Monday, January 19, 2009

Meyer and Oregon Symphony deliver thrilling concert

Double bass virtuoso and composer Edgar Meyer put on a dazzling display of his talent in a concert with the Oregon Symphony on Saturday evening. Meyer, who is well-known in Portland through his appearances at concerts presented by Chamber Music Northwest, created some pure musical poetry with the orchestra while playing Giovanni Bottesini’s Concerto No. 2 and his own Double Bass Concerto No. 1. But even though Meyer’s breathtaking musicianship was a highlight, the orchestra was equally impressive with a magical performance of Charles Ives’ “Central Park in the Dark” and a captivating interpretation of Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6.

Tilting the bass towards himself so that he could reach to the lowest part of the strings, Meyer used nimble dexterity to coax an astonishing variety of sounds from the Bottesini piece. Meyer’s pinpoint accuracy over a six-octave range during the cadenzas delivered soft, velvety tones, high notes that whistled crystal clear, and basso profundo ones that rumbled into the darkness of the hall. Mesmerizing also were the sudden stops and starts, lilting passages and speed-demon episodes that caused the audience to break into applause after the first movement, and erupt with applause at the very end of the piece.

Meyer’s First Double Bass Concerto with its bluesy, bluegrass feel was a wonderful contrast to the Bottesini. I enjoyed how his wandering bass line in the first movement was punctuated by commentary initially from the lower strings and then by other members of the orchestra. The pizzicato strings. juxtaposed with the languid solo bass in second movement, created a contemplative, almost melancholy atmosphere. The third movement danced with barnyardy, bluegrassy spontaneity that made me tap my feet (discreetly) and wrapped up the piece with zest.

The concert opened with Ives’ “Central Park in the Dark,” a moody and slow moving number that gave us a glimpse of Manhattan in the evening sometime in the 1890s. The strings created a mysterious fog of tone, while clarinetist Todd Kuhns and other members of the woodwind section would place a smooth, gentle tone on top and then disappear. Later, the piano, percussion, brass, and clarinet would briefly interrupt the fog with ragtime-like ramblings – as if from a neighborhood bar. Overall, the orchestra did create a sense of the world in which Ives lived, and it’s still remarkably close to what we can experience today.

After intermission, the orchestra gave an outstanding performance of Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony. This under-appreciated work contained all sorts of interesting themes and sonorities that the orchestra, under the masterful baton of Carlos Kalmar, played fearlessly with conviction. Highlights included the tempestuous ending of the first movement (which resulted in scattered applause from the audience), the noble theme in the second movement, the rustic Czech dances in the third, and the intoxicating, fast fugue in the fourth.

The orchestra deserves the highest marks for this performance, and it would be difficult to single out anyone, but I really liked the way that principal bassoonist Carin Miller and principal oboist Martin Hebert played together as well as how principal flutist David Buck and assistant principal flutist Alicia DiDonato Paulsen played like a matched pair.

As an additional, welcomed surprise, Meyer played with the bass section and that seemed to make the music even better. I really liked Meyer’s congeniality and how he shook hands with all of the basses after the piece was over. What a grand thing!

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