The Lincoln Park Cultural Center was packed last night for the Chicago Bass Ensemble, with bassists and non-bassists alike congregating in a quaint structure on the north side of Chicago to hear the musical stylings of these four great players. Doug Johnson, Jacque Harper, John Floeter, and Michael Hovnanian (not pictured) performed an hour-long program titled “Unusual Classical Delights”, featuring composers spanning six centuries, with works from Orlando di Lassus nestled alongside contemporary composers like Jan Alm, Michael Wittgraf, and Seth Boustead.
The concert opened with a piece written by Chicago Bass Ensemble member Doug Johnson titled “The Open Sea”, creating an evocative introduction to an extremely diverse set of pieces. “Sawtooth Hammer”, a work written in 2006 by Seth Boustead followed, filled with lovely low dissonances that rattled the floor of this cozy concert hall. These vigorous modern pieces transitioned into more subdued textures with selections from Prophetiae Sibllarum by Orlando di Lassus, featuring beautiful Renaissance harmonies sliding gracefully through all registers of the double bass.
Michael Wittgraf’s “Canon” featured the ensemble in passages only one beat apart from each other, creating an exciting whirlwind of interlocking voices. Chicago Symphony bassist and composer Dan Armstrong’s entertaining and engaging “Wildebeests & Warthogs” put smiles on the faces on many audience members with its groovy textures and soaring solo lines, immediately followed by an arrangement of Paul Hindemith Chansons from group founder Jacque Harper, a project originally begun decades ago by Jacque and only recently completed. These pieces, originally written for choir, worked wonderfully for bass quartet, spanning the range of the instrument and providing interesting and varied harmonic material. The program wrapped up with the energetic and driving Quartet No. 2 by Jan Alm. This piece places extraordinary demands on all four members of the ensemble, with passage work exploding up and down the fingerboard, spanning several octaves in a matter of seconds, but the ensemble handled this material with ease, providing a rousing conclusion to a diverse and satisfying program of double bass music.
Several things really struck me about the repertoire that this group programmed, leaving me with a very positive impression regarding both the state of classical music and the vibrancy of the double bass community . First, three of the pieces were written within the last two years. Three of the composers were at the performance (a fourth composer would certainly have been as well, were he not tied down at a Chicago Symphony rehearsal!). Out of the seven selections on the program, five of them were written within the last seven years. One of the works was composed by an ensemble member, and another was arranged by an ensemble member. The members of the ensemble had a role in commissioning or inspiring several of the other works, and aside from the deceased Hindemith and Lassus, all of the composers have spoken with or otherwise had contact with members of the Chicago Bass Ensemble.
A program featuring music written for the ensemble by friends and colleagues, highlighting contemporary music written for the double bass, performed for a packed house, with an engaged audience smiling and enjoying music written primarily in the last couple of years….this is what music really should be. Anyone who thinks that classical music is “dying” needs to come and see the next Chicago Bass Ensemble performance–they’ll leave with an attitude readjustment and a skip in their step.
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