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At Charlotte Symphony, it’s all about that bass, still

The victim, crushed and broken, left Charlotte in a casket in spring 2014. People eventually forgot the familiar figure they’d seen around their workplace for four decades. But a year later, without warning – and with a fully rejuvenated body – their old acquaintance showed up onstage.

“To say I was speechless would be an understatement,” Michael Mosley says. “My immediate verbal reaction is not printable. Then I experienced a sort of eerie déjà vu.”

Ivan Zugelj’s bass had come home at last.

Its old owner was gone: Zugelj, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s principal bass player, died of pneumonia in 2013, before his 40th season here. He’d damaged the bass so badly no one expected to hear it again, let alone see it.

But here it came, without warning, in the slender, 27-year-old hands of Kurt Riecken, who took his first full-time professional job after Christmas as the new principal bassist.

Basses come in different shapes and sizes. So his fellow bass players – Peter Duca, Jeffrey Ferdon, Mosley and Felicia Sink – knew Riecken’s bass by its scrollwork, curves, amber gold varnish or ebony bumpers on the ribs to protect it as it lay on the floor.

What they didn’t know were the details of the journey it took to get home.

“Ivan had tripped and fallen on it onstage at a rehearsal,” violinist Susan Blumberg recalls. “He repaired instruments, (and) his intention was to fix it himself. He was too tired and ill by the end. He loved that bass as if it were a family member. We could see he was truly grieving.”

Many musicians know Andy Stetson, who works wonders at his Bass Cellar in Cincinnati. So off it went.

“As we placed it into the truck, we were crying,” Blumberg says. “We all noted it felt funereal. The sheer size of a packed bass, the need to have several people get it into the truck, watching the truck drive away – the symbolism of it all was such an emotional experience.”

Ferdon notes that bass players long ago referred to wooden crates for instrument transport as “coffins.” But this bass – made by Giuseppe Tarantino in Naples almost a century ago – traveled in a carbon-fiber trunk.

Stetson bought the wrecked instrument from Zugelj’s son and ex-wife, who lived in Ohio. He put in an estimated $20,000 in repairs and then put it up for sale.

“The neck was completely yanked out,” Stetson says. “The soundboard was ruined, and the bridge got pushed through the instrument. He had done a lot of work over the years, not all of it great, and some of (that) had to be redone. It was a four-string he’d converted to a five-string to get lower notes – players usually put an extension (on the neck) for that – so we changed it back and did a lot of repairs on the varnish.

“We started on it in June and finished around the beginning of December, just in time for Kurt to buy it.”

Riecken, with a master’s from Indiana University, had auditioned for the Charlotte job in October on a bass borrowed from IU. After winning the job, he tested the Bass Cellar’s stock, playing instruments at the store and even taking two candidates to Bloomington.

“I wanted a clean sound, one with big bottom notes and one that would project well. String instruments need to be played regularly to sound their best, and I didn’t know how this one would sound after being in Andy’s shop for six months.

“So I liked it, but I thought there was more to it than I was hearing. I put it away, while I got married (after Christmas), and came back to it, and it’s been playing as well as I’d hoped. It’s really starting to open up again.”

Riecken, who heard some of the bass’s history from Stetson, doesn’t think his companion eased his path into acceptance at the new job: “All the musicians have been so welcoming.” But they were glad to see an old friend in its usual place.

“It was uncanny that the bass should find its way back,” Mosley says. “I knew it was Ivan’s because I was in the orchestra when Ivan arrived in the ’70s. Our first conversation was about his bass, and my first introduction to Kurt was about this same bass. Truly bizarre.”

Even now, Ferdon says, “it’s inevitable that at some point in a rehearsal, all of us in the bass section will turn to each other, shake our heads in disbelief, and say, ‘Can you believe how beautiful that bass sounds?’ ”

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