Most composers dream of immortality, of having their music played throughout the ages, of having their likenesses cast in marble and bronze. Composer Edgar Meyer has already achieved such everlasting fame, though admittedly his renown is etched in ceramic tile.
The Nashville-based composer and double-bassist's name has been carved into the wall of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center's men's room, where it takes its honored place alongside the names of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and other great American composers. Nashville Symphony president Alan Valentine told Meyer his name was being included in the bathroom around the time the symphony center was being built. Meyer's one droll comment was, "I hope they get my phone number right."
Dubious distinctions aside, Meyer's name is often and rightly associated with Nashville's ornate symphony center. He joined banjo legend Béla Fleck and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain to perform a Triple Concerto at the hall's inaugural concert in 2006. This weekend, Meyer returns to the Schermerhorn with another concerto, this one a Double Concerto for Violin, Double Bass and Orchestra that will team the bassist with his longtime friend, violinist Joshua Bell.
"I love working with Josh Bell, because he has such an instinctive feel for my music," says Meyer.
Meyer's best-known collaboration with Bell to date is Short Trip Home, a 1999 crossover album that featured the classically refined violinist playing alongside Meyer and bluegrass musicians Sam Bush and Mike Marshall. But Bell and Meyer's relationship predates that recording by at least 20 years.
"I first met Edgar when we were both studying at Indiana University," says Bell, who spoke recently by phone from his recording studio. "I was about 12 years old and he was maybe about 19, but he was already the big man on campus and was doing things on double bass that nobody had done before."
Meyer was indeed prodigious. Born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1960, he moved to Oak Ridge, Tenn., at age 4 and began studying bass with his father — a public school music teacher — a year later. Initially, Edgar Meyer Sr. had tried to get his son to study violin, but the youngster would have nothing to do with that small instrument. He did, however, develop an affinity for violin music.
"My father would play recordings of Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concertos on Sundays," Meyer says. "I came to think of the violin concerto as being important music."
His appreciation for the violin notwithstanding, Meyer invested his entire personality in the double bass. It became his voice, and he learned to play it with the uncharacteristically lilting lyricism of a bass baritone singing Schubert lieder. By the time he was a teenager, he was ready to study with noted bass virtuoso Stuart Sanky at Indiana University.
In his own way, Bell had been an even more remarkable prodigy. Born in Bloomington, Ind., in 1967, Bell began studying violin at age 4, after his mother discovered he'd strung rubber bands across the handles of his dresser drawer to create a makeshift fiddle. Bell went on to Indiana University, where he studied with the great violinist Josef Gingold and developed a lasting friendship with Meyer.
"Although Josh was a lot younger than me, he was already more advanced technically," says Meyer. "Of all the violinists there, Josh was closest to Gingold, and he developed a beautiful way of playing that had a lot less vibrato than you usually hear in violin playing. That sort of pure sound has always worked well with my music."
After Indiana, Bell and Meyer pursued divergent careers. Bell made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 17 and went on to have an international career, performing with the world's most prestigious orchestras. He became something of a heartthrob, being named to People magazine's "Most Beautiful People" list. And he branched out musically, recording the soundtrack to John Corigliano's Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin.
Meyer, meanwhile, became one of the music world's most versatile artists. He became a noted Nashville session musician, recording with Garth Brooks, the Indigo Girls and Hank Williams Jr., among others. He also became a classical virtuoso — one who could play Bach's cello suites with amazing agility on his ungainly double bass — and an accomplished classical composer.
His new Double Concerto is typical of his style. Lasting about 30 minutes, the three-movement work is both lyrical and rhythmically vital. The orchestra textures are transparent, and the solo instrumental writing is beautifully idiomatic.
Meyer enjoys writing in extremes, and so the violin and bass are often heard playing in their highest and lowest registers. The concerto's complex cross rhythms seem to constantly move in and out of sync.
"I used to think I had good rhythm until I started playing Edgar's music," says Bell. "It takes a lot of practice to get into his groove."
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