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Bass Instincts

STRANGE, THESE CONFLUENCES. LAST week was the time of the double bass: Italy's Stefano Scodanibbio, with Terry Riley, in an off-the-wall Monday Evening Concert at the County Museum; the multiphased Edgar Meyer in a new concerto of his own fashioning with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra a few days later. Add to this the hilarious, unexpected double-bass solo called for midway in the Haydn symphony the Philharmonic had performed the week before -- a bull fiddle in a china shop if ever one was -- and you have what might be called some remarkable hijinks in the lower depths.

Almost nobody had heard of Scodanibbio when he first turned up at the County Museum a decade or so ago, and so almost nobody came; a concert of nothing but new music for solo double bass does not automatically make for audience bait. Credit LACMA's Dorrance Stalvey, then and ever since, for his bravado in concert planning in the face of near-zero budgets. Word got around; audiences grew. Scodanibbio was amazing then: an unbridled soul creating a huge range of possible music out of this most unwieldy instrument, and then wandering delightedly among those possibilities to create music fluent and astonishingly varied. I remember a solo concert I helped produce for him in 1993, in the big room at the Ace Gallery that reverberates like the space at Notre Dame; if you weren't actually in the room you'd swear you were surrounded by half a dozen symphony orchestras in full array. Now that he is established as a major member of the innovative community, with recordings on the adventurous New Albion label, his spell is widely cast, and people come.

Scodanibbio is not, however, merely a fashioner of trick sounds. At last week's concert he contributed a spellbinding partnership to Riley's somewhat less awesome improvisation on synthesizer in a work called Orfeo; stopped the crowd's breathing once again with Tritono, a passionate solo; and then, best of all, used the strings of his instrument as a sinuous, throbbing tabla to Riley's hypnotic singing and droning tampura in a night raga that nobody wanted to stop. There were problems; it took the museum's sound engineer most of the evening to master the subtle balances in this fragile, powerful music. The Orfeo had been worked out in an intricate tuning system, with the synthesizer matched to the complex of overtones from each of the bass' strings; so far so good. What came off the stage, however, was less of that subtlety and more the impression of an unequal matchup between the heroic virtuosity of Scodanibbio's live performance and the relative ease -- and, therefore, seeming triviality -- in the similar sounds out of Riley's synthesizer. I kept thinking Music Minus One. With all these problems, it was still a one-of-a-kind concert, and it drew the right-size crowd.

YOU MIGHT THINK OF EDGAR MEYER AS A two-of-a-kind musician: involved with the small but sturdy "serious" repertory for his instrument as resident bassist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; looser-hanging free soul and crossover hero in such ventures as his Grammy-honored Appalachia Waltz collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O'Connor -- which, I am driven to confess, I have mostly managed to avoid so far and plan to keep on trying. His 20-minute Double Concerto, in which he participated along with New York Philharmonic cellist Carter Brey and the Chamber Orchestra under Jeffrey Kahane, works up a certain amount of primitive fun, and drew a hearty welcome from a large crowd at Royce Hall. Most of the writing is an ongoing argle-bargle between soloists, sometimes rising to outbursts of ill temper, then subsiding to a more easygoing joshing. The style is a sort of hillbilly with matching socks; there are no tunes to take home, but a lot of gestures that sometimes portend moments of glory that never come. It's not a critical term much in circulation, but it seemed to me that the piece was what you could call okay.

The composer shoots himself in the foot, however, by claiming kinship with one of music's truly sublime works of wordless conversation, Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola. Conductor Jeffrey Kahane shot him in the other foot as well, by scheduling that very work -- with Margaret Batjer and Roland Kato the eloquent conversationalists -- ahead of Meyer's: no contest. Haydn's Symphony No. 99, in a performance maybe just a shade too up-front, ended the program; what a splendid, happy revival this most worthy composer is enjoying in our midst!

OF THE FIVE-PIANIST CONSORTIUM THAT creates the admirable "Piano Spheres" concerts at Pasadena's Neighborhood Church, Mark Robson is apparently the resident gadfly, known in the past for such matters as an entire concert of his own original works for left hand. Last week's concert began well: Mauricio Kagel's weirdly likable piano etude An Tasten, one of Olivier Messiaen's wonderfully colored bird pieces and Frederic Rzewski's extended discourse on the Civil War spiritual "Down by the Riverside" -- all of it proof of Robson's trustworthiness with other people's music. Then, however, came something truly strange by Robson himself, Initiation, in its world premiere, a revival of that hoary musico-dramatic form known as the "melodrama," which, in the strict meaning of the term, involves the dangerous combining of music and spoken text. Maybe Isadora Duncan never danced to melodrama, but I always think of her in that connection.

Robson's hourlong expedition into futility involved a gathering of texts touching on the sad tale of Venus and Adonis, intoned (in English, Spanish, and classic Latin, Greek and Hebrew) alternately by Robson and Lynda Sue Marks-Guarnieri. Candles were lit, gongs and small percussion pieces were struck; at one point, darkness fell (but soon got up again). Around it all was Robson's meandering, inoffensive but faceless music. The problem wasn't so much atrociousness as blandness. Isadora would have known what to do.


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