Maybe it was funny 127 years ago when Camille Saint-Saëns cast the double bass in the role of an elephant dancing a simple, lumbering minuet for his “Carnival of the Animals.” But bass players don’t want to play for musical peanuts anymore.
“The level of playing of contemporary bass players has skyrocketed. They need a challenge,” says John B Hedges, whose concerto for solo bass, “Prayers of Rain and Wind,” is on the program this weekend at the Richmond Symphony.
Hedges composed the work in 2008 for his friend Joseph Conyers, who is now assistant principal bass player with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He wanted to show off Conyers’ “exquisite lyricism” as a player, and in the process reset listeners’ preconceived ideas of what a bass can do as a soloist. But the problem is that the double bass is a sonically limited instrument. It just isn’t built to project well, and our ears aren’t trained to hear its low frequencies clearly.
Playing the bass “is a very human struggle with an imperfect instrument,” Hedges says from his home in Philadelphia during a phone interview in January. “That’s why it’s all the more extraordinary when you see an outstanding performer overcome the challenges.”
Hedges and Conyers are in Richmond for a week-long residency funded by a grant from New Music USA. In addition to working with the symphony’s musicians and its associate conductor, Erin Freeman, they’re leading workshops and lectures and will be present for pre- and post-concert conversation. “Prayers of Rain and Wind” was commissioned by the Grand Rapids Symphony, where Conyers was playing at the time. Hedges knew that Conyers’ second passion was weather, so that provided inspiration for the work.
For example, Hedges imagined a summer day in Conyers’ hometown of Savannah, Ga., for the first movement. In the oppressive humidity, desperation builds to a fever pitch and “the soloist is crying out for rain,” the composer says. “The cadenza is a prayer for rain.” At last the fever breaks and “relief washes over the orchestra.”
Conyers’ favorite weather formation, the hurricane, informs another part of the piece. Hedges describes the third movement as kinetic motion, interrupted by the eye of the storm — in this case, a prayer by the bass — that returns just like a hurricane’s chaos whips back around after a period of calm.
The second movement reflects one of Conyers’ childhood musical influences. In some churches a leader sings hymns line-by-line, creating a call and response effect. Hedges’ work at times has the orchestra improvising and humming in response to the bass solos.
The Richmond Symphony Orchestra and Chorus also will perform Mozart’s “Requiem.” Although Hedges says he had an “Oh, crap!” moment at the thought of sharing a concert with such a titanic entry in the classical canon, he likes the idea of pairing two musically different works that nevertheless are both prayers.
“To me, that’s a beautiful program,” he says. “It becomes not just, ‘Let’s hear some great Mozart, let’s hear a great soloist,’ but, ‘Let’s explore a theme — prayer, rest, peace, our desire for it.’”
Joseph Conyers performs John B Hedges’ “Prayers of Rain and Wind” with the Richmond Symphony on Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb. 17, at 3 p.m. at Richmond CenterStage, 612 E. Grace St. $10-73. richmondsymphony.com.