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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Bass hit
Edgar Meyer makes an ungainly instrument sing
Meyer: Gee-whiz fireworks.
Meyer: Gee-whiz fireworks.

For last weekend's concerts at Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra welcomed a virtuoso on an unusual solo instrument: Edgar Meyer, surely today's leading exponent of the double bass. He demonstrated his right to that status in playing the "Concerto No. 2 in B minor" by Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), a versatile musician who made a stir in his time by demonstrating the solo possibilities of his ungainly instrument. In fact, that instrument's range is very wide. Meyer can draw from it sounds one might expect from a cello, with a mellow richness and deftness of control. Using his own cadenzas, he reveled in displays of technique and tone color.

In generations past virtuoso perfor­mers routinely composed their own display vehicles, but such double operation is less successful these days. Meyer himself has been an active composer, mainly of concerted works - for violin and cello as well as double bass. His style is amiably eclectic, showing influences of American classical, pop, folk and jazz idioms. He avoids tempo designations, giving his movements just numbers and metronome markings. He often gives lovely sounds to the orchestra, but its role is mostly limited to brief demarcations of solo episodes. His ideas are essentially rhythmic rather than lyric, offering infinite chances for virtuosic solo riffs, in alternation with sorrowful moans.

Such was the character of his "Concerto No. 2 in B." In its newly revised form, this work is even more spare than his First Concerto. The audience loved all the gee-whiz fireworks of his playing. Adding spice was the use of an array of 73 tuned white tubes, a gizmo invented and played by guest percussionist Sam Bacco. Its bongo-like bops punctuated the piece, often in duets with Meyer. (But will its fundamental involvement be a deterrent to this work's wide acceptance?) In all, there was little in the way of substance to hang onto.

Meyer's appearances were framed by two old favorites. The opener was Liszt's "Les Préludes," and the closer was Beethoven's "Symphony No. 8 in F." Having so little to do in the two concertos (indeed, there were too many players in the light string-orchestra accompaniment to the Bottesini), conductor John DeMain and the MSO reveled in frankly, gloriously big-orchestra sound. But the Liszt was also given a tautly calculated rendition, allowing unusual clarity of part writing, while Beethoven's constant rhythmic trickery was never allowed to trump lyric flow when appropriate.

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