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"Heavy," "ponderous," "lumbering," "non-melodic," "supporting role only...." These are words or phrases that have been used to describe the sound and status of the largest instrument in the string family - the double bass. If anyone believes these reflect inherent limitations of the instrument itself, that could be quickly dispelled by hearing Edgar Meyer, universally acknowledged as perhaps the greatest virtuoso on the instrument of this or any other time. On Saturday, April 24, the NC Symphony presented this phenomenal artist as part of the Great Artist Series (GAS). This was a bittersweet evening as it concluded not only this year's GAS but also the entire series. The expiration of a special grant, rising artist fees and other increased costs have regrettably led the North Carolina Symphony to terminate this very special addition to the usual orchestral offerings. It was fitting that Edgar Meyer, a great artist who has transcended the assumed limitations of his instrument and brought bass playing to another level, was the final performer. In the past three years the GAS has featured some of the top names in classical music, including Eliot Fisk and Michala Petri, who have done for the guitar and the recorder, respectively, what Meyer has done for the bass.
One last comment on this final concert - unfortunately not a positive one. A unique feature of the GAS was exquisite and elegantly-crafted printed programs, but this concert's program was printed on one small, very cheap piece of paper that I felt was somewhat insulting to the stature of the artist. Whatever financial difficulties there may have been, money should have been allocated for a more dignified program.
Meyer and pianist Amy Dorfman came onstage promptly at eight and got right to business. We have all seen composers whose dates may be in question, but apparently no one knows exactly when Henry Eccles came or went. The program listed his dates like this: "(?1675/1685-?1735/45)." Despite its relative simplicity, the opening (adagio) movement the Sonata in A Minor immediately conveyed the greatness of Meyer's playing. There was none of the grainy, heavy sound that even excellent bass players often produce. Meyer's sound was silky and light, with dead-on intonation. He used vibrato very sparingly, even on sustained notes, so when he applied it, the effect was pronounced. The following allegro displayed remarkable dexterity that one wouldn't think possible on the bass. His playing was every bit as fluid and light as a virtuoso violinist, and he made it seem perfectly natural and effortless.
He next played a transcription of J.S. Bach's first Cello Suite. Perhaps because as a cellist I am immersed in learning these great suites, I found this to be the weakest part of the evening's performance. Here, his articulation and phrasing, especially in the well-known prelude, seemed forced and static. The lively courante was an exception; it had a wonderful flow and great energy. This section of the program reinforced something that almost all musicians know: Bach is, at once, the most difficult composer to play well - and the most rewarding.
The next piece was the highlight of the evening - both musically and technically. Meyer transcribed the "Rapsodie" from Ernest Bloch's Suite Hebraique , originally for viola. The instrumental depiction of melismatic vocalizations of cantors is something that you would not identify with a low instrument, but Meyer made it sound as if it had been written for the bass. The challenge in this (and in the other transcriptions) is that going from a violin, viola, or cello piece to bass is not as straightforward as it might seem because the strings of the violin, viola, and cello are tuned in fifths but the bass is tuned in fourths. As a result, Meyer's performance of Fritz Kreisler's "Tambourin Chinois" was truly remarkable.
If the recital had ended at the conclusion of the first half, most people would have gotten the impression that Meyer was somewhat haughty or even contemptuous of the audience. He barely acknowledged the applause, did not crack even the beginning of a smile, and appeared very stern and somber. That all changed in the second half, which consisted entirely of works written by Meyer. He spoke to the audience - for the first time - about his piece "Amalgamations," and he joked about some comments over the years about it. The transformation of his demeanor was quite pronounced. Perhaps he felt that the "classical" portion needed to be serious - no talking allowed! His physical movement was freer, and he seemed to be dancing with the bass at times. The best composition on this part of the program was titled simply "Canon," and it was exactly that. A crisp syncopation and beautiful harmonies gave this work a "gotta hear that one again" air.
Throughout the evening, the pianist was the epitome of support and understatement. Since the bass cannot cut through like a violin, she barely got to a mezzo forte level and stayed at piano most of the time. They obviously worked well together, as they have done for twenty years.
The evening closed with a set of six Irish jigs. Meyer has increasingly become known for these in his collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Mark O'Connor and on several Grammy-winning recordings. The audience was unsuccessful in coaxing Meyer back for an encore, but I think it safe to say that those present will never view the bass the same way again.