Conducting Electricity by John Wieland, Principal Bass, Jacksonville Symphony
Conducting Electricity is a monthly column, usually written by Courtney Lewis, music director of the Jacksonville Symphony. During the summer months, Symphony musicians contribute in his place.
My son’s name is Jack. From the beginning, he has always been a very happy kid, so happy that he earned the nickname “Happy Jack” from his mother at some point. Later it was shortened just to “Hap.” Though it’s a nickname he comes by naturally, it is one I was already very familiar with. Prior to joining the Jacksonville Symphony, my stand partner of many years in the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra was also nicknamed Hap. While I can’t say for sure where that Hap’s nickname came from, I always assumed it was a play on his real name, Horace Apgar.
In an orchestra, your stand partner is a very important person in your life. They can make your job a pleasure or a nightmare — the latter situation which I’ve been lucky enough to avoid. They are someone you get to know very well. If it’s an orchestra that tours as often as Oklahoma used to, sometimes you’d see your stand partner more than you’d see your own spouse. You see that person six days a week, morning. noon and night, often under some extremely stressful circumstances. For many weeks a year, you might be their roommate on tour. You know what they eat, if and when they snore, their health issues, their family matters. If you’re lucky, they’re agreeable; if you’re very lucky they become a lifelong friend. Hap was one of those.
Horace “Hap” V. Apgar Jr. and I shared many similarities. Although 31 years apart in age, we both were from near Philadelphia and both bought our instruments and bows from bassists in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Hap bought his famous Amati bass from Anton Torello, the principal bass there for more than 40 years, and I bought my DeLuccia bow from his son, Carl Torello. We both studied with the first stand bassists in that orchestra. Physically, we were built the same; both from German families and spoke decent German. This was always convenient when we wanted to keep a conversation private at work. Regardless of language, though, it was always heavy with sarcasm. We both even had a full head of hair throughout our lives (well, so far for me!). Our approach to bass playing was the same. After 56 years of playing in Oklahoma, Hap retired from playing in 2006 at the age of 83.
As much as I got to know Hap, one thing he never talked about was his service in World War II. I knew that his studies with the great pedagogue Oscar Zimmerman at the Eastman School had been interrupted by his service in the Army, but other than that I knew very little. It’s the only part of his life that I wasn’t privy to. That is, until his Christmas card the year following his retirement included a photo of himself receiving the National Humanities Medal from then-President George W. Bush. Hap was inclined to write every so often, but I had never gotten a photo from him.
It turns out that Hap was one of the “Monuments Men,” a group made famous by the George Clooney movie in 2014. In addition to active combat, where he was awarded the Bronze Star and a pile of other medals, it turns out that by virtue of his fluency in German and his artistic background, he was transferred to the Office of Military Government (OMGUS) to join the now-famous group. It became clear after that why he had never spoken about his Army years. Unlike the glamorous Hollywood version of rescuing art stolen by the Nazis in order to return it to the great museums of Europe, his job was the “retrieval and restitution of stolen Jewish property,” including documents, religious artifacts, art and other cultural items. Hap was not only a sensitive musician, but he was also a sensitive human being and, as such, this tragic job must have taken a painful toll on him.
“Hap” Apgar passed away on Sept. 13, 2014 and my wife and I welcomed “Hap” Wieland exactly three months later. There are many things I hope for my son Hap. With some luck little Hap will live a full life of 90-plus years, have a full head of hair and a great wit and sense of humor like the older Hap. Perhaps he will be a great bass player but, truthfully, it doesn’t have to be music as long as he’s doing what he loves. I hope he never sees war. I hope he remains true to himself. Above all else, I hope he always remains happy.
John Wieland is principal bass for the Jacksonville Symphony. The symphony opens its season on Sept. 16 with guest violinist Charlie Siem. For a complete schedule and ticket information, go to www.jaxsymphony.org.