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Published: 2006/01/30
by Jon Hansen

Edgar Meyer/Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, WI- 1/28

It wasn’t a rock show. It wasn’t experimental jazz. It was far from bluegrass, and nowhere near techno-electronic. Fists weren’t being pumped, people weren’t dancing in unpredictable patterns, and instead of a sea of Bic lighters following the end of the show, a very reserved standing ovation ensued (call it intense clapping). A few people mustered up the balls to yell Bravo,’ but that was about as out of hand as it got. This performance certainly didn’t fall into any musical category that is normally associated with this web site. Rarely do we see a review of a symphony orchestra find its way into these columns (and no, Trey and the Vermont Youth Orchestra killing “Guyute” for 18 minutes doesn’t count), so I thought those avid readers with a hunger for more classical-oriented works would enjoy a glimpse into a different vein of the broader musical world. Chances are, no one’s on the web right now raving or asking if they can get a taper copy of 1/28/06 Edgar Meyer with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in Milwaukee.

Contrast. That was the first word that entered my mind as Edgar Meyer walked onstage at the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center, his tux jacket nowhere to be seen, and his sleeves rolled up to the elbows. This was far from the stoic normality of the usual guest artist, and his instrument, a massive double bass that usually has no place in the solo spotlight, seemed to dwarf the performers seated behind him, making their violins and cellos look more like small toys. He positioned himself next to conductor’s podium, wiped the sweat from his forehead, leaned into his instrument like a bear rubbing his back on a tree stump, and simply gave a nod that he was ready to begin. Not just ready to begin, but ready to work. I’ve seen the M.S.O. a handful of times in the last year or so, and never have I seen such a blue-collar approach to the evening’s performance at the MPAC. Meyer’s mere presence on stage changed the entire element of the concert, and he challenged his fellow musicians (and audience) to adapt to what would soon come bounding out of the strings of his instrument.

The evening’s first piece, Double Bass Concerto No. 2 by Giovanni Bottesini, was an exploration into Meyer’s favorite piece in bass concerto repertoire. Meyer himself had rescored a few of the three-movement work’s elements, including the creation of his own cadenzas. The playful, yet elegant piece jumped from Meyer himself, to the full slate of the orchestra’s timpani, horns, and strings. He worked the entire range of his instrument, from low, bellowing sounds, to the upper register, where even the best violin players would struggle to maintain command and control. It was amazing to watch the quickness and ease with which he moved along the wooden stringed beast.

Some sections floated quietly along, and then suddenly they would roar, with the symphony behind him swelling like crashing waves. An instrument such as the double bass would seem far from graceful, yet he moved from the allegro and andante movements with a fluid ease, while at the same time offering powerful and prevailing moments when the music demanded it. It was indeed a contrast, something that most people in the audience had never experienced, yet they loved every minute of it for what it was a musician pouring out his talents, holding nothing back.

For his finale, (he performed two pieces in the first half of the concert) the symphony performed Double Bass in D, a piece composed by Meyer himself. This time around, we were treated to hints of Meyer’s other musical interests and tastes that he so masterfully weaves into the classical genre. It was hard to pinpoint, (maybe some jazz, maybe bluegrass) but the shuffle of his foot while he plucked away indicated that there was some personal concoction in this mix. The orchestra took a more secondary role, the strings picking lightly in unison, while Meyer seemed to dance with his bass around jazzy grooves that welded perfectly to the overall classical framework of the piece. As the last notes were played, a thundering applause and ovation resounded. Meyer once again wiped the sweat from his brow, shook hands with the conductor, and walked off the stage like a man who had just finished a long, productive day at the office. The ovation continued long enough for Meyer to come back out three times, each time the smile on his face getting a little wider. He knew he had done the job well, as we all did.

For those with the foreknowledge of his proclivity to bluegrass and jazz, it was a realization of sheer talent crossing genres and an expansion of musical boundaries stretched to the breaking point. For those unknowing regulars who were just there for the weekly M.S.O. performance, it was something completely new and different. Nonetheless, everyone agreed on one thing it was a spectacular performance on a rainy night in downtown Milwaukee that will not soon be forgotten. It was a night when a man, whose instrument’s size was only exceeded by his musical genius, captivated an audience with an array of contrasting styles and genres. Edgar Meyer was a living, breathing testament to how the creativity and passion of a musician can stir the senses of even the most unsuspecting of crowds. It doesn’t need to happen in a rock arena or an outdoor amphitheater. Incredible music happens when listening ears hear whom the music is coming from.

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