The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts November 4, 2005

Contrabass gives good vibrations

Finney Chapel was darkened brilliantly, as the subtle lighting cast a deep shadow above the apron of the stage. I sat quietly in the gloom in an attempt to detect why the hall had turned into an intimate, small space that hinted of a jazz club.

Now, I can say; the almost mysterious setting created a certain mood that went extremely well with the magical music that followed.

On Wednesday night, Finney Chapel hosted the solo double bass recital of Stefano Scodanibbio. The program included Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV and Scodanibbio’s own Voyage That Never Ends.

I never imagined that a double bass could sound this way — so diverse, so rich and so thrilling.

Scodanibbio didn’t use the standard, big concerto double bass, but a smaller version that had been lent to him. He stood tall and was able to interact with the instrument as though it were a continuation of his own body. The feeling of freedom, sincerity and passion in his approach to the instrument and to the music did not leave the performance even once — a true example of rare musical professionalism.

The first piece was a compositional collaboration between Berio and Scodanibbio. Berio sent the score to Cello Sequenza XIV and asked Scodanibbio to “reinvent” the piece for a double bass rather than just simply transcribe the music.

“I kept the overall shape of the piece,” Scodanibbio said. “I changed a lot, but I kept many things, too.”

It was clear that the Scodanibbio trademark virtuosic technique built the piece in the form it was presented on Wednesday night. The music was dynamic and unpredictable, ever-changing and provoking.

Using his fingers and all parts of the bow — the wood, the upper end, the whole length — Scodanibbio produced different sounds including harp-like pizzicatos, soft knocks on the instrument, high flageolets, glissandi and sudden, sharp scratches on the strings.

All those devices achieved their main goal: to create a world of sound beyond anything that could have possibly been expected — magical, whimsical, yet deeply philosophical and transcendental. There was constant change, constant contrast.

Short, tender melodies were followed by jagged, electric episodes. The music employed a certain anxiousness — a great search for a great idea. There was a cithara-like passage; suddenly, I heard a monk humming to himself in meditations. Many associations ran through my head while I was listening to Scodanibio’s vast color changes.

While the first piece opened wide my ears and eyes, the second one left me with childlike amusement. What would the music sound like to an eight year old at Christmas?

The music, Voyage That Never Ends, is based on Malcolm Lowry’s work with the same title. The version heard in Finney took 18 years to complete.

“It originated as an exercise and it was supposed to be no longer than seven or eight minutes,” said Scodanibbio. “And then, it gradually grew to its present form. It has four movements — “Voyage Started,” “Voyage Interrupted,” “Voyage Continued” and “Voyage Resumed” — and the idea of the never-ending voyage, not journey, that it represents will lead me maybe to the composition of another, fifth movement.”

The beginning can only be described as total nothingness. For a couple of minutes, the silence was almost deafening. Waiting for the first sound to appear was incredible. And appear it did, from every corner of the building. Scodanibbio stretched the acoustics to the absolute limit.

As the dynamics gradually grew, he moved the double bass around, thus changing the reverberations and the colors. By the end, the entire hall was buzzing and ringing with the overtones of the open strings. Of course, there was a lot of plucking, hitting the strings, warm chords in pizzicatos, virtuosic passages and massive harmonic sound, all characteristic of Scodanibbio’s famous personal style.

“I’m not experimenting with the techniques, no, I just extend the traditional, classical technique to another level,” he said. Gracious, frail melodies appeared underneath the constant tone, repeating from the beginning and inner voices, which transported listeners into an unknown dimension. It was a world beyond Oz.

And if he had not played with such passion, involvement and love for his instrument, I could almost say that I witnessed the “taming” of the double bass. The performance of Stefano Scodanibbio can be defined as the absolute opposite of the conventional. It was a Wednesday night miracle that ended in a standing ovation.


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