Edgar Meyer in recital

Bach, Meyer: Edgar Meyer (bass), in recital presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco. 14.5.2011 (HS)

The Nashville-based composer and bassist Edgar Meyer can coax his instrument to be as expressive as a cello in a Bach unaccompanied cello sonata, make it sing like a tenor or bounce like a bluegrass band in his own music and, in a pinch, get it to walk a bass line like a longtime jazzman. All those attributes were in evidence Saturday evening in a musically compelling solo recital in the intimate confines of San Francisco’s 900-seat Herbst Theatre.

Meyer, who collaborates regularly in concert and recordings with mandolinist Chris Thile and banjoist Béla Fleck, the latter often with tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, said from the stage that this was only the third time he had performed solo for an entire recital. In concert with others, however, he often performs one or more of his pieces geared for improvisation, which he did here in the second half of the 1 hour 40 minute recital.

He has made a speciality of J.S. Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Sonata No. 1 in C major, with which he opened this performance. For most bass players, fingering mostly on the lower end of the fingerboard (which produces the highest notes) presents enough of a challenge just to play in tune. Meyer manages to transcend these technical difficulties, including those of producing accurate intonation in double stops way up there and bowing with refinement and clarity, to produce music of intelligence and emotional depth. The mellower sound of the bass creates a dreamier mood than the more focused sound of a cello, and once a listener gets accustomed to the sure fingered accuracy of the playing and can tune into the musical line, it’s almost like hearing a new piece by Bach. The ability to stretch the lower range all the way down an octave lower than a cello adds an extra dimension of drama.

The centerpiece of this concert, however, was the first public performance of a new piece co-commissioned by San Francisco Performances. Actually, the piece is not finished, so it was presented as three movements of A Work In Progress (that being the title in the program). The first and last movements are pretty much complete, Meyer explained, and the middle movement as played contains material he might expand into one or two additional segments. The piece as played ran 20 minutes.

Musically, it’s possible to hear gestures and references to the Bach unaccompanied works but in Meyer’s own American bluegrass-tinged, highly listenable but technically challenging language. It opens with a study of melodic leaps, glissandos and high harmonics that explores the full sonic range of the instrument, often descending to the lowest depths to put a resounding finish to a phrase. The slow movement sustained a quiet lyricism, and the finale kept returning to a jaunty rhythmic motif, rather like the opening bars of a funky hoedown piece, almost as a classical composer might use a primary, hummable tune in rondo form. It is listenable music that allows Meyer to expand into flights of virtuosity, always returning to a familiar base. (Bass?)

For the second half, Meyer hauled out five of his shorter solo compositions and two other pieces, which explored a nice range of his styles. He opened with a medley of Irish and Irish-American jigs, which lightened the mood nicely, and followed with an untitled piece of his own in a jazzy, bluesy style. Duet, a puckish but appropriate title for a solo piece involving considerable use of double stops, displayed his technical mastery in slower moving music. The walking bass showed up in another of his pieces, Pickles, and the lyrical side came out in a beautiful, intimate take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s delicate bossa nova O Grand Amor.

Harvey Steiman