The International Society of Bassists wanted a new concerto for their favorite instrument, and they wanted orchestras to play the work rather than merely filing its name in the list of new works that they might think about some future year. With help of their members they formed a consortium of 15 orchestras to back the work, enabling each participating orchestra to list themselves as a co-commissioner, giving each a “premiere” (even if merely a local one) at a bargain price.
John Harbison was commissioned to write the concerto, and yesterday the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed his “Concerto for Bass Viol and Orchestra” (2005), performed by our principal of 30-some years, Dennis Trembly. This is a fairly short concerto; its three movements require a little less than 20 minutes. Harbison used a slightly reduced orchestra, and in Disney Hall Trembly’s bass was audible throughout the work’s range of pitch and technique. The work was particularly successful in having the bass become a singer, with several long, lyric melodies. Less successful was exploration of the top notes. The work could have used more fire, perhaps, or more emotion to add some force to the pleasant sounds. The work didn’t have a single consistent musical style, having elements from a wide range of musical history, so it did have color and interest. It was played as the center work between Janacek’s “Vixen” suite and the Dvorak 7th, and the Harbison worked with its companions. Salonen is away all month and we’ve had a series of bland concerts with a series of guest conductors, but yesterday’s conductor, Carlos Kalmar, was a pleasant surprise.