Utah Symphony: Brant Bayless, skiing through a musical life
At age 24, Brant Bayless was an urbane New Yorker with a burgeoning career as violist of the Arcata Quartet. When the quartet inaugurated a residency program at Utah State University, he was transplanted to bucolic Logan. Now, he describes that sudden uprooting as "extreme culture shock."
Bayless threw himself into teaching students not much younger than himself, toured with the quartet during university breaks, and dreamed of returning to the East Coast. It was there, he thought, his real destiny was waiting.
Skip 14 years to the present, and you'll find Bayless entrenched in a Utah life, preparing to solo with the Utah Symphony this weekend in his role as the orchestra's principal violist. A love story unfolded in the interim actually, several love stories.
An extrovert playing a viola • Bayless grew up in Ponca City, Okla., in a musical home. He sang and played the piano from a young age, but didn't touch a viola until age 12, when he began the instrument in a public-school orchestra program.
Violists are supposed to be introverted, contemplative types. Bayless succeeded anyway, breaking the viola stereotype with his funny and gregarious personality. At almost 6 feet 5 inches tall, he's not easily overlooked.
Bayless' first glimpse of the musical world outside Oklahoma came through a scholarship to Michigan's Interlochen Arts Camp in 1992, and that led to greater opportunities. After high school, he attended Manhattan School of Music as a student of viola superstar Pinchas Zukerman and his assistant Patinka Kopec. "I didn't really decide to play the viola for a life," Bayless said. "It's just that I was doing it and saw no reason to stop doing it."
Yet his initial studies with Zukerman were humbling. "When I first went to New York, I had been a big fish in a small pond," Bayless said. "I assumed I would be a rock star."
Instead, Zukerman busted him down to playing scales and etudes, finally deeming him worthy to play a single movement of unaccompanied Bach after a full semester's work. "It was hard to take," Bayless said. "You're young, and you think you're the hottest thing. It was a pretty big blow."
Bayless persevered, and things got better. "I owe them everything," he said of his time with Zukerman and Kopec. "All my life, I had been thinking in one way. They turned my approach from flying by the seat of my pants to having a formula for everything."
Skiing and music • After landing in Logan, Bayless taught at USU for two years, then left the Arcata Quartet and began taking orchestra auditions.
Day after day, for six-hour stretches, Bayless locked himself in the upstairs room of his Logan townhouse with a stack of orchestral excerpts. He loved it. "It was really the most intensive practice period of my life," he said. "I hadn't assimilated everything Zukerman had been trying to teach me."
When he won an orchestra chair in 2000, it was with the Utah Symphony, yet his eyes were still wandering eastward.
Utah really began getting under Bayless' skin when he joined a group of orchestra colleagues for a ski outing at Brighton his introduction to the sport. "That first out-of-control slide down the bunny hill made me realize I'd never truly been in love before," he said.
Utah Symphony violinist David Porter, instigator of the ski outing, saw the ski bug bite. "Anything Brant does, he does all the way," Porter said. "He took lessons and got to be a very good skier very quickly. Now he skis the backcountry and all kinds of expert terrain."
Porter and Bayless are close friends who share affinity for practical jokes, outdoor living and, of course, music. "We have a long history of silliness outside of work," Porter said. "The great thing is that he can have that side, but when it come to really making music, there is not a violist I'd rather play with. He has a big, warm sound and really solid training. He's a very reliable musician in every way."
Bayless admits to periods of obsession with skiing and waxes lyrical when he talks about such places as the main Baldy chute at Alta or a secluded back-country glade.
Finding the right path • Not long after Bayless joined the Utah Symphony and took up the sport, he met Fry Street Quartet cellist Anne Francis. (Fry Street succeeded the Arcata in residency at USU.) Neither musician made much of an impression on the other at the time, but the hand of fate was at work.
Meanwhile, the Utah Symphony's principal viola position opened in 2008. For the first time, Bayless began to imagine the possibility a life in Utah that would fulfill his musical aspirations and keep him close to the outdoor opportunities he had come to love.
"It occurred to me that I might be able to have my cake and eat it, too," he said. "I decided to go for it."
He won the chair in a blind audition process that drew top candidates from far and wide.
"It was really when I won the principal job that life took on meaning again," Bayless said. "I remembered what I love about the viola, and I felt invested in the future of the symphony. Then, when Maestro [Thierry] Fischer came to town, I had a real sense that positive things were in store for the future."
And so they were, on several fronts.
Bayless and Francis had dated briefly some years ago, then parted. Two years ago, Bayless invited her to grab a quick lunch when she was in Salt Lake City for a seminar.
"For some reason, everything had changed," he said. "It was obvious that it was the beginning of our life together. It was like me starting on the viola. There was no conscious decision the path was obviously laid out."
The couple married last December and now divide time between her home in Logan and his in Salt Lake City.
A musical presence • Bayless looks forward to playing Toru Takemitsu's recent viola concerto "A String Around Autumn" with the Utah Symphony. It's a piece that describes how a human being feels in nature, he said "like standing in a beautiful aspen grove at the top of Broad's Fork with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face."
Fischer said deciding to give Bayless this year's solo opportunity was easy. "Brant is exceptional, and I'm really impressed by his presence," the maestro said. "He is very committed. There is no showing off. He just plays, and it makes his section sound fantastic."
Fischer said Bayless' name comes up frequently when he works with orchestra in Europe.
"It's absolutely amazing how many people know him," Fischer said. "This guy is a big star, so we are very lucky to have him."
Utah Symphony principal violist Brant Bayless solos with the orchestra in Toru Takemitsu's concerto "A String Around Autumn." Also on the program, conducted by Jun MÃ¤rkl, are Brahms' Symphony No. 1 and Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks."
When • Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3, 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $17-$65 (prices increase $5 on the day of performance); at 801-355-ARTS or http://www.usuo.org. Student/group discounts available.