Concert Review: Edgar Meyer & the MSO

Out of the thousands of people in attendance at the MSO concert last night, I bet I was just about the only person who knew of Edgar Meyer by accident. He has spent the last twenty years performing in Nashville of all places, which is an unusual career location for a classical musician. Trouble is, the double bass is a remarkably obscure instrument, and Meyer found his place amongst a group of progressive bluegrass virtuosi.

In the late 80s, back before the extreme take-over of pop country that would follow some ten years later, the hottest studio musicians in Nashville were also famous performers in their own right. Violin extraordinaire Mark O'Connor had a solo album of traditional instrumentals, Béla Fleck had a music video, and Sam Bush's mandolin style was so distinctive that his session schedule was booked straight for over two years. Edgar Meyer joined with these three men and a dobro player named Jerry Douglas to form a bluegrass super group called Strength in Numbers. They only released one album - a live concert recording called The Telluride Sessions, which also spawned a corresponding TV special.

So... I did not realize any of this until reading through the program notes to last night's concert, some twenty minutes before Meyer took the stage. Looking over the list of performers he has worked with in years past, the names O'Connor, Fleck and Bush popped up, as well as the fact that Meyer worked with a Nashville Symphony Orchestra percussionist to write his second concerto. Nashville... those performers. Duh!

And when he performed his Concerto for Double Bass No. 2, I heard "Blue Men of the Sahara" in nearly every note (try the link and turn it up - it's only thirty seconds long but gives me goose bumps every time). His concerto rang loud with a similar parade of blue notes and North African rhythms. For the piece, that same collaborating Nashville percussionist played an instrument dubbed simply "The PVC," a mounted collection of 70+ PVC pipes of varied lengths and diameters. Glad we live in Madison, home of a free-thinking sensibility that borders on compulsive, because I cannot image that contraption being played at many other musical establishments. In fact, his concerto has only been performed on two other occasions.

From my vantage - I kid you not, I was only about eight feet from the conductor's platform - I saw and heard everything in crystal clear detail. Meyer, with his beefy, working-man's hands, pulled his audience along series after series of incredible, skillful displays, dazzling the crowd with a truly amazing performance. The front few rows, however, got a few chuckles, too, when Meyer - in all of his happy exuberance - hummed along rather loudly with the most energetic passages. He and the conductor, John DeMain, were in playful moods, and the entire orchestra seemed as enthralled as the audience when Meyer performed his solos. At the conclusion of his portion of the show, he received a standing ovation, and the most enthusiastic applause came from the back of the orchestra where the four bass players cheered like mad. Their hero.

As for the rest of the show - hello, Beethoven!! I loved the performance of his Symphony No. 8, all the more so because I have been studying it (particularly its humor and innovations) this week. DeMain has now conducted all nine of Beethoven's symphonies for the MSO, which is a testament to both his successful tenure and ole' Ludwig's lasting influence. Overall, I had an excellent evening of really diverse concert music, surpassed expectations, and a surprising amount of laughter.

Notes on being SO VERY CLOSE:
Violas: I didn't ever realize their purpose or the extent of their influence of the sound of an orchestra. That sounds terrible, and I knew in theory that violas lend richness and harmony to the violins, but from the nose-bleeds, that subtlety is difficult to suss out. I just couldn't keep my ears off of them last night, being that I sat directly in front of the first chair violist.

Performers: How is it that ten people playing the same instrument can all look so completely different while performing? The violists did not display such a range, but some of the violin players rocked out while others may as well have been statues except for the very tips of their fingers. The difference amuszed me, particularly during the Liszt piece, which I had never heard before. My interest in the music lost out to my fascination with sitting so near the stage.

Shoes: Diverse. And some performers tap their toes.

DeMain: Dude! He must have a master dry cleaner press his tux. Immaculate! And I adore him. He just seems to LOVE the fact that he gets to conduct for a living, and he is not at all stiff. He smiles. He laughs with the performers. Great guy.

Conducting in general: From the nose-bleeds, where the image of what is happening on stage reaches the eye before music reaches the ear, the role of the conductor has always puzzled me. I mean, I know what he's there to do, but I never could make out the details. DeMain's arm movements in no way corresponded with the music that reached me a split second later. Last night, however, I found myself hypnotized by the subtle, commanding direction of his role. Slight hand gestures, a glance, a little nod - all served to hold that diverse bunch of musicians together. Amazing, really, to see him in action at that range.

Seats: I couldn't even see where I normally sit for the operas. It was like looking up the sheer face of a mountain. One person in front of me looked around and asked why people in the upper seats never move around during intermission. His companion said it's because they do not have enough room. It's true! People on the ground level got up, used the toilet, talked with musicians they knew on stage, and generally mingled. In the upper reaches of the very steep balcony rows, no one dares move for fear of a tumbling vertigo or being unable to return to their seat in time. I'll be back in the nose-bleeds for the opera we see next month, but at least with the symphony, I get to hang out with the snobs.


Mircalla said...

This (entertaining) review inspired me to recommnend you a novel you may be interested in: The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, who is Austrian and arguably the greatest writer of German literature.


Mircalla said...

(BTW, I know that V for Vendetta is rubbish... look forward to hearing what you think about it.)

Diva Kitty's Mom said...

Edgar Meyer is one of my favorites!