The double bass is one of the few remaining instruments that have never produced a bankable star in classical music. There has been no Itzhak Perlman, no Yo-Yo Ma, no James Galway of the double bass; indeed, DaXun Zhang, who played a smashing recital at the Terrace Theater on Tuesday night, is the first bassist to be so featured in the Washington Performing Arts Society's Kreeger String Series at the Kennedy Center.
To be sure, there have been some distinguished performers on this largest of orchestral instruments -- Edgar Meyer, Gary Karr and, early in his career, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky (not to mention great, plucking jazzies such as Charles Mingus and Milt Hinton). But the bass is profoundly difficult to master, and even once that is accomplished, the instrument retains a certain awkwardness that nobody, in my experience, has ever quite managed to transcend.
Zhang proved the master of his instrument in a Kreeger String Series recital at the Kennedy Center.
The problem is one of gigantism -- playing the bass might be likened to trying to jockey a giraffe. If a violinist, a violist or even a cellist moves his grip half an inch up or down the fingerboard of the instrument, the note he is playing will change completely; a bassist will merely start to slide out of tune. As Stephen Crane once said of "War and Peace," the bass goes "on and on like Texas." Playing a simple melody may demand that a player negotiate leaps of two or three feet, from over the head to down near the belly and back again. Moreover, even under the best of circumstances, it is hard to make the unadorned tone of the instrument sound anything but gray and burly.
All that said, and some momentary, impossible-to-avoid intonational lapses easily forgiven, Zhang made the best case for the bass as a solo instrument I've ever heard. A winner of the 2003 Young Concert Artists Auditions -- the first bassist in the organization's 44-year history -- Zhang plays soulfully, lyrically and with an arresting delicacy that takes one by surprise.
As did the opening selection, a gracious, subdued Intermezzo by the Soviet composer Reinhold Gliere, best known for tub-thumping crudities such as "Russian Sailor's Dance" from "The Red Poppy." That was followed by a transcription for double bass of Edvard Grieg's Sonata in A Minor, Op. 36, originally for cello and piano. There is not a single surprising or unpredictable note in this score, yet it retains an agreeable sweetness. We settle into the Sonata comfortably, knowing that we've heard it all before but that it will be tuneful, innocuous and a little silly, although not at all difficult to revisit, especially when played with the elegance that Zhang and his unfailingly responsive pianist, Tomoko Kashiwagi, brought to it.
Yan-Jun Hua's "Moon Reflected in the Er-Quan Pool" is light music of a high order, along the lines of a Chinese answer to Albert Ketelbey or Leroy Anderson. Zhang made much of its rich sentiment, although it is impossible for the double bass to approximate the quavering, almost vocal sound of the erhu, the Chinese two-stringed bowed fiddle for which it was composed originally.
For me the high point of the evening was a "Capriccio de bravura" by the Italian composer (and bassist) Giovanni Bottesini, which combined formal musical structure with eager, insouciant lyricism, somewhat in the manner of Rossini. An adagio from Dmitri Shostakovich's ballet "The Limpid Stream" was played raptly, with dark poetry, as if in deepest meditation. And Franz Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy" -- a romp through Bizet's opera that was originally created for the violinist Jascha Heifetz -- closed the program with a playful and dizzyingly virtuosic reminder of some of the juiciest tunes ever written. If the bass is finally to produce a headliner, the instrument can have no better champion than Zhang.