Q: Did you have one bass when you were a kid that you kept for a long time? Or did you just pick them up here and there?
Pastorek: I’ve gone through a lot of basses.
Q: How much did the first bass that you ever bought cost?
Pastorek: Seventy-five dollars. My father thought that was a vast fortune. Pretty good instrument, as a matter of fact.
Q: Did you know that at the time, or do you just sort of know that now?
Pastorek: I know now. In retrospect, I recall what it looked like and instruments that I know that were like it. It was Czechoslovakian. Probably built in the 1900s, about 1910, 1920.
Q: So what makes a bass of good quality?
Pastorek: It’s a very personal thing. Generally speaking, any string instrument, the older it is, the better it’s going to be. Of course, you have to have a quality instrument to start with, and um, some of the best string instruments were made in Italy back in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s — although there were some excellent English makers, and French makers, and German makers. Now, they make them all over the world.
Q: When you say it’s a personal thing, what does that mean?
Pastorek: Each person has his own ideas about what the instrument should be: what it should sound like and how it should play. What I think is wonderful, the guy sitting next to me might think stinks. And that’s okay, because I don’t like his much, either.
Q: What are the characteristics that you look for?
Pastorek: The ease of play, a comfortable — physically comfortable — instrument, because I’m rather small. And I like a brighter sound, that I can hear. Too many of the old Italian instruments have a real dark sound that sounds great across the room, but the guy who’s playing it can’t hear it. It’s difficult. Whereas with the French instrument that I like better, you can hear it under your ear quite well. While it doesn’t have the wondrous sound that the old Italian instruments have, it’s still a very good sound, and that’s what I want.
Q: What makes you change basses? What made you finally pick a bass and stick with it?
Pastorek: Well, I haven’t yet. Most of the time, it’s just stepping up. I’d buy an instrument that I thought was good, and then I’d find something I thought was a little bit better, and then I’d buy it, or swap for it. Most of my instruments, I was very lucky: I just kind of fell into them.
Q: So this last bass that you had — where did it come from?
Pastorek: The one that was destroyed?
Pastorek: I bought that years ago — well, I think it was about ten years ago. It was in the nineties, early nineties. Anyway. I knew of a dealer in San Diego, and he had several instruments, one of which was owned by a studio player in L.A. who also was trying to step up to a better instrument, and he had it for sale, and it was ridiculously cheap. And I played it, thinking, well, this can’t be any good, if it’s so cheap. And it was the most wonderful instrument. So I bought it. And I laughed all the way home.
Q: And is that the only bass you own?
Pastorek: Well, I’ve got that plywood bass at home that I use for outdoor stuff.
Q: It’s made of plywood?
Pastorek: Ping-pong table plywood.
Q: It is not made of plywood.
Pastorek: It’s made of plywood.
Q: For real?
Q: How on earth can a bass be made of plywood?
Pastorek: They take plywood, glue it together, and make a bass out of it.
Q: How does the sound compare?
Pastorek: It’s terrible. Makes a noise, and that’s all. That’s all it does. But for playing outdoors, that’s all I need. I wouldn’t want my instrument to get damaged, you know, playing outdoors.
Q: Yeah. So your concert bass — how old was it?
Pastorek: The one that was destroyed?
Pastorek: It was built around 1800. The maker, Justin Maucolet, built basses between 1800 and 1810, something like that.
Q: Where do you leave it when it’s at the symphony?
Pastorek: Down in the basement. We have a large bass room in the basement with big lockers to store them in. It’s very safe down there. Never had a problem in thirty-five years, until the tropical storm, named after your lovely cousin Allison.
Q: What exactly happened?
Pastorek: It rained about three feet overnight. Buffalo Bayou came up violently, and flooded much of the downtown area — the near west side and all of the east side.
The theater district is right there on Buffalo Bayou, and underneath the theaters is a large parking garage, three floors of parking garage underground that covers about twelve square blocks. And a retaining wall on the bayou broke, letting Buffalo Bayou flow straight through, into the garage, and into the tunnel system. All of Houston, as you know, is honeycombed with tunnels below street level so people don’t have to walk out in the hot sun in August to go to lunch.
It flooded all the tunnels and broke into the Wortham Center, the Alley Theater, and Jones Hall. We had water — the entire basement area, where the basses were, was flooded, it was under forty feet of water. And the second level, which is directly below the street level, which is where the offices, and the library, and the dressing rooms are, was flooded to within a foot of the ceiling. All nice Buffalo Bayou sewer water.
