Basses are Aces at the MSO
The sound rose from the dark depths of Edgar Meyer’s double bass Friday, at the outset of Meyer’s Concerto No. 1. Before you knew it, Meyer transofrmed that indistinct groaning into a complicated funk figure that brought Jimi Hendrix to mind.
The concerto, which Meyer played with the Milwaukee Symphony and guest conductor Perry So, displayed his fabulous virtuoso skill and went further. As a composer, Meyer has a particular gift for surprising yet plausible transformation of musical ideas. Just as the introduction morphed into a funk groove, the groove morphed into spiraling, endless melody suggestive of Indian raga. He made the transition so subtle that the second theme arrived, once again, before you knew it. I loved the lazy, meandering reverie of the main theme of the second movement, a ternary form with a bustling, chugging middle section. Meyer’s presto-changeo trick returned in the finale, in which astonishing hoe-down fiddling for bass morphed into astonishing ad-lib melisma for bass.
Of course Meyer played it all with effortless mastery and exquisite taste. Zachary Cohen, the MSO’s young principal bassist, matched him in their remarkable duet with orchestra, Bottesini’s Passione amarosa. Bottesini, the greatest bassist of the 19th century, also conducted and composed operas. Passione amarosa‘s beautiful melodies soar and throb in the way of Italian Romantic opera. The two bassists rendered them with equal measures of ardor and respect, as they they refrained from pushing it into ironic melodrama. The music built across three brief connected movements (fast-slow-fast) over 12 minutes. Its beauty and intensity almost made me forget about the astounding virtuoso challenges in this score — such things as rapid arpeggios that blend harmonics and stopped tones over three positions on the fingerboard. (That’s string-player lingo for yikes!)
I found So’s gestures expressive, clear and loaded with savvy purpose, and his tempos and dynamics apt and well-managed. Solo gestures, prompted by specific gestures from the podium, rose in vivid phrase shapes that fit the moment in all three pieces. (Oboist Stephen Colburn, horn player Krystof Pipal and bassoonist Ted Soluri aced especially numerous and notable solos.) The orchestra played with such balance and rhythmic clarity as to reveal, for example, the subtle plays of duple and triple rhythms and meters in Menuet antique. As an outsider, you can’t always tell whether a conductor helps or hinders an orchestra, but I’m pretty sure that Perry So helped. A lot.
This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25-$95. Map and links here.