Monday, December 2, 2019

Rollicking Bottesini from SFS Bass Players

Giovanni Bottesini with his favorite double bass made by Carlo Antonio Testore in 1716 (photo taken around 1865, photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

There was considerable diversity in yesterday afternoon’s Chamber Music Series concert presented by the members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). However, the offering that stood out among the four compositions that were performed had to be the piece by Giovanni Bottesini listed on Wikipedia as his “Gran Duo Concertante,” which is basically a concerto in A major for two double bases. In his day (his professional life basically began in 1839 and continued through his death in 1889) he was promoted as “the Paganini of the Double Bass.” For my own money, he brought much more rhetorical richness to his compositions than Niccolò Paganini ever did and realized that richness though a much more challenging instrument! He also was never shy about exercising his sense of humor. Gary Karr was responsible for my first encounter with Bottesini’s music, and the very prospect of an opportunity to listen to any of those compositions triggers that same salivation that Ivan Pavlov utilized as scientific evidence.

The “Gran Duo Concertante” has three separate entries in the Wikipedia list of Bottesini’s compositions. The one performed yesterday was the one listed as “Concerto a Due Contrabbassi No. 1,” scored for two basses and orchestra or piano. Jeffrey LaDeur provided piano accompaniment for Scott Pingel and Daniel G. Smith. This version was arranged and edited by Homer Mensch; but the spirit of Bottesini is never compromised, nor is his sense of humor. The piece is structured as a single movement with four sections, each designated by its own tempo marking.

The overall rhetoric is one of a raucous competition based on an unrelenting salvo of virtuosic turns of phrase. The ripieno scoring played by the piano is simply there to let both of the soloists catch their respective breaths before launching into the next pissing contest. Fortunately, both Pingel and Smith saw the humor of this whole affair and never stinted on the gusto that carried this concerto from one tour de force to another. Nevertheless, there were also some thoroughly heavenly moments when the two of them indulged in a few exquisite parallel harmonies. This was definitely a chamber music experience that will remain securely lodged in memory for quite some time.

Equally memorable, but entirely different in just about every way, was the opening selection that preceded Bottesini’s fireworks. This was Maurice Ravel’s sonata for violin and cello, composed between 1920 and 1922 and performed yesterday by Dan Carlson and Amos Yang, respectively. World War I had taken a serious toll on Ravel’s physical and mental well-being. 1920 was the year in which he composed “La valse,” which can easily be interpreted as musical depiction of shell shock (now known with greater clinical formality of post-traumatic stress disorder). The duo sonata provides one of the earliest signs of Ravel recovering his mental well-being.

One is readily struck by the abundance and intensity of the technical and rhetorical demands imposed on both players. However, what emerges from the best of performances is the ongoing sense of intimate exchange and the way in which call-and-response works its way into homophonic agreement. Carlson and Yang clearly had a shared view of just what those rhetorical demands were. Their ability to realize responses to those demands just made their agility in managing all of the technical nuts-and-bolts all the more impressive. Most importantly, however, from an “autobiographical” perspective were the signs that Ravel was recovering his own characteristic sense of Gallic wit and enjoying, once again, the liberty to express that wit.

The second half of the program was a venture into far less familiar territory. The two compositions both involved trios with piano accompanying less-familiar instrumental pairings. In Charles Martin Loeffler’s pair of rhapsodies, the instruments were oboe (James Button) and viola (Jonathan Vinocour), with Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano. In Robert Muczynski’s “Fantasy” trio, they were clarinet (Jerome Simas) and cello (David Goldblatt), with Marc Shapiro on piano. In terms of the layout of orchestral scores when compared with choral scores, one might say that Loeffler’s trio was for “alto” instruments, while Muczynski’s was for “tenors.” Nevertheless, in both cases, all instruments explored the full breadth of pitch ranges and the changes in sonority that emerge in different registers.

While such “physical properties” offered much to engage the attentive listener, neither composer displayed the broad scope of rhetoric that had made the first half of the program so compelling. Both pieces felt like “novelty” offerings, exploring different ways to combine sonorities. However, such combinations came across as the only priority with little sense of what the performers were intended to express through those diverse sonorities. Placed “on the drawing board” these compositions probably have much to teach about instrumentation techniques; but their impact in the concert hall never seemed to be captured by yesterday’s performances.

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