Q: Did you guys know, when the flooding started happening, that the instruments were in any danger at all?
Pastorek: Well, Jones Hall is built like a fortress, and we’ve always just assumed that there’s no way for water to get in there, and if it did happen to seep in, there’s a huge sump pump down there that would keep it dry, and there’s absolutely never been a problem.
Q: So at what point did you decide to go downtown and look at the situation at Jones Hall?
Pastorek: Well, it became very evident by early morning that there had been a disaster, because the sky was full of helicopters and we could see that something was going on. And I was still thinking, boy, it’s a good thing my bass is downtown in Jones Hall, and not stuck in a place where it’s going to get flooded. But about one o’clock in the afternoon, we said, well, let’s go take a look downtown, let’s see what Jones Hall looks like.
We went down there and parked in the loading dock and came to the stage door and asked the guard, what’s going on? I told him, I want to go downstairs and see if there’s any water, you know, around in the basement, and he said, oooohhh, there’s water all right. And you could tell that there was no electricity in the building because it was hot in there, so I got a flashlight, and he said, go take a look down the stairs. So I poked my nose down the stairs and you could make one turn on the stairs and there was water.
Q: And your good bass was down there at that point?
Pastorek: My bass was down there, David Malone’s 300-year-old Testore bass was down there.
Q: Did you, when you realized the magnitude of it all, did you have any hope that your bass was ok?
Pastorek: When I saw where the water was? It was drowned. I knew that. It was forty feet underwater.
Q: But did you anywhere in your mind think, maybe it’s not in pieces, maybe we’ll get it out?
Pastorek: Well, it would have depended on how long the water was down there. If the water had been pumped out immediately, there might have been some hope. But, you know, there was no way to get the water out immediately, so I had pretty much written it off already.
Q: And, well, this is a blunt question, but how did that make you feel?
Pastorek: How did that make me feel?
Q: To know that your bass was down there under—
Pastorek: I wept. My heart thumped.
Q: No, be serious. Did you weep?
Pastorek: No! It’s a dead tree.
Q: You have no emotional connection to your instrument at all?
Pastorek: Well, I liked it. It was a very nice instrument. But that’s it. I’ll find another one. I will miss that instrument, because I really liked it, but, c’est la vie.
Q: You eventually went down there, right, to see it?
Q: How’d you get down there?
Q: You snuck?
Pastorek: Snuck down there in the middle of the night. David and I went down there with a couple of the building engineers, and the guard whistled and looked up in the air and said, doo-dee-hmm-hmmmm?
Q: What did it look like down there?
Pastorek: Terrible. Like — like a war. We were down there in the middle of the night with flashlights. I had my sea boots on and a big pair of rubber gloves. We had to climb over debris to get into the bass room, bust down the door to get in there. The water was still about ankle deep, and it was very thick water, almost like mud. And everything was just covered with a thick coat of mud, amongst other things.
Q: Where was your bass?
Pastorek: It was in my locker. Just a pile of small pieces lying on the floor.
Q: How many pieces are the front and the back of a bass usually made out of?
Pastorek: Ideally, it would be nice if you can make them out of two pieces each. The problem is, when you have older instruments, over the years they get damaged or cracked, like that, and these cracks are glued back together and it’s maintained as a whole. But you know, little by little, one crack here, and then thirty years later another crack there, and after hundreds of years, you’ve got a whole list of it, not realizing how fragile this thing is, and how much glue is in there holding it all together. So when all that glue dissolved in the water, 200 years of cracks all opened up, and it fell apart into all the pieces. You know, you couldn’t count all the pieces. There are a lot of them that are still missing.
Q: Do the pieces of wood in any way resemble a bass?
Pastorek: Once you get all the pieces and lay them out on the floor in the proper order, you can see there’s a bass there — but had they all just been thrown on the ground haphazardly, the average person would not know what it was. They looked like kindling.
Q: Was David equally emotionless about it?
Pastorek: David is right on the edge. I hope he holds it together. His bass meant a lot to him. It was a wonderful instrument, and a valuable instrument, and he will never replace it. I mean, it would take at least $100,000 to replace it, but he would have to go out and find one, and there aren’t any.
Q: Do you think it was the added value and age of his bass that made him have a deeper emotional connection to it, or just that he’s — more emotional than you?
