From Jew-Tang Clan to MSO, bassist takes the lead

Most frequently, a symphony orchestra string player has to rise through the ranks before becoming a principal, or section leader.

Bronx native Zachary Cohen, 25, however, was a senior at The Juilliard School in New York City when he auditioned for principal bass player in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

He not only was one of 110 musicians vying for the position, but was just 22 and auditioning for his very first professional symphony orchestra job.

He became and remains the youngest principal bassist in a major American symphony orchestra, Cohen told The Chronicle in an interview at a Brady Street coffee shop recently.

Always interested in music, Cohen said he started out singing in his Hebrew school choir, where he was the soloist.

At 13, he took up the electric bass and played in “a couple of great bands,” including a Jewish rap group called the Jew-Tang Clan (a play on Wu-Tang Clan, a well-known hip-hop group) throughout high school. He found that he loved performing.

Cohen said that his parents, and older sister — “everyone in my family” — are psychologists. He mused on the irony of choosing a nonverbal profession after having grown up in a such a verbal family.

Yet “I always knew I was going to be a musician; it was a calling,” Cohen said. “I am lucky; there are very few people who know exactly what they want to do. To me there was no other choice.”

Cohen attended a private high school in Manhattan. Although that school didn’t specialize in music or even have an orchestra, he played jazz there.

“It happened to have a few really awesome teachers,” whose support, together with his status as the best musician in the school, gave him “the confidence I needed to go head to head with other people,” he said. “And that’s where I learned to love music.”

At the same time, Cohen trained in the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college division every Saturday. When he graduated from high school he entered the Manhattan School of Music’s undergraduate program for a year before transferring to Juilliard.

His three years at Juilliard included some humanities courses, as well as challenging ear training and music theory classes taught by “amazing and very talented teachers,” said Cohen.

But students there mostly focus on perfecting their art, as the world of performing arts is very competitive, he said. He practiced the bass five or six hours a day.

‘Good but wacky’

When Cohen auditioned for the MSO, he said it was a bit like American Idol combined with running a marathon.

Those being auditioned played behind a screen so nobody knew who they were. The many-hour process spanned two days, in which he played solos and difficult excerpts from symphonies, among other works prepared from a list of requirements.

He attributes the success of that audition to hard work and luck, as well as excellent training.

Like many others at Juilliard, it was Cohen’s goal to find a symphony position, he said. “It’s a full time job and [in music] there are very few.”

Now finishing his third season at MSO, he seems pleased with his work. “I am really lucky that the first job I auditioned for is the job I really wanted. And I have a lifetime position; I got tenure at 23.”

His section, composed of eight musicians, is “amazing,” he said, “I’m lucky to be playing with them.”

And he hasn’t felt intimidated by the role of principal. “I feel like I’m a leader at heart so [leading the bass section] didn’t throw me off.”

He’s looking forward to the MSO’s 50th anniversary celebration next year, which “is going to be huge,” and also to working with Dutch conductor Edo de Waart, who will follow Andreas Delfs as music director in 2009.

Cohen enjoys other kinds of music as well as classical. “Anything that is good, but is wacky. I like listening to Pakistani music — and anything that uses instruments from the Silk Road.”

And he loves Jewish music. He likened playing the bass to imitating a cantor — a sound that is “resonant, with a low voice and … very emotional.”

The idea of living in Wisconsin didn’t seem completely alien to Cohen because his parents, who are native New Yorkers, went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s where “they were part of the anti-war protests.”

But moving here has been a big shift. The most difficult aspect of the transition has been social, he said.

Though he is outgoing, funny and interested in many things, including cooking and yoga, Cohen has a rigorous work schedule with little free time.

He performs every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and many Thursdays as well. Typically, Cohen said, he is in rehearsal from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and sometimes Friday. Monday is his day off.

Cohen, who lives on the East Side, said he’s trying to meet people here, but he hasn’t had a lot of success. “I don’t have a lot of time and feel very pressured to find people during my free time,” he said.

Raised in a Reform congregation where he became a bar mitzvah, Cohen is interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s Jewish community.

When he is in New York on a Friday evening, he always goes to Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, “an incredible place with incredible energy and amazing music.”

It has “two amazing cantors and tons of young people who are very enthusiastic about being Jewish,” Cohen said. “I get very emotional when I’m there because I feel very much like an outsider here.”