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A Resonating Cause

Principal Bassist for the National Symphony Orchestra releases new album, raises awareness for ALS.

Standing with the 18th-century Italian bass in the foyer of his house, Robert Oppelt held the instrument in his arms as if in a dance. He worked his way up and down the neck with one set of fingers and pulled a German bow along the strings with the other. The wooden floors of the house resonated. His wife, Nicolette Driehuys Oppelt, an accomplished freelance flutist originally from Holland, stood along side Oppelt, poised with her flute as they played the first few bars of "Pas De Deux," an original Oppelt composition written for Nicolette, from his new album, "The Double Bass." .

"I was thinking about how to come up with material," said Oppelt, an Oak Hill resident. "I listened to her answer the phone, she said 'how are you?' and it began at perfect intervals. Mother nature created these notes."

The song, which features two voices — Oppelt's double bass and Nicolette's flute — is a conversation of love's pursuit. The two instruments begin with a flirtatious exchange, which then leads to rejection, and ultimately, a union. "Pas De Deux" is Oppelt's first realized venture into composition.

"I've dabbled with strange things before, but never wrote anything worth mentioning," he said. "I don't consider myself a composer. But in my mind I've heard so much music over the years, I can tell what's good music and what's bad music."

AS THE PRINCIPAL BASSIST for the National Symphony Orchestra, that's probably true. Oppelt is also aware that inspiration strikes unexpectedly — as "every-day" as listening to his wife answer the telephone or as defining as seeing his father, Robert L. Oppelt, an accomplished music professor and musician, lose a long battle to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

The disease, which is most common in people between the ages of 45 and 65 is a neurological disorder that destroys cells responsible for muscle movement, eventually ending a sufferer's life after a few years. Oppelt's, new album "The Double Bass" is a dedication to his father's struggle, which is donating 25-percent of the sales to ALS research and features in the liner notes, information about the disease and an eye-opening list of accomplished people who died from it.

"The first sign that we knew anything was wrong was when he was going down steps," said Oppelt about his father. "He would miss a step and then fall."

Not letting the diagnosis affect his love for teaching music, Oppelt's father, the former President of the American String Teachers Association, taught music lessons into his final days, passing away in March of 2001.

"He still had a sense of humor — it was sharpened," recalled Oppelt.

Oppelt remembers his father as encouraging with his music career, often offering helpful fatherly criticism with respects to performance and articles Oppelt would write for publication.

"I always felt that he knew better than I knew," he said.

GROWING UP IN KENTUCKY, Oppelt was surrounded by music. His mother a piano player and father, who played the viola and held a Doctorate in Musical Arts in Performance, required Oppelt to pick two instruments to learn. It wasn't until after struggling with the piano and violin, that Oppelt was introduced to the bass.

"My parents looked at my hands, which are quite big, and said 'okay, how about the bass'," he said. "I started when I was 15 on the bass — which is kind of late. There was a chemistry to it. It was big, something I could really sink my teeth into."

Six years later, Oppelt would successfully audition for the National Symphony Orchestra — earning a seat at the age of 21. Although he served as the Principal Bassist with the Stamford Symphony Orchestra and Greensboro Symphony in the years prior, this was a big step for the young musician.

"In the time leading up, I thought, 'Gee, am I good enough?'," he said. "It was my third audition. When I started out I was a section player."

In 1984, Oppelt became the Assistant Principal Bassist and in 1996, the Principal Bassist for the NSO.

WITH HIS NEW ALBUM, Oppelt showcases not only his talent, but the intimacy of the double-bass — which derives its name from the instrument's pitch, measuring an octave below the bass clef. Recorded in the sanctuary of St. Luke Catholic Church in McLean, the album features a variety of moods, from the dissonant "Quartet For Double Bass," by Gunther Schuller, to the more accessible "Serenade for Double Bass, Harp and String Quartet," by popular composer Charlie Barnett.

"It's definitely a classical album, but there is something for everyone," said Oppelt. "I'm at that point in my life where you get to be more reflective on things — and I'm enjoying that. I'm also glad to give back."