Erik Higgins has a bass in Lincoln, one in Boston, and another in Denmark.
The instruments are scattered across the Northern Hemisphere for a practical reason — “I figured out that if I shipped one a few times, it costs as much as buying a new one,” Higgins said.
But they’re also signposts on a musical journey that has taken Higgins around the world and back to his hometown to create the Lincoln Crossroads Music Festival.
That journey began at Huntington Elementary School more than two decades ago when Higgins chose the instrument that would become his passion and life’s calling.
“I started playing bass in the (Lincoln Public Schools) strings program when I was 10 years old, in the fourth grade,” he said. “I had a little quarter-sized bass that was taller than I was. I didn’t want to wait until fifth grade, which is what you had to do to play a wind instrument ... I didn’t want to play the violin. There were lots of violins, so I played the bass.”
A prodigy on the instrument, Higgins auditioned for the Lincoln Symphony Orchestra at 14, and started playing that fall.
“I think, maybe I was the youngest person ever in the orchestra,” he said.
Discovering early music
After graduating from Lincoln Northeast High School, Higgins went to Indiana University’s School of Music, joining 4,000 music students, including more than 50 bass players. But, again, he found a way to be different by discovering early music.
“It turned out to be the best thing I did in college,” he said. “Playing early music has been a big part of my life ever since, playing on period instruments. That means gut strings that are about the size of your finger.”
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, playing early music provided Higgins with the first link to Crossroads.
As he studied the history of the music — and later played with the Handel & Haydn Society, a group that performs both old and contemporary music — Higgins learned the context of the music’s original performances: dance music and classical compositions that were used as filler during operas.
“That’s opened me up to a lot of different kinds of folk music," he said. "Once you go down the rabbit hole, it really doesn’t end, ever. Very often when you’re trained as a classical musician, the way the educational system is built is for you to get an orchestral job."
On to Germany
After graduating from college, Higgins went to Germany to play a festival and fell in love with the country. He thought he’d go to graduate school there.
But a teacher he’d worked with at the festival told him he should try out for an elite orchestra training academy in Munich, which had room for a bassist. Three days before the audition, he learned he’d have to play a classical concerto and a pair of excerpts.
“I thought I’ll play the Koussevitzky Concerto (for double bass and orchestra), that’s what every bass player in the Midwest in America plays,” he said. “It’s all classical music right? ... They wrote back and said ‘That’s not a classical concerto. The classical concerto has to be one of these three pieces,’ none of which I’d ever heard of before."
He picked the one that looked the easiest. He crammed for it over those three days and did a lot of mental practicing on the plane, en route to the audition, by running through the "licks in my head."
"It took everything I had to keep it together and not fall apart," he said. "They said they were going to give it (the spot) to me. I was kind of surprised. They said my concerto was kind of sloppy but I had a lot of potential.”
At the academy, Higgins took lessons from orchestra musicians, played chamber music with others in the academy and was a part-time member of the orchestra, going on tour to Japan and New York.
A Far Cry
After the academy, he landed a spot in the Hamburg State Opera orchestra, which plays 40-50 productions a year.
”For the newbie, that’s pretty intense," he said. "I’d never heard opera before, ever. You have to realize that every opera is about three hours of music and it is some of the hardest music there is. On some of the scores, from the 1910s, you’d turn the page and it would say, in German, ‘Good luck.'”
After 3½ years with the opera, he moved to Boston to join A Far Cry Chamber Orchestra, a self-administered, non-conducted ensemble that handles all its business, from selecting the music it plays to setting up and promoting the shows.
That’s where Higgins, who was responsible for booking solos, doing contracts and making shows happen, picked up the organizational skills and programming philosophy he’s using to set up the Lincoln festival.
At a Crossroad
“That’s one thing I’d like to do with the festival here in Lincoln, have it be a really, really high-quality project with really fantastic musicians,” he said. “That people will come to it also because it does celebrate the different cultural contributions of people and groups we have in Lincoln, but also because it’s a really high-quality product. It doesn’t have to have the big name to be high-quality.”
It all began when A Far Cry collaborated with the Silk Road Ensemble, a project of acclaimed cellist Yo Yo Ma that brings together folk and classical musicians from around the world and blends styles and genres of music.
As part of that collaboration, Higgins played an improvisational piece based on a Syrian folk song with Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh in what would become a life-changing performance.
“For me, I realized I wanted this to be a bigger part of my life,” he said. “Then I was in Boston and I heard an NPR ‘Marketplace' story about Lincoln, Nebraska. I turned up the radio. It was a story about the Yazidi community in Lincoln. When I tuned in, they were talking about the musicians who play the weddings and social functions.”
Hearing the report, Higgins realized that the barbershop where one of the key musicians worked was just a few blocks from his parents' house. On his next trip to Lincoln, Higgins ventured to the shop, met Hasan Khalil and came back later with his bass and jammed.
“I realized that if there was somebody like Hasan in Lincoln, there had to be others,” said Higgins, who started looking into Lincoln musicians and groups from other cultures to set up the festival.
But that’s getting a little ahead of the story.
Two years ago, Higgins moved to Denmark to be with his wife, Danish flutist Marie Sonderskov, who he met there during a five-week tour with an orchestra.
“We stayed in touch," he said. "Then we were doing long-distance from Boston to Denmark for a while, then to make matters worse, she decided to move to Japan for six months ... . So we decided we were going to get married and wanted to live in the same place."
After getting engaged in Boston, the couple realized there was an 11-month waiting period to process the visa needed for him to move to Denmark and the paperwork couldn't be filed until they were married.
Higgins called Boston City Hall and got an appointment for the marriage ceremony nine days later. But Sonderskov’s visa, which she got for a limited time as a performer, expired before that date. So Higgins had to find a place to get married on the Monday following their Saturday engagement.
Higgins is now associate principal bass of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra in Aarhus, Denmark. He’s in his second year of playing there and is doing the Crossroads festival work outside his orchestra time.
About the festival
The festival is bringing in chamber, symphonic and folk musicians from around the world to perform in conjunction with Lincoln musicians who represent distinct cultures and places.
"I’ve been working for the last year to put it together,” Higgins said. “We bring in people from around the country who can draw the spotlight to this, then we shine it on everybody. So Lincoln can appreciate even more what it has and we can be visible to other people, other communities, around the state, around the country.
“To put them (Lincoln musicians) in the context of this festival, we have this really great music — so people can appreciate it for the treasure it is. You can’t hear it in a lot of places. Like me, growing up in Lincoln, I thought every place is like Lincoln. Everybody knows families from around the world, everybody can just go to a Vietnamese restaurant or to an Ethiopian restaurant. You can’t. That’s really special here. It took me moving away to realize that.”
The festival officially begins Monday with a workshop at The Foundry and opening celebration at Tower Square. The first concert is Tuesday — The Levant (Syria, Iraq, Turkey) program at First-Plymouth Congregational Church. The festival ends Saturday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, with a 7 p.m. “Nordic Lights” concert featuring Sonderskov and the Lincoln flute ensemble Coro di Flauti.
Higgins and Sonderskov will fly back to Denmark a few days later. But he’ll be back again next year, playing the Lincoln-based bass in the festival’s second year, which is already being planned.