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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — The high point of Tommy Zongker’s life — and he did not seem to be entirely jesting when he said this — was last year, when he bought a sport utility vehicle.

It was the first car he’d owned with a large rear door. After nearly 65 years performing with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra — a length of service that is probably unique in the symphony’s history, officials said — Zongker could finally slide his 40-pound upright bass in the back of the car with ease.

More accurately, the shove was easy once Zongker learned how to pop the door open with a remote key fob. Someone had to teach him.

“I didn’t know how to open it up!” he said. “It was the night of the concert!”

Zongker said it was an embarrassing situation for a man who has prided himself on being early to every concert rehearsal since he joined the symphony in 1952, when he was still in high school.

Previously, he stuffed his bass, and five family members, into a series of big Buicks he owned. Bodies squished. Necks crooked.

Now, he rides alone.

A bass like Zongker’s is among the largest musical instruments used in an orchestra. It’s the lowest-pitched member of the violin family, and it’s pretty different from a bass guitar.

Upright bass-players usually stand beside their instruments, drawing a horsehair bow across strings stretched tight. They charm melody and harmony from the body of the bass, carved from several types of hardwood.

That deep bass sound is central to many kinds of music: Bach, Mozart, the Duke Ellington band, to name just three.

Zongker played in a concert of Russian music last week, and was part of the symphony’s 83rd season. The organization was founded in 1930 and presented its first concert four years later. Two years after that, Zongker was born.

Kyle Wiley Pickett, conductor and music director of the symphony since 2013, sat with Zongker for an interview with the Springfield News-Leader . Pickett said there are other symphony musicians with long track records: 30 and 45 years.

Zongker might outlast them all. He is a cheerful chap. He laughs easily, frequently at his own expense, and uses classic Ozarks expressions like “I’m tickled to death,” delivered in an accent to match.

He wears a gold watch and light sweaters. In his ninth decade, he signals with his conversation that he’s not too worried about whether people agree with his opinion.

He said that Springfield’s symphony has grown more disciplined and professional since he joined. For example, it’s harder to pass an audition to join the symphony.

Zongker said, “It used to be, if you could play ‘Country Jesus’ in the key of C, that was great.”

Pickett, sipping on a cup of coffee next to Zongker, said, “Auditions are a bit different now.”

Zongker added, “One thing that bothered me was that I never did audition.”

David Blumenthal, conductor from 1950 to 1955, merely asked him to join.

“I could outplay any of the bassists they had then,” Zongker said.

His first piece with the symphony was “Night on Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky, known to many as the music from the end of Disney’s 1941 “Fantasia” movie.

“It thrilled me to death,” Zongker said. “Ah, I loved that piece on the first night of rehearsal.”

Rehearsal has changed, Zongker said. Musicians are much more focused on the conductor.

“Used to be,” he said, “every time a conductor stopped in rehearsal, everyone decided to talk. You couldn’t understand what the conductor was trying to say.”

Zongker said the chitchat rankled Charles Bontrager, conductor from 1978 to 1993. “He had a bad temper,” Zongker said. “He just cussed and cussed and cussed… I don’t blame him.”

The mild-mannered 81-year-old paused, then laughed and said, “I used to be a clown back in that corner, but I knew when to keep my mouth shut.”

Rehearsals also used to happen weekly on each Tuesday leading up to concerts. Now, Pickett has put the symphony on a “professional schedule,” a more challenging set of four rehearsals packed into the week before a concert, all of them two-and-a-half hours with one 15-minute break.

Zongker is clearly pleased with the current artistic leader of the symphony. He even lobbied for the symphony board to sweeten Pickett’s employment deal.

“I told the Cohens,” he said, referring to symphony board president Irwin Cohen and his wife, symphony guild member Susan Cohen, “I said, ‘you better do something about this Mr. Pickett — you know, he’s too good to stay in Springfield.'”

“I’m happy in Springfield,” Pickett interjected.

“You have no idea how happy that makes me feel,” Zongker replied.

Zongker said he’s also pretty happy with how music has developed in Springfield over 65 years. Musicians have improved.

“In general, it has changed for the better, with the exception of broadcast music over the radio,” he said, singling out KTXR for disapproval because of its transition from longtime “beautiful music/easy listening” station to a country format.

He’s also a pointed critic of some classical music. Zongker thinks a lot of recent and contemporary classical composition isn’t that great — so innovative and complex that nobody likes it.

“It’s not something that you would hum as you’re leaving the hall,” he said. “It’s nothing but composers’ egos coming out. ‘Look, world, I can do this!'”

Still, many of today’s composers are turning back toward pleasing melody, he said. The symphony audience has changed, too. Though attendees are “basically the same type of person” as when he began playing in the 1950s, they seem younger now, and they have new perspectives.

For example, in the ’50s, symphony audiences seemed “almost like reverent toward the playing.”

Now, they sometimes laugh. “They’re probably more educated in what is being played,” he said.

There is continuing interest in Zongker’s “absolute favorite” symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth.

The bassist said that last year, when the symphony decided to include that famously explosive work on the concert calendar, he decided to put off retirement so he could play it once again.

The Ninth happens to be a composition with healthy room for upright bass parts. Zongker has played it seven times, at least.

His least favorite concert experiences were at Firefall, an annual city Independence Day celebration held from 1982 to 2008 with fireworks set to patriotic music played by the symphony. The music wasn’t the issue. Logistics were.

“It was mayhem,” he said. “(Concert organizers) would promise everybody the sun, you’d have special parking passes, but it didn’t mean a thing to anybody who was there.”

He usually managed to flag down a nice person driving a golf cart to ferry him and his bass to the Firefall stage.

The bass is heavy, and it gets heavier with the years. Now, he stores the instrument in a case with a wheel at the bottom. That allows him to roll it around like a very large suitcase.

“After you get to a certain age, your body begins to shut down little by little,” Zongker said. “If I didn’t have that wheel,” he added, and left it at that.

He also no longer performs in special concerts or children’s concerts.

“Two years ago I had kind of a bad spell,” Zongker said, cracking a smile. He had to stop working out at Hammons Heart Institute with symphony board members.

“All the muscles I had are turning into jelly,” he said. He sits on a stool to play his instrument now.

“Playing the bass takes a lot of muscle,” Pickett said, softly.

There are other ailments. Zongker said he thinks the lighting in one rehearsal space the symphony uses is “terrible,” but then he hedges by saying he is dealing with cataracts in his eyes and that could affect his impressions.

Last week, as the symphony began its first rehearsal of the current season, he was 20 minutes early. He told the News-Leader this would be his last season.

“I’m pretty sure this year will be the swan song,” he said. His eyes are getting “very bad.”

He wheeled his bass across the Central High School band room and unpacked it near one of his fellow bassists, Sue Stubbs.

Ginger-haired, unsentimental, Stubbs has been with the symphony 30 years. She’s sat near Zongker for 30 years. He gets along great with everyone in the symphony, she said.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Stubbs said of Zongker’s retirement. “He’s been telling me about it forever.”

A few minutes later, Pickett, the conductor, raised his baton.


Information from: Springfield News-Leader,