Spotlight #6: John Santamaria

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John Santamaria, bass player with the MSO for 21 years

Submitted by Deb Walsh, Board Member and Treasurer, Melrose Symphony Orchestra

On a quiet Wednesday morning in April, John Santamaria and I sat down at Bohemian Coffeehouse, a quaint place in Melrose, and had a terrific discussion... a discussion not always centered around music! Two cool things to share right off the bat about John... his life doesn’t always take place on terra firma AND he became a part of the Melrose Symphony Orchestra in quite an unconventional way... 

John is a bass player, an instrument in the string section. It also can be called a contrabass, bass violin, bull fiddle, upright bass, and double bass. It’s a pretty tall instrument, about 6’ in height, is hollow, and weighs a bit more than 20 pounds. John stores it in a soft bag, but a hard case would be used to keep it safe if traveling by air, or if his instrument had to be separated from him. Interestingly enough, if traveling by air, it used to be common to purchase a ticket for the bass so it could have its own seat. His bass has yet to travel by air...

Q: Are you from a musical family?
John was raised in Lowell, MA. While his parents didn’t play any instruments, his aunt was a violinist, although he never heard her play. Around age 7, he reluctantly took piano lessons, at the “suggestion” of his parents (while also having been inspired by watching Liberace on daytime TV after school).

The piano he learned on almost went to the dump, he explained. His dad rescued it from a relative who was going to toss it, and after some work and tuning, the old upright became playable again.  His sister also took piano lessons, and went on to become a choral director at a private school. His brother wasn’t musically-inclined, finding his artistry in the visual arts. His parents played classical music at home, so he had a lot of musical exposure growing up.

In high school, he played the trumpet in the school band and also in the marching band. His school also had a jazz band, but no orchestra, so he wasn’t exposed to string instruments specifically. Prior to attending college, he did think about a musical career, but ultimately chose to study computer science.  During his college years, he taught himself the guitar, but it wasn’t until long after graduation that he became more interested in the classical music genre.

Q: What was your favorite music growing up? 
“I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, and Beatles in high school,” John remembered. “It wasn’t pop music, it wasn’t folk music, but it was considered contemporary music.” He is still very interested in this genre, and enjoys many local shows and has several favorite local performers.

“My favorite band is Session Americana, a local band from the Somerville/Cambridge area. They perform a variety of original pieces and cover songs, too. They play American contemporary folk music, but folk may not be the right word... throw some rock and roll in there, acoustic too. No heavy metal. They use acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, drums, harmonica, mandolin, mandocello, and an occasional fiddle or clarinet. They bring in their friends to play in the band. They have a pretty good following.”

There are some musical Melrosians he particularly likes... Alastair Moock, a singer/songwriter AND Grammy nominee! Who knew Melrose had a Grammy nominee? Alastair found his way on to the music scene writing and performing music for young people, and for adults too.  After Alastair's daughter’s cancer diagnosis, they wrote an album together entitled Singing Our Way Through as a way to help others living with illness. This album earned a Grammy nomination. 

Another personal favorite of John’s is Mark Erelli, a Melrose singer/songwriter with his own career as a songwriter and back-up musician. He also has recorded some albums. “Melrose is a good spot for musicians,” John said. While not Melrosians, John also likes locals Jennifer Kimball, Kris Delmhorst, and Chandler Travis, a Cape Cod singer/songwriter who performs in the area as leader of the Chandler Travis Philharmonic, Chandler Travis Three-O, Catbirds, and other incarnations.

Q: When did you begin playing the bass?
Long after his college days, John realized he wanted to bring music back into his life. He liked the sound of the bass and what it does for the orchestra. “I had my first lesson when I was in my late 30’s,” John told me, but because of his strong exposure to music as a child, he had a “leg up” on the “how to read music” part.

His first and only bass teacher just happened to be his sister’s husband, a jazz bassist, who was also classically-trained.  John remembers early on being shown how to get the bass up and down stairs and through doorways (it’s big). He loved learning from his brother-in-law, “he knows his stuff and we get along really well. He really gave me the fundamentals,” he explained proudly. John took occasional lessons on and off for about four years, but most of his learning has been spent alone with his instrument. 

