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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Sep. 9, 2009 8 years ago

Profiles of Summer: Double forte

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Theo Breen pulls into Phillippi Estate Park in his silver 1998 Volvo station wagon on the last Friday of summer vacation.

He throws the car into park, pops the trunk and begins unloading his double bass.

In its case, the instrument is 110 pounds and 7 feet tall — 20 pounds lighter and one foot taller than Breen — and takes up the teen’s entire back seat.

“Unfortunately, playing the double bass requires a special car and that special car is a station wagon,”
Breen says flatly as he lugs the instrument out of his car and gently sets it on the lawn outside the Edson Keith Mansion. “It’s a labor of love.”

A bony 17-year-old in a baggy polo shirt and straight-legged pants, Breen, a senior at Pine View School, was one of two double bassists in the world accepted to the Perlman Music Program’s rigorous six-week residency this summer in Shelter Island, N.Y.

Abandoning the $7,000 bass under a shady oak, Breen heads toward a pavilion on the west end of the estate, and, in a surprisingly nonchalant tone, says he’s not worried about leaving it unattended.

“It’s insured,” says Breen.

However, as he distances himself from the instrument, he glances over his shoulder once more to make sure it’s still there.

Despite spending the summer under the thumb of violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, Breen is eager to get back to school, where his grades are almost as impressive as his playing.

“I’m looking forward to the college application process,” says Breen. “The problem is I want an academic and musical education, so I need a school that has both.”

Hence the trip he took earlier this summer to Harvard University’s Department of Music and the early-action application he’ll submit this fall to the Yale School of Music.

“The goal isn’t to go to an Ivy League school,” says Breen. “It just so happens that Ivy League schools have dual-enrollments.”

Although it’s clear Breen is headed for a career as a professional musician, he says he’d also like to explore something a little less artistic and a little more practical, but what exactly, he’s not sure.

“My interests change a lot, but music is constant,” he says.

A native of Maryland, Breen has played the double bass since he was 10 years old. Except for a brief hiatus in sixth grade, during which he played the cello, Breen and his double bass have been inseparable.

“I don’t think I’d be playing the bass if I had stayed in Maryland,” says Breen, who moved to Sarasota with his mother in 2004, primarily so he could attend Pine View. “Sarasota had so many more opportunities.”

Scheduled to play several concertos with the Venice Symphony this spring, Breen is well on his way to becoming one of Sarasota’s most sought-after double bassists — that is, until he gets accepted to Yale or Harvard.

“Harvard wants him,” says David Cobb, Breen’s longtime double bass teacher. “I’ve talked to people there, and they think he’s something special.”

Breen has studied privately under the 79-year-old retired music professor for five years.

Cobb, the Venice Symphony’s principal double bassist, has former students in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Boston Pops, the Boston Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra. He says Breen’s Perlman exposure came at exactly the right time.

“When Perlman picked him up, that was a big thing for Theo,” Cobb says. “They audition kids from all over the world. They chose him because he played that well. He’ll be a famous fellow one day.”

It was Cobb who motivated Breen to join the Sarasota Youth Orchestra and the Florida All-State Competition Orchestra. It was Cobb who, three years ago, took Breen, then 14, to Perlman’s winter residence in Sarasota. And it was Cobb who said, upon seeing Breen stare longingly at the young musicians in the Perlman orchestra, “There’s no reason why you can’t be here.”

Breen credits Cobb with much of his musical success.

“Mr. Cobb,” says Breen, “is really the impetus behind my playing the double bass.”

Rubbing elbows with world-renowned musicians and young pedagogues has bolstered Breen’s confidence and introduced him to a powerful network of New England musicians.

“I’m used to the Southern music crowd,” Breen says. “The music community up there is so tight. I admit, I was a little envious. Any two people have a common bond.”

Naturally, Breen befriended the program’s other double bassist — a 17-year-old named Louisa, from Rochester, N.Y. The two plan to keep in touch as their careers take them in new directions.

People always ask Breen why he plays the double bass. They say they don’t understand why someone with his talent would bother with such an awkward instrument.

“They say, ‘Why not play the cello if you want to play a pretty instrument?’” says Breen. “They don’t realize it’s just as pretty as the cello.”

Data bass

• Theo Breen’s double bass is a replica of a 1640s Italian contrabass. It was crafted in the Philippines and flies in a special cargo hold on commercial airlines.

• Breen was unable to play in the Pine View Orchestra last year due to his conflicting gym schedule.

• Breen was required to sing in the Perlman chorus during his residency in Shelter Island, N.Y. “I don’t think I’ll pursue it as a career,” he jokes.

• Regarding working with violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, Breen says, “He was light-hearted and made a lot of puns. Everyone talks about his big fingers, but I didn’t notice. He played every note with total capability and assurance.”

• Breen’s dream job? Professor of music and touring soloist.

• Despite Breen’s classical repertoire, he grew up listening to his mother’s cassette tapes: Cream, Donovan and Jimi Hendrix.

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