The Legacy of Joseph Guastafeste: Longtime Principal Bassist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Joseph Guastafeste, the esteemed principal bassist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 49 years, passed away at the age of 93. Known for his exceptional talent and musical personality, Guastafeste's legacy as a revered musician and mentor will forever resonate in the world of classical music.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

photo credit: Robert M. Lightfoot III

Joseph Guastafeste, the esteemed principal double bassist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for an impressive 49-year tenure until his retirement in 2010, passed away on Friday, September 22, 2023, following a courageous battle with cancer. He was a remarkable musician whose legacy will forever resonate in the world of classical music.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Joe’s musical journey began on the violin before he discovered his true passion for the double bass at the age of 15. He honed his skills at Juilliard under the guidance of Fred Zimmerman and made his professional debut with the New Orleans Symphony at just 19 years old. Joe’s exceptional talent and dedication to his craft led him to secure the principal bass position with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1950.

In a serendipitous turn of events, Joe’s path crossed with conductor Walter Hendl, who was instrumental in recommending him to CSO music director Fritz Reiner when Hendl assumed the role of associate conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1958. This pivotal recommendation ultimately led to Joe’s appointment as the principal bassist of the CSO in 1961.

Throughout his illustrious career, he collaborated with esteemed music directors such as Jean Martinon, Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, and Ricardo Muti, leaving an indelible mark on the orchestra’s rich history.Joe’s musical prowess extended beyond his orchestral duties. He was an active recitalist and chamber musician, captivating audiences with his expressive performances.

Additionally, he generously shared his knowledge and expertise as a faculty member at Northwestern University, where he inspired and mentored aspiring musicians. Joe’s dedication to nurturing young talent extended to his role as a sectional rehearsal coach for the bass section of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Civic Orchestra of Chicago bass section, circa 1999 (DBHQ co-founder Jason Heath is second from right!)

A respected figure in the bass community, Joe was a longtime member of the International Society of Bassists and was sought after as a presenter at its conventions. He also conducted masterclasses worldwide, empowering countless students who now hold prominent positions in renowned orchestras and esteemed university faculties.

Joe with Northwestern University double bass students after a 2008 master class

Joe’s retirement from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra marked the end of an era, prompting heartfelt reflections from his former student and friend, Larry Gray. Larry, a renowned professor of jazz performance, double bass, and guitar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described Joe as a unique double bassist with an imposing presence and a distinct musical personality. Joe’s unmistakable sound became synonymous with the orchestra’s identity, leaving an enduring imprint throughout his many years of service. Larry expressed deep gratitude for Joe’s mentorship and friendship, highlighting his unwavering commitment to musical discovery and his profound impact on Larry’s own artistic journey.

Following his retirement, Joe found solace in Minnesota, where he channeled his creativity into a unique project called “Basshenge.”

Inspired by the iconic Stonehenge, Joe created a mesmerizing garden in Birchdale, Minnesota, adorned with larger-than-life metal sculptures of basses. This beautiful tribute to music stands as a testament to Joe’s unwavering passion and his enduring love for the instrument that defined his life.

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