Richardson — Imagination, impeccable compositional craftsmanship, intense intellectual content, and a whimsical, sophisticated sense of humor are elements we’ve come to expect in the music of Dallas-based composer Robert Xavier Rodriguez. On Feb. 8 at the University of Texas at Dallas, where Rodriguez is a member of the faculty, his most recent work, Romance with a Double Bass for double bass, piano, and narrator proved a remarkable and unique extension of Rodriguez’s canon.
Romance with a Double Bass draws on the tradition of the melodrama genre, which features a spoken narration with musical accompaniment. The most well-known example of that genre is Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf for speaker and orchestra; Rodriguez continues that tradition here with a smaller instrumental ensemble of double bass and piano, but with the same aura of pungent humor and pictorial representation.
Based on Anton Chekhov’s story “Romance with a Double Bass,” the work delivers an outwardly peasant-style (and clearly peasant-influenced) narrative of a double bass player who loses his bass and his clothes in a misguided attempt to please and rescue a beautiful young woman—who, of course, turns out to be a princess (there are several film adaptations of the story, including this one and this one). Unfortunately, it all turns out badly for the bass player, who is destined to perpetually wander, naked, in search of his bass and his clothes. Beneath the outrageous joke, Chekhov—and, by extension, Rodriguez—create a parable of the plight of the artist in an unfair world.
As in all of his works, lyricism abounds in Rodriguez’s score; here, he indulges in comical sound effects tempered with a skillful, subtle counterpoint reminiscent of Shostakovich. Rodriguez’s innate command of instrumental color is also evident throughout, particularly in the piano part, with its gorgeous sonorities, but also in the wonderful blending of the timbres of piano and double bass, encapsulated in the final seconds, with its leap from resonant high registers of both instruments to a tragi-comic explosion in the low registers.
Double bassist Gary Karr, one of the greatest double bassists of the 20th century, who officially retired in 2001, commissioned the work for his protégé Daniel Nix. Nix was joined in the performance by Russian-born pianist Mikhail Berestnev and narrator Mary-Margaret Pyeatt. Nix and Berestnev responded beautifully to the humor and virtuosity of the score, with Nix demonstrating that, yes, the double bass can indeed sing and cavort with all the passion and flexibility of its smaller cousins in the string family. Pyeatt, using a pseudo-Russian accent as specified (somewhat like Natasha of Bullwinkle fame), presented the narration with appropriate exaggeration and wide-eyed drama. Composer Rodriguez was present to accept the enthusiastic audience acclaim for the work.
Although bassist Karr stood backstage for the performance, he was onstage for the rest of the concert, giving the packed house at Jonsson Performance Hall a taste of the musicality and virtuosity with which he regaled audiences for four decades. He and longtime collaborator, pianist Harmon Lewis, opened with a Rodriguez’s “Lull-a-Bear,” another example of Rodriguez’s ability to combine beauty and humor in music, and a great opportunity for Karr to demonstrate the ability of the double bass to “sing.” Rodriguez composed “Lull-a-Bear” as part of a larger suite for double bass, Ursa, premiered by Karr in 1990.
Harmon and Karr followed up with Grieg’s Sonata in A minor, originally for piano and cello, but here made very much the property of the double bass, with Karr demonstrating mastery of the folk-like energy and the high romantic emotions of the piece. They followed with another borrowed item from the cello repertoire, Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong, with the deep sonorities of the double bass enriching this music. Harmon and Karr borrowed Paganini’s Variations for the G-String from the violin repertoire, this time proving that the double bass can, in capable hands, do anything the violin can, and with different but equal beauty of tone.
Immediately after intermission, Nix joined Karr and Lewis for the succinct baroque nobility of a Sonata in G minor, traditionally attributed (though probably not actually by) Handel; whoever wrote it provided a work which transcribes nicely for two great double bassists.
The premiere of the Romance followed, after which the concert officially closed with Nix, Karr, and Lewis joining for the Passione Amorosa, a delightfully schmaltzy showpiece by 19th-century double bass virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini. An arrangement for two double basses of the “Spring Song” from Schumann’s Album for the Young provided a touch of gentle lyricism for encore number one, followed by the madcap, sometimes humorous virtuosity of 19th-century Franco-Dutch composer Daniel van Goens’ Scherzo for cello and piano, here arranged for two double basses and piano.
The remarkable evening provided a rare performance by Karr, the man who invented the concept of the double bass as a solo concert instrument, and for the premiere of yet another remarkable work by Texas’ greatest native-born composer.