ATHERTON - What do you know: a grand operatic discovery at a
chamber-music concert! But consider the source - he was both the
"Paganini of the Double Bass" and the conductor of the Cairo premiere of
Verdi's "Aida," a virtuoso, who would alternate leading an opera
performance and playing fantasies on the opera's themes on the double
bass from the stage during intermissions.
For me today, Giovanni Bottesini stepped from history (and trivia) books
into the musical limbo between truly great composers and the land of
Riccardo Drigo and Adolphe Adam - two others not generally held in high
esteem, but favored by my ilk of uncritical melody-hunters. (I do stop
at Minkus, however.)
Between the great and the not-so-much, I say, because today's superb
performance of Bottesini's 1880 "Gran duo concertante" at Music@Menlo
impressed even more than a Drigo pas de deux or even "Giselle" (never
mind, please, Adam's "O Holy Night") - helped perhaps by its novelty.
Held in Atherton's Menlo School (alternating in a Palo Alto church), the
festival has brilliant programming and casting by David Finckel and Wu
Han. They brought together violinist Erin Keefe and "Yo Yo Ma of the
Double Bass" DaXun Zhang, against the "orchestra" of the finest young
quartet today, the Manhattan School of Music's barely two-year-old
Escher (of Adam-Barnett-Hart, Wu Jie, Pierre Lapointe, and Andrew Janss).
"Gran duo" opens with a heroic march, which quickly dissolves in a
melting operatic/balletic melody with a surprisingly anachronistic
(i.e., 20th century) harmonic language, intriguing and pleasing
complexity. Keefe's big-voiced violin played a true duet with the
instrument thrice its size, and Zhang cajoled astonishing high notes and
gentle pianissimos from the double bass. The Escher Quartet accompanied
the duet as if from the pit of an opera house at a performance of a
passionate/lyrical work of late verismo - three-four decades before its
I have heard a few Bottesini works, but nothing with today's impact, and
none of his operas. He has a baker's dozen of them, from the 1856
"L'assedio di Firenze" to "Cedar" and "La regina del Nepal," both from
1880, the year of the "Gran duo." (He also wrote "Babele," which is
either Italian for Babel or a Yiddish opera.)
Opera, peripherally, was also on the program today, with strains of "Die
tote Stadt" in Korngold's Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano, a
forceful, mighty work from 1930, performed with unparalleled excellence
by Keefe, Philip Setzer, Andres Diaz, and Gary Graffman, Mr. Curtis
How rich are Music@Menlo programs? Add to the two above Handel's
Concerto No. 15 in d minor (Kenneth Cooper thundering on the
harpsichord, an instrument supposedly incapable of such); Boccherini's
Guitar Quintet No. 4 (the Escher again, with guitarist Jason Vieaux, and
castanets [!] played by Marcella Prieto); and the Brandburg Concerto No.
6 - violists Roberto Diaz, Masao Kawasaki, a dynamite cello trio of A.
Diaz, Finckel, and Ralph Kirshbaum, plus Zhang and Cooper.
For those whom this Aspen-sized event didn't satisfy, there was a
Prelude Concert by the festival's International Program for young
musicians: Beethoven's String Trio in G Major; Mendelssohn's Andante and
Allegro brillant (super-talented Esther Park playing the four-hand piano
piece with her coach, Wu Han, substituting for a young musician unable
to perform); and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.
One fabulous afternoon, and that's not just whistling Bottesini.
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