Neil Courtney

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Neil Courtney, 82, of Center City, a double bass player with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 48 years and the "king of the double bass in Philadelphia," died Wednesday, June 17, at home after many years of declining health from heart disease.

He joined the orchestra as a section player in 1962, and served as assistant principal double bassist from 1988 until his retirement in 2010.

Mr. Courtney liked to compare the double bass' range to that of a baritone singer, but bemoaned its limited repertoire and listening public. "Most of the audience for a solo bass performance consists of other bass players," he told the online journal Cerise Press in 2010.

So he worked to free the instrument from isolation. As a composer, he expanded the stock of works highlighting his instrument's capabilities beyond girding a cello line or punctuating phrases played by others. HisSongs and Dance, a trio for trumpet, piano, and bass that premiered in 1999, moved easily between classical and jazz - as did many if not all of his dozens of works - and was praised for its sensitive writing for all three instruments. "The trumpet, muted and in its low register, has character too rarely heard anywhere," wrote an Inquirer critic. The opening bars "suggested that the music could move in any direction."

The same could be said for the sociable Mr. Courtney, who organized concerts to draw awareness to issues like nuclear disarmament, and served the orchestra in many a non-playing capacity. He offered to write melodies as rewards to orchestra donors, and helped negotiate several musicians' contracts.

He was chairman of the musicians' committee that, in the 1980s, advised planners of a new orchestra hall on acoustics as well as the need for rehearsal space and practice rooms, and became a voice of support for a project that would take years more to gather steam.

"I am convinced the Academy [of Music] is not adequate," he told The Inquirer in 1987. "When [music director Riccardo] Muti began to talk about the problems, I began to go out in the hall during rehearsals. The low frequencies are poor in the Academy. It's funny how the ear accommodates."

"He was a great spokesman for the orchestra. He was often called upon to make a statement," said his wife, Julie.

As musical statements go, he considered a highlight of his career playing the prominent - and elaborately soloistic - obbligato part to Mozart's"Per questa bella mano" (K. 612), with bass Eric Owens, in the Academy in 1994.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, Mr. Courtney, while still a student, played three seasons with the Rochester Philharmonic under Erich Leinsdorf. He joined the U.S. Marine Band, and studied with the Philadelphia Orchestra's then-principal bassist, Roger Scott. He was principal bassist with the National Symphony Orchestra for four years before leaving for Philadelphia.

He had wide influence as a teacher, mentoring perhaps 100 students in his lifetime, both privately and at area schools, said his wife. He taught classical bass - which laid the foundation for several prominent students to go in a different direction.

"He was the most well-known guru of bass around the city. Any young bass player who was serious had to go through him," said the jazz bassist Christian McBride, who studied with Mr. Courtney for three years in high school and called him "the king of the double bass in Philadelphia." Stanley Clarke was also a student.

McBride recalled a teaching style that was "sensitive, but serious" in which Mr. Courtney would talk through a passage, and then demonstrate. "He played it with such ease you thoroughly understood it when it was over."

McBride credits his teacher with giving him the confidence to audition for the Juilliard School, and Mr. Courtney was the first person he called after he got in. When they met a few weeks ago, the conversation turned again to pedagogy. "We talked bass, and he said, 'Always remember your long tones.' And I said, 'Yes, sir.'"

In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Willa and Megan Baba, and son Matthew. His first wife, Anna May, died in 1978.


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Robert Peterson 2014