I’ll Be There For You: Owner and Founder Gary Bridgewood shares the highs and lows of his 25 year relationship with a very special double bass

The inside of the bass during a repair

A few weeks ago we posted a picture of Ed repairing a rib crack in a beautiful bass; the latest repair in Bridgewood and Neitzert’s relationship with the instrument going back some 25 years. I caught up with co-founder Gary Bridgewood to find all about its (recent) history.

The bass is attributed to Nicolo Amati 1596 – 1684, widely considered to be the greatest in a long line of Cremonese violin makers. He himself was fourth in the Amati line, and his grandfather Andrea is widely acknowledged as the ‘inventor’ of the modern violin. The plague killed both his father and main rival Giovanni Maggini in 1630 which pushed him into rapidly training up apprentices to keep up with demand for instruments. Amongst his pupils were violin making greats Andrea Guarneri and Giacomo Gennaro. As far as luthiers go, Nicolo Amati is about as big-league as it gets.

The bass has found its deserved match in owner Chi-chi Nwanoku. Chi-chi was a founder member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for whom she was principal double bass for 30 years. She is a Fellow and Professor of Double Bass Historical Studies at the Royal Academy of Music. Like Amati, she also has her protegees as Founder and Artistic Director of the Chineke! Foundation which supports Black and ethnically diverse musicians through its two orchestras the Chineke! Orchestra and the Chineke Junior Orchestra.

Chi-chi Nwanoku photo (C) Eric Richmond

Gary and Chi-chi first met in the mid-late 80’s. At that point Chi-chi was playing on a  Jacquet bass that did not match her playing ability, something that was of concern to her mentor and teacher Francis Baines. Francis was a composer and visiting professor at the Royal College of Music and collected rare, early musical instruments including the Amati bass. He decided that it was destined for Chi-chi.

It’s here that Gary enters the story. Already well respected for their restoration work and experience in early and rare instruments, Chi-chi approached Bridgewood and Neitzert to help her bring the instrument back to playing condition. ‘Baines was a keen gardener and would come in from a morning’s weeding and pick up an instrument to play’ Gary recalls. ‘When the bass first came in it was clear it was a really interesting, fine old bass, but it was covered in a fine film of soil and rosin!’ This was just the beginning of the major year-long restoration ahead of him. The bass had incredibly thin ribs with fine cracks throughout and needed converting to a hybrid modern/baroque instrument.

Close up revealing repair history

Fast forward a year and Chi-chi finally had her very special bass. It went with her across the globe, touring and recording with internationally renowned orchestras and as a sought-after soloist. Over the past 25 years Bridgewood and Neitzert have done the ongoing restoration and repair work necessary to keep the instrument in optimum playing order and have also stepped in at moments of crisis.

Gary shared one such horrifying moment; ‘Chi-chi was on tour with OAE and called me from the airport in tears. She had just witnessed the bass in its flight case come off the conveyor belt, get caught on a roller, get flipped over and land hard on the runway tarmac’. Despite a state-of-the-art flight case with airbags and flexible straps keeping the bass stable, when Chi-chi opened the case, the neck fell out.

What followed was an intricate 9-month long repair process. When the neck fell out, it ripped out the ribs and Gary had what he describes as ‘the most intricate and complex jigsaw puzzle’ ahead of him. He made casts of the ribs and using these, fitted every tiny shard together, levelled it all up and then grafted on a new fine rib underneath to stabilise and strengthen the section.

The bass in the workshop

Thankfully not all the repairs required over the years have been so dramatic. Talking to the team of luthiers in the workshop there is a great sense of pride in working on such a significant instrument on the occasions that it comes into the workshop. It’s also very uplifting to see the trusting relationship between a great musician and a great luthier, current custodians of an instrument that has been played for 392 years to date. Despite the best efforts of certain airlines we hope that the Bridgewood and Neitzert expert TLC will ensure the instrument will be enjoyed by musicians and listeners for many centuries to come.

Written by Emily Smith

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