By Steven Woodruff
The week before Edgar Meyer arrived at Colburn to prepare for the Chamber Music Society concert, Yo-Yo Ma, Meyer’s collaborator from the Appalachia Waltz and Appalachia Journey albums, was playing on a program at New York City’s club venue, (Le) Poisson Rouge. The club, a martini lounge for the so called better music, is now the go to watering hole for classical music hipsters, especially the experimental music crowd. Ma was there playing back-up cello for the Tennessee street dancer, Lil Buck.
These days, Ma appears less frequently at traditional classical musical venues. In his role as a crossover musician he now describes himself as a “venture culturalist”. The third member of the Appalachia Waltz trio, Mark O’Connor, is busy composing new concertos for the fiddle and refining a handmade, pedagogical approach to violin playing using American music and traditional dance tunes. Meyer is focused on broadening the literature for the bass with new music as well as developing new collaborations with players such as the banjo wonder, Béla Fleck and others. Meyer, Ma, and O’Connor continue to have an important effect on classical music with new compositions and partnerships that both deflect and embrace classical music traditions in unusual ways.
While Meyer is perhaps the best known bass player outside the world of jazz, there have been antecedents for quirky, alternative concert repertory for the instrument. In the early 80’s when I was studying violin at Dartmouth with the Concord String Quartet, I had the opportunity to study at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in Sullivan, New Hampshire. They were a kind of self-contained, year round Music from Marlboro ensemble that operated from an 1800’s hilltop farm house that included a small concert hall in a converted barn. The Apple Hill Chamber Players had a very successful chamber music model mixing piano and strings that also included bassist, Richard “Dobbs” Hartshorne. They regularly played Schubert’s cheerful piano quintet as well as the C Major Quintet, adding bass to replace the second cello part. Hartshorne also played (and beautifully so) the Bach Cello Suites as well as much of Jon Deak’s newly minted chamber music, which included the bass. Hartshorne was something of a genius performing Deak’s Lucy and the Count (a Dracula story), and Lady Chatterly’s Dream, both of which included a kind of theatrical, comic recitation. He has also debuted many of his own compositions as well as works for bass alone by the Los Angeles composer John Steinmetz.
When great bass players are on hand, Schubert’s sunny quintet always comes to mind. So it was hardly an accident that the music for The Colburn Chamber Society Concert on Sunday naturally coalesced around the Trout Quintet. What better way to celebrate a virtuoso bassist in a stronghold of chamber musicians. In fact, the whole second half of the concert referenced that music, opening with the tuneful lieder sung by baritone Hunter Phillips accompanied by pianist Anton Smirnov, moving on to a set of variations composed by Meyer, and concluding with the great quintet itself.
I liked Phillips’ straightforward and unaffected singing. Smirnov played the accompaniment’s decorative motifs beautifully and brought them back with more intensity in the quintet. Meyer’s 1995 work, Variations on Schubert’s Trout Song followed. The instrumentation mirrors that of the quintet, and the variations themselves are often deeply embedded, even disguised. One adopted the trappings of a chorale or plainsong, another was barely audible. Yet another was couched in a bluesy, country vibe. Meyers plays with a laid back, almost improvising style and without sheet music in his own compositions. His writing never really allowed the rest of the ensemble to approach his brand of idiomatic playing. And while the set of variations never felt like a soloist backed by a piano quartet it never really felt like an integrated ensemble of equals either.
The Trout Quintet received a well-mannered, genial performance that steered clear of over wrought playing. Smirnov made the adornments of the 4th movement variations pure and rhythmic. Violinist William Hagen made brilliant sense of those agitated pickups that begin the Scherzo. That movement stood out for its excitement and intensity.
The program began with salon music by Rossini, the D Major Duo for bass and cello. It had the feeling of a pared down Rossini string sonata. There was plenty of adventurous playing both by Meyer and cellist Austin Huntington. Closing the first half of the concert was Meyer’s String Trio #1 for bass, violin and cello (1986). Composed in four movements, the work was moody, spare and tuneful. The first movement was based on a melody introduced by the bass, something like a Scottish air. The second movement made interesting use out of rapid, clustering, scalar passages. The final movement was a fleet toccata with virtuoso effects.
This was the closing concert on the Colburn Chamber Series. I missed a sense of more adventurous programming for this concert. Meyer’s own compositions in the end seemed almost too comfortably bookended by Rossini and Schubert. Save the call of Appalachia and Béla (not Bartok) for another time.