Even though the double bass has a strong role to play in jazz groups, as an anchor and as a vehicle for virtuoso solos, it holds the low ground in an orchestra, rarely getting a chance to shine. Edmond Gnekow, one of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s corps of bassists knows this well.
On Tuesday evening, as part of Canisius College’s “Informally-Formal Chamber Recital Series,” the long-running cultural partnership between the college and the BPO, Gnekow was charged with creating a program featuring his instrument in a string quintet setting. His associates – violinists Andrea Cone and Loren Silvertrust, violist Janz Castelo, and cellist Eve Herer – were all members or former members of the BPO string section.
George Onslow was a prolific and, for his time, a very popular composer. His reputation didn’t last long after his demise and Gnekow and at least one of his compatriots admitted that they had never heard of him prior to prepping for this concert.
Onslow’s String Quintet no. 21 in G minor, op. 51, (composed in 1834) was one of the composer’s 14 essays in the form where he created a version with a double bass substituting for one of the two cellos originally scored for the piece. It is/was a pleasant enough piece but, aside from the Scherzo and the Finale, there wasn’t much that invited a second hearing, unless you want the focus to be a string quintet with a double bass included in the lineup.
Gnekow had brought two instruments to play in the concert, a larger “orchestral” bass and a smaller one that had greater sonic presence, akin to the piccolo bass that jazz master Ron Carter has been known to use. This smaller instrument was perfect for Giovanni Bottesini’s “Elegy and Tarantella” because the composer was a virtuoso bassist and wrote this work for the double bass accompanied by a string quartet.
In Gnekow’s hands, Bottesini’s score and the instrument meshed; there was no sense that the bass was anything but the star of the moment.
Composed in 1914, Josef Suk’s “Meditation on the old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’ ” was originally written for a quartet but was later rewritten for a quintet with the double bass included. It was a short piece, too short in some ways because it was the most sublime work of the evening. Suk was a violist, and Castelo had the lead down, but everything worked as a unit.
Darius Milhaud’s String Quintet no. 2 was the most modern entry on the bill and closed the concert on a slightly more astringent note. It had its moments and Gnekow’s bass held the bottom together, but the violins and the viola were the main focus.
The bottom line here is that the whole program was a venture strait-jacketed by the quintet format. But the Suk piece was a definite winner and the Bottesini score was worthy of Gnekow’s artistry.