Music Review: Rediscovery is result of bassist’s virtuosity



Rediscovery is result of bassist’s virtuosity

Pam Dixon . 20-Jan-1999 Wednesday

History will make a place for double bassist and composer Edgar Meyer. Although he is a virtuoso, that isn’t why. It’s because he changes the way people think about the instrument.

Meyer has been in San Diego since Sunday as part of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s Discovery Series. Sunday night he played a sold-out concert at Sherwood Auditorium, and yesterday he spent the day in schools across the county as part of an intensive residency program that included a master class filled with more than 20 young bassists from all over San Diego.

Throughout his time here, one thing became clear: Edgar Meyer is a glorious bundle of contradictions, and it is in the tension between Meyer’s opposing forces that everything important about him spins from.

Meyer appeared on the Discovery Series — a space usually reserved for promising new artists — because he was interested in doing residencies, and because the society wanted a Discovery Series headliner.

Although it is unusual to have an established artist of Meyer’s caliber playing on the series, it was a win-win situation, especially for those who made it to Meyer’s Sunday concert. Meyer’s program included a little bit of everything, from Baroque sonatas to Romantic preludes to original works he composed. Those pieces Meyer didn’t compose, he arranged for piano and string bass. Meyer’s skillful, subtle arrangements of complex works by other composers will long stand as gifts to the instrument.

Eccles’ porcelain Sonata in A Minor and Boccherini’s flowing Sonata No. 6 in A Major, provided a set of remarkable audio-visual juxtapositions.

Meyer has the looks of the young Orson Welles. He is reasonably tall, with a thick muscular build and a no-nonsense attitude. With his rolled-up sleeves exposing knotty forearms, he had the presence of a person who could really hammer out the phrases.

Without a shred of printed music, Meyer stood close to his longtime accompanist, pianist Amy Dorfman, and gazed straightforwardly at the audience. He looked like he was ready for action.

But when he began playing, he produced an intricate, immensely delicate ballet. He hovered gently around the bass and whispered out the most fragile imaginable Baroque phrases with a meticulous yet free bow. The deep, rumbly sonority of the bass made the music sound as if were floating above the strings and drifting toward the audience like a breath. As he played legato sections, Meyer slowly rocked and swiveled the bass to subtly enhance phrases. Dorfman uncannily matched him phrase for phrase.

A collection of six Scriabin piano preludes transcribed for bass and piano continued the spell. Scriabin’s transparency remained, but with the haunting addition of deep watercolor sounds from Meyer that evaporated slowly around the edges. Oddly, the timbre of the bass was perfectly suited for Scriabin’s dark translucence. After folksy, meaty romps through transcriptions of Bloch’s “Suite Hebraique: Rhapsodie” and a set of Irish tunes, “McClynn’s Jigs,” Meyer performed two of his own compositions.

The unaccompanied “Amalgamations for Bass” was a sophisticated intersection of styles that sounded as if it could have been a successful collaboration between Jimi Hendrix and Bach. “The Great Green Sea Snake” was a humorous blend of jazz, classical, and folk styles that Dorfman and Meyer played with flawless ensemble.

Meyer closed out the concert with Sarasate’s virtuoso showpiece, “Zigeunerweisen.” It was amazing watching Meyer move around the bass as nimbly as if it were a violin. The brilliant, soft sounds he achieved were unlike anything one would ever expect to hear from a bass.

After the encore, “Smiles and Tears,” a song Meyer composed, more than half the audience flowed onto the stage to talk to him at his invitation.

That’s the difference between being a great player, and being great.