Music Review: NSO premieres Victor Wooten’s and Conni Ellisor’s ‘The Bass Whisperer’

wootenSome sounds are seldom heard inside a classical concert hall. For instance, one rarely encounters a high-art concerto for electric-bass guitar and orchestra at a symphony concert. More uncommon still is the sound of a fan shrieking (with delight, I might add) at the sight of a bass player.

Yet both novelties were witnessed at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on Thursday night. Moments after bass phenom Victor Wooten walked onstage, a fan somewhere in the back of the hall hollered ecstatically. For a moment, Wooten, who grinned mischievously, must have thought he was back in his usual gig of playing bass for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

In fact, he was with music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to present the world premiere of The Bass Whisperer, the new concerto that Wooten co-wrote with the popular Nashville-based composer Conni Ellisor. Wooten and the NSO will repeat the performances at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19 and Saturday, Sept. 20.

Ellisor wrote in the NSO’s program notes that the intention behind the new concerto was “to bridge the classical tradition with the pop/jazz electric bass guitar tradition by creating a piece that is true to both.” As is often the case with these kinds of works, though, The Bass Whisperer turned out to be more true to one of these traditions than the other.

As a showcase of Victor Wooten’s inimitable jazz-pop virtuoso style, The Bass Whisperer proved to be a revelation. Wooten is surely the Jimi Hendrix of the electric bass guitar. On Thursday night, he used both hands to race up and down the neck of his bass at speeds that could only be described as blistering. He played slap bass with some of the funkiest grooves imaginable, and he bowed a custom-made bass guitar to generate some lovely meditative melodies.

As an expertly balanced, finely integrated work of art for electric bass guitar and orchestra, The Bass Whisperer fell far short of expectations. The first movement came across as a kind of patchwork of disparate themes interrupted in the middle by an improvised (and interminably long) cadenza. The basic problem here was probably due to the unusual way this work was co-created. The Lennon and McCartney approach of “you write one riff, mate, and I’ll write the next” might produce a great pop song, but in The Bass Whisperer it did not result in a cohesive piece.

Other problems had to do with the challenges inevitably encountered when trying to pair a lone electronic instrument with a large acoustic ensemble. In the first movement, the bass too often blended into the orchestra, adding little of substance to the musical dialogue (one wonders if the overly long cadenza was an attempt to address that problem). The passages for bowed bass in the second and third movements, meanwhile, suffered from balance problems, with the orchestra often drowning out the bass.

There were also some truly beautiful moments in The Bass Whisperer, especially in the second movement. Midway through that section, the oboe plays an absolutely lovely melody, which elicits a tender response from the bass. The strings joined in with a lush, glistening sound. One surely couldn’t have hoped for a better performance. Wooten explored every conceivable sound on his instrument, and Guerrero and the NSO accompanied with color and precision. In the end, the work was greeted with the usual standing ovation, which elicited a memorable encore of “Amazing Grace” from Wooten.

This weekend’s concert consists entirely of American music. Thursday’s program opened with The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra, music that John Adams arranged from his opera Nixon in China. This is luminous, shimmering, pulsating music, and Guerrero and the NSO played it with energy. My only complaint was that I wanted a little more nuance, a little more of the surreal dreaminess that the music suggests in the opera.

The NSO was probably at its best in Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which featured riveting, dramatic narration from Nashville actor Barry Scott. And the NSO did its level best to make Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” sound interesting, no small challenge given Hanson’s habit of writing warmed-over Sibelius.

One more thought about The Bass Whisperer. In recent years, the NSO has made a point of commissioning concertos from prominent local pop figures, including Béla Fleck and Ben Folds. The idea is to produce a body of work that represents place (Nashville as the home of famous, versatile musicians), which is commendable.

In working with non-classical composers, though, the NSO is also producing a body of work consisting of what the Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout refers to as “performer’s music.” This is music that’s high on technical brilliance but low on musical substance and cohesion. This kind of music was cranked out in the 19th century by such performers as Henselt, Hiller, Hummel, Kalkbrenner and Thalberg. If you’ve never heard of any of these performers, well, there’s a reason for that.

I’m not suggesting that the NSO shouldn’t work with pop musicians. After all, the great American piano concerto, Rhapsody in Blue, came to Carnegie Hall via Tin Pan Alley. It’s just that the NSO has yet to find another Gershwin.

IF YOU GO

The Nashville Symphony presents the world premiere of Conni Ellisor and Victor Wooten’s The Bass Whisperer. The music of John Adams, Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson are also on the program. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19 and Saturday, Sept. 20 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $22 to $138 and are available here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.