Pastorek: That, plus, it was his first good instrument, and he had won the symphony audition on that instrument, and played all these years on that instrument. One of the highlights of his career was playing the solo in that Mahler symphony in Vienna a couple years ago, and he used that instrument. Do you have that recording? Mahler One? The slow movement?
Pastorek: It’s that bass playing on that. At first, he was taking it pretty well, and we went downstairs, and I was the first one in there and opened my locker and saw what a mess it was, and I said, David, you don’t want to go see any more, let’s get out of here. He said, no no no, I want to see it, so I said, okay, let’s go have a look. So we looked in there, and it was just mud and a pile of sticks. So we left mine behind, because I knew there was no way it would ever be repaired, and we started taking his out. We made a couple of trips and took all the wood we could find upstairs. But by that time, the guard who had turned her back was starting to get antsy because the building manager was expected back, and had we been found in the building, that guard would have been fired.
So we took his bass to our house, out in the alley there, and my recollection for the rest of my life is going to be standing out in the alley at midnight, squirting a Testore bass with a garden hose. It was built in 1692, and I was out there with a garden hose, squirting it.
Q: The only other stuff down there was percussion instruments, right? That’s all easily replaced, I would imagine.
Pastorek: Well, most of it is easily replaced, but some of it was not. And some of the things were their favorite toys, and they were quite angry about it, because the city had closed the building — they wouldn’t let anybody in there. After a lot of howling and screaming and negotiating the city promised that before that room was cleaned out, that the symphony, and the percussionists in particular, would be allowed to be there to see the stuff coming out so they could claim what they wanted to keep. They threw half of it away before they told anybody. Tam-tams — gongs — that are worth thousands of dollars and are beautiful instruments — there was nothing wrong with them. They’re made of brass. You hose it down and hang it back up again. The city threw them away. Threw them into a dumpster and hauled it off. Three grand pianos, they ended up taking a chainsaw to the grand pianos so they could carry them up the stairs and discard them.
Q: How did they have the jurisdiction to go down there and get rid of private property?
Pastorek: That’s a city building, and they called it a disaster area. The biohazard people were down there, wearing moon suits and gas masks and everything else. It was really silly.
Q: Wow. So have you guys gotten any financial help from the city or from the NEA or anything like that to try and repair the damage?
Pastorek: I’m not really sure. We have insurance on so many things, that’s going to cover a lot of the expense, a lot of the cost. I think there’s a lot of liability that’s going to start popping up, with the city, because of the fact that the retaining wall collapsed, and it shouldn’t have. So that’s gonna cost — that’s going to be in the courts for a long time. And any other grants of any sort I’m not sure we’ve received. I’m aware of small checks we’ve received from individuals, other orchestras — as a matter of fact, we got a $20 check from your cousins, the little Roche girls, who opened up a lemonade stand, and earned $20 for the Houston Symphony.
Q: (laughs) Who, Stephanie and Allison?
Q: How much money do you think it’s going to take to get the symphony back on its feet?
Pastorek: I couldn’t begin to tell you. The library itself was worth millions of dollars. And it’s destroyed.
Q: And the hall is trashed, too, right?
Pastorek: The theater part was not. The theater part is all right. But anything below ground level was totaled. All the records, all the computers, all the archives, all the wonderful old photographs of conductors going back to the turn of the century, all the music that was marked by Stokowski and Barbirolli and Thomas Beecham over the years, it’s all gone.
Q: What are you going to use for a bass when the season starts up in September?
Pastorek: The one that’s being restored should be finished in the next couple of weeks, and as a matter of fact, I’m driving up to Albuquerque tomorrow morning to take a look at these basses he has in stock up there, maybe buy something else.
Q: What are you going to look for? Another French one? Do you think there’s a good chance you’ll find your next bass?
Pastorek: I have no idea. I might get lucky. I’ve always been very lucky, like I told you — I’ve always fallen into good instruments. I have to look at this as maybe an opportunity to fall into another good instrument.
Q: How much longer do you think you’re going to keep playing in the symphony?
Pastorek: Until it stops being fun.
Q: Is it still fun?
Pastorek: Well, I’m still there. I keep on telling everybody — I mean, the very day it stops being fun, you’ll know it stopped being fun, because the back door will be wide open, and there will be a breeze blowing between my chair and the outdoors.