When it comes to concertos with orchestra, most people don’t think of the double bass as a solo instrument. It’s usually heard at the bottom of the musical spectrum, rather than playing melodies that soar over the orchestra. But bassist Owen Lee, principal bass of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for 22 years, made a strong case for Serge Koussevitzky’s Concerto for Double Bass, given its first-ever performances by the CSO over the weekend at Music Hall.
It was a fascinating piece – partly because Koussevitzky, himself a virtuoso of the bass, wrote it before he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and became one of the most influential music directors in America. In a neat tie-in, the program’s second half was devoted to Bela Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” which Koussevitzky commissioned from Bartok, who was then ill and destitute. Louis Langrée and the orchestra gave the latter a brilliant performance.
But first, Lee tackled Koussevitzky’s 17-minute Double Bass Concerto with impeccable technique and a smooth, lyrical tone on his instrument. The opening horn flourishes seemed lifted right from Rachmaninoff; what followed was a work that featured one big theme after another, in true romantic fashion. One of the highlights included the bassist’s dialogue with the oboe (Lon Bussell) in the slow movement.
It was fun to watch Lee, who wrote his own cadenza. As he hunched over his instrument, he navigated up and down the higher strings in a virtuosic exploration of all of the instrument’s possibilities. Saturday’s listeners gave the rarely-heard concerto an enthusiastic reception.
But it was the bassist’s encore that impressed the most. Mahler’s masterful “I have become lost to the world” (“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”), arranged for bass and orchestra, was originally one of five Mahler song settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert. Lee’s amber-toned playing against a shimmering canvas of harp, horns and English horn was deeply moving.
After intermission, Bartok’s five-movement “Concerto for Orchestra” was designed to showcase the virtuosity of the entire orchestra, and indeed it did. Written at the end of the composer’s life, it is also a piece that balances showmanship against Bartok’s nostalgia for his homeland, Hungary. That was particularly evident in the fourth movement, with its quotation of “Hungary, you are beautiful,” beautifully intoned by the violas.
Langrée’s reading emphasized the dynamic power of the outer movements, which contrasted with the extraordinary atmospheres of the central ones. In the opening, there was the otherworldly sound of nine basses, followed by brilliant brass chorales and ethereal flute motifs. The second, a movement of humorous duos, was launched in style by bassoonists William Winstead and Martin Garcia.
The heart of the work is its central “Elegy,” an example of Bartok’s “night music.” Here, Langrée inspired atmospheric playing, and the movement ended with a serene, plaintive tone in the piccolo (Joan Voorhees). The conductor’s tempo in the finale was supercharged, with an explosive buildup to the finish. The musicians responded with electric playing, and listeners were again on their feet.
Langrée opened with an energized performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major. His tempos were fleet, yet he was attentive to detail and allowed phrases to breathe. Here, also, there was virtuoso playing by the musicians. However, balance problems with the new acoustics still need some addressing. The timpani, on the highest perch of the orchestra’s new risers, were much too loud. And with the new, drier sound in the hall, every imperfection of ensemble in the violins – now spread across the front of the new thrust stage — could be heard from my seat in the center balcony.