James VanDemark triumphs where most would fear to tread. That is, he plays the double bass as a solo instrument and achieves startling virtuousity and range.
Last night at The Barns at Wolf Trap, in a program heavy on transcriptions from the romantics, he tamed this ornery elephant of the strings and even got it to do a few tricks.
This is not to say that the performance wasn't strange. To ears unaccustomed to solo double bass, such transcriptions from cello as Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata in A Minor and Bruch's "Kol Nidrei" Op. 47, came off as a bit of musical masquerade. In the Schubert--aided, as were the other pieces, by Joseph Holt's responsive piano playing--VanDemark showed tremendous strength and control, as well as enviable technique. But some of his legatos were broken and some of his phrases fragmented, the inevitable result of long fingerboard and short bow. In the Bruch, the double bass also was disguised as cello. It might have been better if VanDemark had given it more of the inflections that its heritage calls for.
Still, when the music was just right--as in Eccles' jaunty Sonata in A Minor and Hindemith's Sonata (especially composed for double bass)--VanDemark's gusto and delicacy shone through. And in Gliere's Intermezzo and Tarantella and Paganini's Fantasy on a Theme from Rossini's "Moses in Egypt," his awesome virtuousity made the instrument hard to resist.