An epic journey into bass

John Downey Festival | Barbican Hall London
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There's something magnificently do-or-die about ending a one-composer concert with a half-hour concerto for double bass - especially when the composer has been resident for 30 years at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, wrote pieces in 1972 called Symphonic Modules, and now shows up wearing an incipient mullet.

There's something magnificently do-or-die about ending a one-composer concert with a half-hour concerto for double bass - especially when the composer has been resident for 30 years at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, wrote pieces in 1972 called Symphonic Modules, and now shows up wearing an incipient mullet.

John Downey's Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra turned out to be a kind of epic. The surprise was that it had not acquired a cult following. Monday's presentation by the Philharmonia Orchestra (conducted by Geoffey Simon) was one of several eventsat various venues, including sessions with students at Trinity College, backed by an assembly of mainly Midwestern sources.

Such a massive promotion, the sort of thing Beethoven and Wagner used to do, is almost unheard of now except for the publishing houses' favoured composers. Brave stuff, and none of the audience is likely to forget that concerto as played by the virtuoso Gary Karr. The evening's other pieces had the effect of building up to it. The Edge of Space, a fantasy for bassoon and orchestra, had begun with turgid atonal strings, glacial chords, and a garrulously tuneless solo entry from the valiant Robert Thompson. A typical American campus composer, you thought.

Except that midway, the music halted on a glowing major chord, and the bassoon took off in lyrical flight. It was a wonderful moment, all the more for its complete unpredictability.

Downey met the challenge of his shy-voiced solo instrument with a resourceful ear for balance, and inventive orchestral sounds were also the dominant feature of his Five Symphonic Modules. Cascading woodwind, slithering brass, grand crescendos and visionary chorales followed. The music's melodic personality didn't make much impact, nor did its sense of harmony and rhythm, yet texture and colour carried the day and the Modules maintained their grip.

These strengths continued in the double bass concerto, which was more dramatic and focused while maintaining the flair for sound. Right at the end, as its heavyweight momentum was peaking, Downey could still come up with novel ideas such as the bass playing a tune in octaves with a tuba. It shouldn't have worked, but sang out sonorously.

Pitting this king-sized but hard-to-hear soloist against a full orchestra guaranteed a constant supply of risky thrills. Downey's skill in juggling the contenders was matched by his appreciation of Karr's lyrical tone. This concerto deserves a life of its own, even if Karr is the only bassist who can get his fingers round it.

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