Concert, September 25th 2010
Rossini’s Sonata No. 1 in G Major
Bottesini’s Concerto for Double-Bass in b
Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony (arr. Barshai)
Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 in c#
The advertised star of the night, Edgar Meyer, is not just a virtuoso, but the virtuoso with the double-bass. The sounds he draws out of his gargantuan instrument are deep and robust and seem to reverberate inside your body. He performed several solos, including two cadenzas in a Sonata by Bottesini (who, by the way, was the conductor for the première of Verdi’s Aida in 1871; I just watched Aida at AT&T Park the night before this concert).
Meyer also performed part of a Bach cello suite — unmentioned in the programme. I love these suites. I listen to them often, and watch them performed live whenever I can. (Incidentally, two days ago on Thursday I heard a young musician performing one of the suites at a BART station.) Edgar Meyer transcribed the cello suites for the bass, and of the small handful of his albums that I own, it is my favorite. So this casual addition to the programme for me could have been the main event.
Meyer also threw in an encore, a jazzy solo that earned a standing ovation. It was already one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve attended… but the second half of the concert still managed to overshadowed the first completely.
The woman who had announced the entrance of guest artist Edgar Meyer was Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Nadja was famously shunned by the conservative classical music world for her exaggerated and passionate style — and this rejection contributed to significant personal hurdles that were the subject of a biography called Speaking in Strings. Nadja was a fairy-tale character for me, the star of DVDs and amazing albums, a rebellious tragic figure, a passionate performer, the kind of performer I would myself daydream of being. So when I found out it was she, Nadja, who was welcoming Edgar Meyer to the stage … it was as if I found out that the person who had just introduced me to, say, Neil Gaiman was in fact Douglas Adams.
Nadja playing Shostakovich! It was perfect. Her hair flew all over the place. She froze. She cried. Then exploded, her body scrambling to keep pace with her arms and her violin. She slowed again, those long tense dissonant moments. Then she was flying again — bow strings snapped, and she adeptly ripped them out and threw them away during rests. You gotta watch her biography to believe that this isn’t hyperbole.
If I had to choose one form of music that I love most, it would be chamber music, and if I had to choose just one composer, there’s a good chance it’d be Shostakovich. I especially love his quartets. The piece tonight was (paradoxically) entitled ‘Chamber Symphony’, and I had never heard of it. It was only at intermission that I found out that it was an orchestral arrangement of Shosta’s eighth string quartet.
Now this string quartet is real music. It’s not a piece that you’d listen to over dinner. It’s not romantic to make out to. Shostakovich dedicated it to the “victims of fascism and war”. He composed it after visiting Dresden, the site of one of the worst bombings in history. It will grab you and transfix you and leave you shattered.
I finished finally reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five just this past week, so the story and intense images of the bombing of Dresden were quite fresh in my mind as I listened to the Chamber Symphony. Performed by the New Century Chamber Orchestra (who, by the way, were nominated for the Grammy for their recording of this very piece!). And with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg’s insanity. I don’t know if it was better than the original, but it was one hell of a performance.
Then there was the night’s finale, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. I’ll leave it to you to Google if you haven’t heard of Mahler’s Fifth, but it is one of the most successfully ambitious symphonies every composed, and has a huge following and scholarship of its own. While I’m not a big fan of performances of single movement excerpts, in the case of Mahler’s gigantic work it is quite understandable. The performance was being recorded; Nadja asked us all to be as quiet as possible. When you buy the recording, you might be able to hear me whooping / applauding at the end.
It was as if I had myself put together the programme for the concert. Edgar playing Bach, Shosta’s eighth with Nadja, and a live recording of Mahler’s Fifth’s Adagietto. What can I say, besides, of course —