‘Ottawa’ Quarrington Shines in Performance of Koprowski Bass Concerto
NACO Koprowski bass concerto
At Southam Hall
Reviewed Wednesday night
With its imposing size and distinctive growl, the double bass isn’t exactly a shy flower in the orchestra. But it rarely gets to shine as a solo instrument. Until last night, the only classical bass concerto I’d ever seen performed was by the Romantic Italian composer Bottesini — the “Paganini of the double bass” — at a performance 20 years ago by the Polish-Canadian virtuoso Zbigniew Borowicz.
NACO commissioned Peter Paul Koprowski — coincidentally, another Polish-Canadian — to write something that would show off the talents of principal bass Joel Quarrington. Koprowski’s Concertante for Double Bass, Percussion and Strings had its world premiere Wednesday night, and is a worthy addition to the instrument’s repertoire.
At just around 12 minutes, the piece is both tuneful (I hate the word “accessible”) and tautly constructed. Koprwoski’s sense of texture, exploiting other solo strings and different percussion instruments to complement the soloist’s deep and shadowy colour, is particularly successful. The composer places the rest of the double basses at the front right of the stage, surrounding the soloist like a posse.
Quarrington has always been a charismatic section leader, and it was a pleasure seeing his consummate musicianship and considerable virtuosity in the spotlight. He has a beautiful sense of lyricism, with an exceptional tone in the instrument’s strange higher registers.
Alexander Shelley is in Hong Kong this week; the guest conductor was the young Venezuelan maestro Diego Matheuz. Like his famous compatriot Gustavo Dudamel and many other successful musicians, Matheuz came out of his country’s controversial “Sistema” program (El Sistema’s noble intent was to give children from all economic backgrounds an excellent musical education, but it’s also viewed as a propaganda tool for the Chavez regime).
Matheuz’s style on the podium is passionate and energetic, but also somewhat stiff and frantic. He favours fast tempi, but his technique doesn’t always have the discipline clarity required to keep things from running off the rails. He gets overly busy and has a tendency to micromanage.
The rest of the program had a purely Slavic bent. Glinka’s scintillating Ruslan and Ludmila Overture was taken a little too quickly, and Matheuz’s indications did not always seem to be well communicated to the audience.
Borodin’s Orientalist fantasy In the Steppes of Central Asia suffered the most from Matheuz’s inclination to push the tempo. Although the orchestra’s execution could not be faulted, there was none of the feeling of wide open space and silent blue skies.
The rapport between Matheuz and the orchestra was improved noticeably for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Conducting without a score, he seemed to finally find some breathing space in the music, allowing the first movement’s drama and intensity to build more naturally. The opening, dirge-like clarinet theme was eloquently stated by Kimball Sykes and Sean Rice.
But something truly special began happening in the second movement, starting with Lawrence Vine’s immaculate, lofty solo. The energy felt less forced and more complicit; by relaxing his control Matheuz found better flow and a higher, deeper level excitement.
This concert repeats Thursday night.