisner said.

Born and raised in Houston, 26-year-old Ira Gold is one of the National Symphony Orchestra's youngest members. He took up the violin at age 3, but started taking double bass lessons at age 12 when he became serious about pursuing a music career. That decision, he said, is one he's never regretted.

While a double bass may not be as flashy as a violin, Gold said the instrument serves a vital role in the symphony.

"Our main function is to establish a solid pitch and rhythm for the rest of the orchestra," he said. "It's the bottom end that's the same, whether you are a jazz musician in a band or in an orchestra."

Gold joined the National Symphony Orchestra about three years ago after playing in various orchestras across the country, including a stint in the San Francisco and Detroit symphonies, where he served as principal bassist. Gold hopes the orchestra's visit to South Carolina will help raise a new generation of musicians.

"When you are young, you don't know what you want to do when you grow up," Gold said. "But by the time I was in high school, I knew what I wanted to do and that was play the bass.

"Now I eat, breathe and sleep music," Gold said.

Contact Greg Summers at 283-1156 or gsummers@thelancasternews.com