Nowadays, concertgoers are accustomed to a mindboggling parade of great cellists. A far rarer event brings them down an octave or so for a solo bassist, much less a great one. At Rockport Friday evening, we were treated to perhaps the greatest bassist of our day, Edwin Barker, who for 40 years has been BSO principal, esteemed teacher, and member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. He won the job in his early 20s after graduating from NEC and spending a brief time in the Chicago Symphony. There was, and is, nothing Barker cannot do on his chosen ax with grace and beauty, perfect articulation and tone.
The first half of the unusual program featured rarities from the Russian contrabass repertoire. Like most string and wind players, Barker has said his goal is to emulate the human voice, and singers could learn a thing or two by listening to him. He started playing in fourth grade, where he was the tallest in his class. He imagined that when the teacher told him he’d play bass, it meant bass drum, and was excited. Luckily for the Shalin Liu audience, things worked out pretty well for him on his instrumental blind date. He opened with a piece with a most curious local history, the Concerto for Double Bass by the Estonian composer Eduard Tubin (1905-1982), a contemporary of Shostakovich. Tubin’s concerto quite amazingly, if amusingly, premiered (with piano) in Rockport (at the First Baptist Church). Its backstory is a tale of three émigré musicians from Estonia, who met in Stockholm at a concert of the Estonian Radio Symphony led by its conductor, Olav Roots. Roots and the composer Tubin fled Estonia by boat after the Soviets reoccupied their homeland. Rubin settled in Sweden; Roots moved on to Bogotá. The two knew the bassist Luvig Juht, born in Estonia in 1894, who eventually repaired to Boston and joined the BSO, where he played for 20 years under that other bassist Serge Koussevitzky.
Juht met Tubin while on tour in Sweden and promised to show him how to compose for his unusual solo instrument. A correspondence followed and the piece was completed in 1948. Barker played it beautifully, no surprise, as he has doubtless done many times. To finish the brief first half, Barker played two short pieces written by Koussevitzky (1874-1951), who before coming to Boston, in 1924, had been a touring bass virtuoso. While still in Russia, he composed the lovely “Chanson triste,” and “Valse Miniature,” as well as a Concerto for Bass, which he premiered in 1905 and that is still played today. Barker played with aplomb and made it all look almost easy. It is not. Barker has consistently set the bar extremely high for all who want to play string bass. Or for that matter any string instrument.
The estimable pianist Eileen Huang sensitively partnered throughout.
Violinist Yevgeny Kutik, born in Russia, where he lived until he was five, took over for the second half of the mostly Russian concert, featuring works of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Andrei Eshpai. Kutik is at this moment best known for his big splash CD, Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures, which came out two years ago. (Its first week, it hit no. 5 on the Billboard classical chart. The CD garnered critical acclaim and media attention. His debut album, Sounds of Defiance, had featured Achron, Pärt, Schnittke, and Shostakovich).
The three arrangements—Stravinsky’s Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss, waltz and Rhapsody from the ballet Cinderella by Prokofiev—came from a suitcase of music that Kutik’s mother brought to the States when the family emigrated. Also a violinist, she had stashed it away in the one valise she was allowed to take out of the country. The music languished until Kutik finally got a look at it and brought to life what sat under his nose for many years. Kutik’s sound is luscious and he plays with authority and a good dose of magnetism. I look forward to hearing him again.
Was it for want of rehearsal time that the two super-stars did not collaborate more? There exist a surprising number of pieces, both original and transcriptions from cello and violin other than the famous duo for bass and violin by Bottesini. Johan Halvorsen’s (1864-1935) chestnut arrangement of a Handel passacaglia, never intended for double bass, ended the program with full-out tour-de-force bass playing that also brought out the best in Kutik. I could not get my eyes and ears off of Barker as he straddled his enormous instrument with athletic prowess, every note sounding impeccably in tune. I hope these two get a chance to play again as a duo; they make absolutely beautiful music together.