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Karr, Gonzaga orchestra debut concerto

Double bassist Gary Karr, photographed with the Gonzaga University Symphony Orchestra in 2015, will return to Spokane for a concert with the GU program on Monday night. (Keith Currie Photography)
Double bassist Gary Karr, photographed with the Gonzaga University Symphony Orchestra in 2015, will return to Spokane for a concert with the GU program on Monday night. (Keith Currie Photography)
By Gene Warnick The Spokesman-Review

Gary Karr was sitting in the lobby of a San Francisco concert hall after a rare performance last year, signing copies of his CDs, when a man in his early 70s with a white goatee and beret approached the table.

“He said, ‘Do you take commissions?’ ” the renowned double bassist recalled. “We exchanged (business) cards. I figured I’d never hear from him again.

“A week later, he called me. He said, ‘After hearing you play, I’d like to commission up to three concertos for you.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m 75 years old, and this finally happens to me?’ ”

The man with the beret was Roger Arvid Anderson, a sculptor and photographer from California who describes himself as a “failed violinist.”

“I had always wanted to hear the (Serge) Koussevitzky bass concerto,” Anderson said of the program he attended featuring Karr with the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony. “I didn’t really know much about Gary at the time. Suddenly, this incredibly charismatic person came on stage and played the pants off the piece.”

Anderson commissioned composer Richard Marriott to write the Klezmorim Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, which will receive its world premiere Monday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox with Karr and the Gonzaga Symphony Orchestra.

Conductor Kevin Hekmatpanah and the orchestra will open with Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Karr will also perform Giovanni Bottesini’s Reverie and Tarantella.

Karr admitted he was “absolutely aghast” when Anderson first approached him.

“It’s easily $50,000 to $100,000 (to commission a work),” Karr said. “I said, ‘What’s the catch?’ He said, ‘I am the director. The piece has to please me or I don’t have to pay for it. It has to move the audience and have lyrical, melodic content that people remember.’

“I said, ‘Sounds like we’re barking up the same tree.’ I consider myself less of a virtuoso than a lyrical musician. There’s nothing I enjoy playing more than lyrical melodies.”

For Anderson, this is part of The Concerto Initiative, which he launched in 2013.

“We’re challenging the atonal hierarchy that’s been ruling classical music,” Anderson said. “We want melody back. We want our audiences back.”

He collaborated with Marriott on the project’s first work, the Metropolis Concerto for Violin and Wind Ensemble, which debuted in 2015. The melodies were drawn from Marriott’s score to accompany the 1927 silent film “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang.

“(Marriott’s) got a pretty good résumé. He’s written for movies, which is something I’ve always gravitated toward,” said Karr, a Los Angeles native. “I’ve commissioned several movie composers. They don’t make mistakes because they can’t afford to.”

Karr, who first came to prominence in 1962 on the Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic hosted by Leonard Bernstein, became the first to make a solo career out of playing the bass.

Karr said he has had more than 20 concertos composed for him. That includes one by the late Gunther Schuller, the longtime Northwest Bach Festival music director as well as a former conductor of the Spokane Symphony.

When prodded, Karr admitted the Schuller wasn’t his favorite.

“He wrote the first movement on Saturday, the second and part of the third on Sunday. I got (the bass part) on Monday and the first rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic was Tuesday,” Karr recalled. “I didn’t sleep, needless to say.”

Years later, when Karr was teaching at the University of Hartford, the music department decided to have a weeklong event to honor Schuller. Surprisingly, Karr said, Schuller requested the bassist play the concerto again.

“I’m a lyrical player, and there was not one held note in the entire piece,” Karr said. “But we were honoring him, so I really worked hard preparing it. I played it and I felt I really nailed it. The only thing he said was, ‘You played it better in New York.’ ”

Karr, who retired from touring in 2001, said he plays only a handful of concerts a year, usually within driving distance of his home in Victoria, British Columbia. He also played with the GU orchestra in 2015.

“We’ve been extremely lucky to get these world-renowned, amazing soloists,” Hekmatpanah said. “As great a legend as (Karr) is, he’s so humble, so nice. You’d have no idea this person was on top of the food chain.”

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