Scott Pingel: Principal Bass of the San Francisco Symphony
Early in 2017, I interviewed Scott Pingel, Principal Bass of the San Franciso Symphony (SFS) to ask his thoughts about the future of the symphony orchestra and where it’s headed. Prior to SFS, Pingel served as principal bass of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, and served as guest principal with the National Arts Center Orchestra in Canada. His solo performances with ensembles such as the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Academy Orchestra, and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and in recitals frequently consisting of his own arrangements, have been met with high critical acclaim.
A few of the questions I ask:
Where is the Symphony orchestra headed?
Have you ever considered a different career?
What actions has the San Francisco Symphony taken to increase audience engagement?
LS: Where is the symphony orchestra headed?
SP: That’s the multi-million dollar question, isn’t it? Many things seem to be shifting very fast. With the internet, which has both connected people and distanced people further than ever before. But it’s also given people a taste for having a lot of control and a lot of options at their fingertips and immediate gratification in that regard.
Reality has a knack for asserting itself. There are certain aspects of the human experience that fundamentally don’t change. We can try to ignore them, but these things do come about. In my own experiences, a lot of the most beautiful music from our western European traditions is music that speaks to a lot of different people because it’s beautiful. And there is this very innate human desire to seek beauty.
I recently went to a Catholic service with my mother-in-law, and the priest there was singing chant. And I just got goose bumps all over, because it was this ancient sound that was so beautiful and so pure that I couldn’t help but be utterly moved by it.
And so the profound experiences of life—children being born, losing loved ones, falling in love with someone, having them reject you, attaining that love—all of these things are part of the human experience. I think that music, art and dance are very deep mediums that are able to communicate those experiences to people.
I’ve gone through phases where I’ve been somewhat pessimistic about the future and then there have been other times where I think that actually, it could be ripe for a renaissance. But the fact of the matter is that none of us have the crystal ball. We just don’t know.
LS: But if you had to guess...
Sure, getting more specific to your question in terms of the medium of the orchestra. I still believe that the orchestra is one of the most amazing instruments of expression in human history.
One of the best things about the orchestra is the uniqueness of the listening experience. It's not something that can ever be replicated. I hardly ever listen to recorded music ever. Because the live experience is so much more interesting to me. Even if it’s not perfect. It’s the whole thing.
So, do I think that orchestras are going to be able to sustain the traditional model that’s been going on for over a century of putting on these concerts so many nights a week? I think there will need to be an element of diversification.
There’s a risk of losing quality, like our own orchestra. The San Francisco Symphony spends a lot of time in split orchestra weeks. Half the orchestra plays the night concerts on the main stage, and then another group plays in either the Sound box, or children’s concerts. Or sometimes one half plays along with movie soundtracks for a couple of nights, and one half does classics. So you have weeks where the orchestra is split. But you spend all of this time away from each other. So there can be a loss of quality if you don’t have that continuity.
How refined this machine has gotten—or I should say, this organism—how refined it has become is a result of the last forty years or so. I was reading a book about the violin and lute makers of Venice, and how the musicians in the 1800s would do a bunch of odd jobs just to make ends meet. This was during a time where you didn’t get to hear music unless it was live. But that was the theater of Venice—a very powerful city. It’s interesting how the life that we have had as classical musicians since the 1960s is rather an anomaly in that it’s a solid and consistent job.
LS: What role does interdisciplinary collaboration take in the future of classical music? Any examples of this currently at the forefront of the arts scene?
SP: Because we spend so much time being visually stimulated, there’s so much that is visual, and less abstract audio. I wonder if adding more visual spectacle is a way of getting people to experience the message of the piece. In the Soundbox programs, we can set up in different parts of the room and still sound cohesive. There’re all these screens that project images that are subtle, that provide context. In the information age, people need more information to help them understand the context of what they’re listening to.
I also sometimes wonder about the way of listening to music and being able to follow the development of a piece. There’s an acquired skill to appreciating this music for all it is. When I know a little bit more about a piece--the nuts and bolts of the piece, I have deeper level of appreciation for what the composer did with it. So it’s a different way of appreciating the music. And as arts funding gets cut, the whole experience of music as art vs music as entertainment goes in a different direction.
LS: I was going to ask if you’ve ever considered a different career?
SP: Oh totally. It’s natural for people to fantasize about different careers. I’ve definitely thought about that numerous times. At one point, I thought I wanted to go to art school with the idea of one day becoming an automotive designer, because I loved to draw cars as a kid. I was so fascinated with a work of art that could be used to go from Point A to Point B. Then there have been times, I thought about opening a coffee shop somewhere in Colorado, just doing something totally different. I believe very strongly in new music. What is the voice of our time, what is the sound of our time? I’ve dabbled a little bit in composition. The real composers who are refining that craft and trying to explore new directions and rhythms-- that’s very important because it’s organic and speaks very directly to our time. As I mentioned before a lot of other pieces will speak to something fundamental to the human experience that doesn’t change. Because parts of humanity don’t change. But it’s nice to find sounds that say these kinds of things.
LS: What actions has SFS taken to improve audience engagement? In terms of music education how progressive is SFS?
SP: The SFS has been very active for many years in supporting public school music education. Some private schools too, but they put on concerts for kids. They have the Adventures in Music program, where they send groups out to schools and send out materials to the teachers who would do various units exploring different pieces from history. It would culminate in all of these school kids being bussed into Davies Symphony Hall for a live concert of music that they had studied. And it’s been a wonderful,wonderful thing.
LS: What steps should current musicians (recent conservatory graduates or young professionals) be taking now to promote and keep classical music relevant?
SP: Well of course engaging. I guess social media is part of it, because it allows a lot of connectivity to other people. But I think that classical music has its most powerful experience in best in the live experience. Part of me thinks the idea of having a house concert with a bunch of people in this intimate experience is best. The problem is how to monetize that.
I think that that kind of guerrilla warfare of classical music is very valuable. We’re fighting against cultural waves, especially with social media. I think that kind of outreach to help demystify it—what I like to do is expose the people to why they need it and why they should listen, because there are a lot of things vying for people’s attention. What is it about classical music and nature of art and the various forms it’s taken over the centuries, that someone might need that?