Bassist Edgar Meyer to “Double” up with Joshua Bell at Festival Miami
For the double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, the challenges begin with just getting to the concert.
His bulky traveling companion, hand-carved in 1769 by the Florentine instrument maker Giovanni Battista Gabrielli, takes up two seats in first class and three in coach. His travel agent knows which aircraft models can accommodate him.
“I can only fly on a limited number of flights,” said Meyer, who will perform Oct. 4 in the opening classical event of Festival Miami, the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s month-long series of classical, jazz and Latin concerts. “I often have to make a drive when other people take a commuter flight. Different airlines have different regulations.”
The challenges continue. As a bass virtuoso, he lacks the repertoire of well-known masterworks enjoyed by violinists, pianists and cellists. The instrument itself is a difficult one, its size making it harder to execute passages tossed off by performers on the smaller string instruments. And concertgoers who could name a dozen piano virtuosi would be at a loss to name a single one on the double bass.
Yet Meyer has built an impressive career on the instrument. His recitals and performances have generated glowing reviews. His vast range of recordings, which encompass classical, folk and jazz, have won Grammys, and in 2002 his efforts resulted in a MacArthur “Genius” Award.
His compositions have been performed by some of the world’s great soloists and ensembles. His collaboration with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Mark O’Connor on the album “Appalachia Waltz”yielded an appearance on the David Letterman Show.
At Festival Miami, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season, Meyer will perform the Florida premiere of his own Double Concerto for Violin, Double Bass and Orchestra with the renowned American virtuoso Joshua Bell.
Like the viola, the oboe and many other instruments that make the symphony orchestra an incomparable vehicle for musical expression, the double bass has a pretty slender solo repertoire. There have been bass virtuosi—Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini in the 18th and 19th centuries, Serge Koussevitzky and Gary Karr in the 20th century—masters who played recitals, performed concertos, composed or commissioned solo works and advanced the technique of the instrument.
And in the orchestra, the instrument has its moments to shine, in the rollicking sextuplets of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, in the eerie, minor-key version of the song we know as Frère Jacques in Mahler’s First Symphony.
But in general, the instrument labors in the back of the musical hall, providing the deep, thumping, rumbling, throbbing tones that give the orchestra so much of its weight.
Unaware of what he was getting into, Meyer started studying this bulky, problematic instrument at the age of 5. He took his first lessons from his father, a bassist and public school orchestra teacher in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a city founded during World War II to produce materials for the first atomic bombs. He took to the instrument immediately.
“My bond with it began so early that by the time I realized that this was not a standard choice, it really was my voice, and I wasn’t going to cut the vocal cords,” said Meyer, now 52. “It’s a connection made so young that I can’t imagine another life. I love to dabble in other instruments but the bass is simply what I know.”
While the disadvantages of the instrument soon became apparent, he gradually became aware of ways in which the double bass offers opportunities for forms of expression that aren’t available to more familiar instruments, like the violin. The greater effort required to play melodies and passages—how you can hear and feel the distance the performer is going up the fingerboard—gives the instrument a greater expressive quality in some respects than other instruments.
“It’s a unique voice,” he said. “The big long bass string is like a big long vocal cord. The higher tension and even just the effort that it takes to play it can give it a certain expressive quality or lyricism, where the violin can sound glib.”
And unlike more classically oriented instruments, the bass is a true citizen of the world, equally at home in classical, jazz, bluegrass and other genres. Meyer has performed and recorded with prominent jazz and bluegrass musicians, without a trace of the sense of musical slumming that attends similar efforts by other classical artists.
The bass’s prominence in other musical genres has allowed Meyer to work such materials in a natural manner into his own compositions, which include two double bass concertos, double concertos for bass and violin or cello and many other works. While his principal motivation in composing was simply to compose, his focus on an instrument that lacks a huge body of masterworks has bulked up his own repertoire and provided other bassists with more choices.
“There’s a substantial void and it does give me something to play, gives me a chance to interact with a lot of wonderful musicians,” he said. “The bass has a serious need because we don’t have 27 Mozart concertos to rest on. And also you know, we don’t have the responsibility either. It’s a blank canvas.”
In a way that has forced Meyer to become a successor to the great piano and violin virtuosi of the 18th and 19th centuries, when performers were expected largely to play their own works, and if this yielded a lot of music that was flashy and trashy, it gave their performances a greater sense of personality, risk and excitement.
“It used to be common that composers performed their own music, and that’s the way a lot of the great composers that we think of from the past did that,” said Tom Knific, a classical and jazz bassist and composer who teaches at Western Michigan University, where Meyer will present a recital and master class in September.
“It’s not so common any more. And the fact that he’s doing that, I think, is part of the whole Renaissance ideal of the musician. He’ll compose across borders and then perform, completely credibly, at the highest level of the instrument in European classical music style.”
For Meyer’s Double Concerto, which will be heard at the University of Miami, he worked with Joshua Bell, one of our era’s most sought-after violin soloists, with whom he has been friends and musical partners for years. The collaboration began, as so many things do these days, with an email. “I asked if he wanted to do a double concerto with me,” Meyer said, “and he said yes.”
Reviews of the Double Concerto have been mixed. The work was panned by the Boston Globe on its 2012 Tanglewood world premiere with the Boston Symphony, with the paper’s Jeremy Eichler calling it an “extremely thin” work consisting of “folk-flavored noodling and detached riffs for Bell” with a distant, modest accompaniment on the bass.
Writing for The Classical Review, Andrew L. Pincus was more positive, writing that “the concerto is cast in a lyrical, basically tonal style that seems a throwback to the neo-romantic modernism of Samuel Barber.” And, in a review of a performance a week later at the Hollywood Bowl, Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, wrote that the Double Concerto offered “engaging melodic figures” and an “impressively seamless mix of bluegrassy funk and funk Indian rhythms.”
Bell believes that Meyer possesses a real understanding of the violin’s capabilities. “He loves the violin as an instrument, and he likes to use the instrument’s singing qualities,” said the violinist.
“In the part he does allow me to sing with the instrument. One of the things I like about Edgar is that he’s not afraid to write tunes and write, you know, beautiful music. The slow movement in this piece is haunting and absolutely gorgeous without being trite, which is so difficult for a composer to do these days.”
Composing music for the violin came naturally to Meyer. Despite his involvement with the double bass, the violin played a big role in the development of his musical tastes from his early years, when his father would play recordings of the great violin concertos.
“He really loved the Beethoven and the Bach and Brahms violin concertos and had Heifetz and Oistrakh playing these things on Sunday mornings,” Meyer said. “There was a reverence that he had for that particular music that just kind of made it a little more central in my own subconscious. And I’ve had a kind of excitement of string concertos, an almost irrational one given the practicalities, but I love working with Josh and those two things just kind of meshed.”
Edgar Meyer and Joshua Bell perform Meyer’s Double Concerto 8 p.m. Oct. 4 with the Frost Symphony Orchestra and conductor Thomas Sleeper at Gusman Concert Hall. The concert will also include Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and the world premiere of a concert march by Joel McNeely. festivalmiami.com, 305-284-4940
Aaron Keebaugh contributed to this story.
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Wed Sep 25, 2013
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