All About the Bass with the Dover Quartet

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Rossini, Dvořák, Meyer: Dover Quartet (Joel Link, Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Pajaro-Van De Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello), Edgar Meyer (double bass), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 30.10.2016. (HS)

Mozart – Divertimento in D major, K.136
Rossini – Duo in D major for Cello and Double Bass
Dvořák – String Quartet in F major, Op.36 ‘American’
Meyer – Quintet for Double Bass and String Quartet

Edgar Meyer is one of those musical geniuses that defies definition. He plays double bass with virtuosity, soul and specificity, excelling as both soloist and collaborator. He is as much as home in the bluegrass riffs of his native Tennessee as he is with Baroque curlicues, jazz improvisations, and the Indian-tinged music he often makes with the tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

As a composer, all of those elements combine to make his music unique and utterly fascinating. Listening to him work Sunday evening with the exciting Dover Quartet in his Quintet for Double Bass and String Quartet made for smiles and surprises at every turn. The young musicians of the quartet (formed in 2008) executed Meyer’s funk and humor with élan.

As the presence of the music faded into memory, I wondered what other bass player could combine Meyer’s range to play this music effectively. Are Meyer’s rhythmically deft Bluegrass-tinged bass lines comparable to Gershwin’s concert music? The rhythmic swing of Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris bedeviled classical pianists and orchestral musicians for years until recent generations finally learned how to bring them to life. No matter. With Meyer on stage, all was well with the bass player’s showpiece quintet in four movements, which concluded the varied program.

Meyer’s showpiece opened with variations on a pentatonic theme that echoed Dvořák’s string quartet later in the program, against a motoric bass line that occasionally detoured into a virtuosic explosion. The second movement, a scherzo that shuffles along over a funky bluegrass-tinged bass line, brought out idiomatic playing from the two violins. The slow third movement explored sonorous harmonies in a reflective mode, finishing with a sort of mini-cadenza from Meyer himself. The finale started with dazzling complexity and gradually built up to a lively climax.

But before that, Meyer and the quartet’s cellist, Camden Shaw, combined for a delightful romp through Rossini’s Duo in D major for Cello and Double Bass. At times the two sounded like a mini-orchestra, the composer’s inventive part-writing providing more depth than two large instruments should have been able to muster. Meyer’s ability to make his outsized instrument sing purely at the very top of its range made for marvelous parallel lines with the cello doing the same, and his rock-solid rhythmic drive relished the gathering momentum by a composer who relies upon it for effect.

That piece contrasted with a run-through of Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K.136, in which the quintet sounded bottom-heavy and lacked the buoyancy the music wants. But the group were much more energized, and their vivid approach brought out all the pentatonic salubriousness and swagger of Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet. The slow movement sang with gentle soulfulness, the scherzo chirped and fluttered gracefully, and the rondo finale skipped along with deftness and flair.

The Dover musicians played with a high level of musical attentiveness without fussiness. There’s unanimity in most of their work, until one of them steps into the melodic spotlight to show off his or her own chops. Violist Milena Pajaro-Van De Stadt unrolled a big, deep sound, for example, when she picked up Dvořák’s tunes, the rest of the time receding into a perfect balance with the others. Shaw put a little extra strut into his technically complex turns on cello, and the two violins—Joel Link and Bryan Lee—traded off their lines seamlessly.

It all came together into a satisfying evening of colorful chamber music, with the the rarely heard items showing most of the pizzazz.

Harvey Steiman

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