Q: How did you become involved with the MSO?
In the spring of 1997, John met Jean Allen, the principal oboe player for the MSO at that time, and she encouraged him to audition for the MSO. John was intrigued and showed up unannounced at a Monday night rehearsal, bass in hand. Peter Hazzard, the conductor at that time, invited John on stage! The orchestra was rehearsing for the final concert of the season, May Pops, but John quickly realized he had a conflict the night the concert was scheduled, so didn’t go back for rehearsals that season.

That one rehearsal he attended, though, piqued his interest, and here’s where the story gets really interesting. In September 1997, John returned to Memorial Hall unannounced for a Monday night rehearsal. Once again, with bass in hand, he confidently walked on stage.  Oh, and guess whose inaugural rehearsal it just happened to be that very same evening?  Yoichi Udagawa’s, the current MSO’s conductor. John walked on stage and began rehearsing, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

John was a little humble at this point in our chat and said because there was sometimes only one other bass player, Lello Molinari, he assumed the players were happy to have him! High school students were part of the MSO then, but there just weren’t many bass players around. John was welcomed immediately as a Melrose Symphony volunteer bassist. In the late 1990’s, John played in another local community orchestra, briefly overlapping with the MSO. “I love to play in the MSO, but what makes it really terrific is the community support. Every concert we play is to a full hall. There are so many people here who want to hear us play. I’ve attended other community orchestra performances and been a player too, but the community support in Melrose is unique and very special.” 

We then chatted about the concerts the MSO performs every season. When I asked him if he has a favorite, he was very thoughtful about his response, and told me it wasn’t an easy question to answer. “The Pops concerts are a lot of fun. I especially love it when there’s a singer soloist. I like how things can be unpredictable. Will the soloist take it faster? Hold that note just a little bit longer? As musicians in the orchestra, we have to pay attention to what the soloist does, and pay attention to the conductor, too. I like that! It’s a little different from the classical concerts, especially if there is no soloist. I’d have to say, though, the classical concerts are my favorite. Especially Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 2, "The Organ Symphony.”

John especially loves the fact that students at Melrose High School are taught string instruments. It demonstrates that Melrose is committed to the arts and it carries over to the MSO. He is thrilled the MSO presents scholarships to graduating seniors who have played in the MSO during their high school years. “The MSO makes room for the young people,” he said.

I also had to ask him if he could have a seat in any other orchestra in the world, which one would he choose and he replied without hesitation, “The Boston Symphony! I’m a hometown boy!”

 Q. Do you get nervous before a performance?
Oh, yes I do,” he said without hesitation, “’I’m nervous during rehearsals. They are challenging!”

 Q: How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
“My high school trumpet teacher taught me exactly what to do! Don’t stop or go back, just keep going! This teacher was insightful,” John explained. Prior to meeting his trumpet teacher, his piano teacher had been his only musical teacher. “I didn’t realize how good a teacher could be until I met my trumpet teacher!”

We switched gears here and I asked him about some of his other passions besides music. I was incredibly impressed when he said, “I do a lot of sailing!” Of course, I assumed it was a summertime only passion, but how surprised was I to learn he is a year-round sailor and has been since 2000! And he sails right here in frosty New England pretty much the entire year!

John belongs to the Boston Sailing Center at Lewis Wharf in Boston’s North End, racing in a fleet of 27’ sloops every summer. From May through the end of the summer, you can find him there most Thursday evenings. Not only does he captain the boats, he’s part of the crew, too. He doesn’t spend all his time in Boston, though. He races on a 37’ Jeanneau named Goldeneye in Marblehead as well. Then every Saturday, during the cold and very often snowy months of November to March, John is part of the Frostbite racing team in Boston Harbor. He’s a hearty New Englander! The Sailing Center also has cruising sailboats which John enjoys very much. As part of his membership, every July he takes a 40’ sailboat for one week from Boston Harbor, lives on that boat with his crew, and they explore the New England waters.  Several times he and his crew traveled around the Elizabeth Islands, a chain of small islands located southwest of Cape Cod’s coast, and although not a definite yet, he thinks this July he’ll travel to the Isles of Shoals, a small group of islands located about six miles off the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire. He’s also sailed near the British Virgin Islands, and one day hopes to sail off the coast of Croatia!

As we wrapped up our discussion, I told him how impressed I was with his long tenure as a volunteer with the Melrose Symphony Orchestra. Not many people would dedicate more than 20 years to one organization, volunteering their talent the way he does and for so long. His reply was memorable, humble, and without hesitation: “I’m getting back something pretty terrific.”