Bassist Richard 'Dobbs' Hartshorne Translates Passion into Action
Traveling the world performing in war-torn countries as part of the ongoing Playing for Peace Project
Musician Richard Hartshorne is speaking from a pay phone on Highway 24, just down the mountain from his cabin in central Colorado. In the four years since he and his wife bought the one-time falling-down, log mining-cabin in the Colorado semi-wilderness, Hartshorne—more widely known by the childhood nickname "Dobbs"—has spent a month or two each year restoring the rustic (and phoneless) old place. The rest of the time he lives in New Hampshire, where for 30 years, until last January, he was a member of the remarkable Apple Hill Chamber Players.
He's a man who likes to take on difficult projects.
With Apple Hill, he traveled the world performing in war-torn countries as part of the ongoing Playing for Peace Project. For five years he directed the Young Musicians Development Program, a federally funded program he designed. In the late 1960s, he took on the Herculean task of translating Bach's six suites for cello into pieces he could perform on the double bass. In 1997, he released the first-ever double-bass recording of the suites on CD on the Centaur label.
Compared to that undertaking, turning an ancient mining shack into a vacation getaway is small potatoes. "The cabin has been a cool project," Hartshorne says. "Now that it's finished, we just come out here to relax, do some climbing and hiking. And this is how I do business," he adds, laughing, "here at the pay phone."
Learn more about the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music at applehill.org
One other thing he does not have at the cabin, surprisingly, is his double bass. "I don't bring the instrument," he admits. "This is my time off from playing. I know a lot of musicians never do that, but I've found it's very healthy, both physically and mentally, to let it go for a few weeks now and then."
Hartshorne is a bit of a do-everything kind of guy: a marathon runner, mountain climber, nationally acclaimed musician, writer, composer, and even something of a comedian. For the last 20 years or so, Hartshorne has been experimenting with acting, storytelling—and yes, even comedy—creating a string of engaging solo performance pieces: humorous, spoken-word stories combined with outrageous sound-effects, silly props, and original illustrative musical compositions he plays on the bass as an underscore to and musical commentary on the stories.
A number of years ago, Hartshorne began performing one such solo piece during each Apple Hill performance, with innocuous names like "A Parable," "Another Fairy Tale," and "New Hampshire Stories." Many classical audiences have been surprised, and delighted, whenever Hartshorne begins introducing characters such as Billy the Birch Tree and Brenda the Fire-Eating Beaver.
"[The solo pieces] are really fun," he says, "and it just turned out that I had this flair for acting and comedy that was pretty well hidden–from me anyway."
Hartshorne's solo works have become so popular that the Harvard radio station WHRB recently broadcast a ten-hour Dobbs marathon. In 2002, Apple Hill released Dobbs: Live from Apple Hill, a recording of the bassist's comedic presentations, performed live in Apple Hill's Concert Barn. These pieces, of course, are a natural for children's concerts, of which Hartshorne does many every year, but the accidental comedian has discovered his comic performance pieces are also a hit when taken to prisons, something Hartshorne has been doing since a fellow Apple Hill player first introduced him to prison work in the mid-1990s. Performing to the incarcerated, he says, "is some of the most satisfying playing I've ever done."
Hartshorne has also taken on the above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty task of translating his solo works into other languages, dozens of them, and learning to perform them in those languages. It began in 1992, when Apple Hill launched the Playing for Peace concerts, which always included one Dobbs solo piece. The response from Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Turkish, Greek, or Mandarin speaking audiences, whenever Hartshorne would begin speaking in their own language, was, without fail, phenomenal.
"It means a lot to people," says Hartshorne, "that someone would bother to learn to speak their language."
It was, in part, to devote more time to his solo performances that Hartshorne made the decision to depart from Apple Hill. "It's been a kind of sideline, rather than a fulltime thing," he says, "but it really is what I should be doing."
That and the Bach, which Hartshorne has only recently begun performing in public, tackling all six suites in a single four-and-a-half hour evening. "The Bach piece has been my life's work," he explains. "For years it was incredibly frustrating—though also fascinating and enthralling—because for years and years and years I couldn't play it the way I wanted to. I know now that it'll never be perfect, but at this time in my life I can finally play the suites and have them come out sort of the way they are in my head.
"I was never sure if that would ever happen, and now that I'm somewhat comfortable with it, I'm content to continue working on it, improving myself as a musician through my relationship with these suites for the rest of my life."