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Mar 15, 2009 - Double bassist Edgar Meyer and his brilliant double duty with the Reno Chamber Orchestra
By Jack Neal
Getting the biggest bang for its buck seemed to be what the Reno Chamber Orchestra was up to last night (3-14-09), when guest artist double bassist Edgar Meyer did double duty playing two concerti rather than just one. As stimulus packages go, it was impressive. As debuts go, it was brilliant.
Meyer’s exceptional reputation obviously preceded him. Reno’s Nightingale Concert Hall was within one or two seats of being sold out. It was a love-in – waves of applause and bravos - not experienced with such intense passion since the flower-child era of the 1960s.
Meyer played two concerti; one by 18th century composer Giovanni Bottesini, his second, and one by himself, his first. It was an evening of high anticipation for bass fiddle fans and Meyer did not disappoint. His classical credentials are beyond dispute. He has a souvenir case loaded with Grammys. He’s recorded everything from Bach to bluegrass. He works with the best – violinist Joshua Bell, the Emerson Quartet and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to name-drop but a few. In 2002 he was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant.
Born in Nashville, Meyer has been playing bluegrass and classical music all his life. He was born to be a crossover artist and he’s one of the best. Bottesini was a superb double bassist who wrote beautiful solo works for himself. Certainly Meyer is a worthy recipient of Bottesini’s reputation for double bass artistry.
The Bottesini is, fairly much, a page out of the Rossini songbook. Lovely florid writing best described as coloratura for the double bass. Coloratura is not often associated with the double bass. But Meyer is so adept, his playing so facile, his technique so impeccable it’s hard to image what he’s playing is the great big bass of the orchestra. It was a dazzling presentation and a dazzling collaboration with the orchestra, which matched wits with Meyer gracefully.
Meyer’s own concerto is as eclectic as its composer. There’s a touch of bluegrass that creeps in at the outset and remains as an overlay of color on what is mostly a classical concert-hall piece. Forgive the comparison, but the glissando in the concerto’s first moments was mildly reminiscent of the clarinet glissando George Gershwin used to set his Rhapsody in Blue in perpetual jazz motion (visions of Paul Whiteman conducting, with George Gershwin at the piano). But enough of comparing a piece that is itself incomparable. Meyer’s concerto is a wonderful piece of music, a wizardly showcase for the double bass, and something so magnetically entertaining it’s irresistible. To say that the Edgar Meyer debut in Reno was a triumph is a gross understatement.
The orchestra opened the concert with Stravinsky’s Concerto in D Major for String Orchestra. My first experience with this wonderfully expressive piece was with the New York City Ballet in the late 1950s (the Jerome Robbins’ ballet, “The Cage”). Its performance by the Reno Chamber Orchestra is the only major disappointment of the current season. In spite of some very nice solo work by violinists Ruth Lenz and Carole Laube and violist Dustin Budish, neither conductor Theodore Kuchar nor the orchestra had anything close to the assurance needed to make this provocative score work. And when this kind of Stravinsky doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.
Redemption is often just around the corner and so it was for both conductor and orchestra as they sailed gloriously through Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, the “Prague.” The performance bristled with rhythmic energy. Mozart’s superb melodic counterpoint was transported from stage to ear with the radiant transparence of absolute clarity. The “Prague” was an animated affair of the heart that won’t soon be forgotten.
The concert will be repeated Sunday (3-15-09) at 2 p.m.
All Reno Chamber Orchestra subscription concerts are played at Nightingale Concert Hall, 1664 North Virginia Street, Reno, Nevada. The orchestra’s last series of subscription concerts for the current season, April 4 and 5 (2009), will feature the music of Mendelssohn (Ruy Blas Overture), Robert Schumann (“Spring” Symphony) and Wieniawski (Violin Concerto No. 2). With violinist Christopher Lin-Brande and conductor Theodore Kuchar. For information call 775-348-9413.
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