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Xavier Foley Doubles Up Concert Pleasure

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Sep 16th, 2019

Xavier Foley at Hudson Hall

What’s a double bass? That’s the reply that I received from more than one person when I said I was going to a double bass concert. The truth is: double bass concerts are not common. Double bassist Gary Karr was an amazing bassist who managed a solo career. Besides being a great master double bassist, Karr was a renowned teacher at many top musical schools. He loved to teach, so that whenever he was giving a double bass concert, he would go to a local high school or elementary school one day or two before his concert in whatever city he was performing in and give a small concert for free to the children. The concert would be part demo and part performing. Children would excitedly tell their parents of this experience, and the result would be that many would come to his concert, which was almost always sold out. Karr’s other “trick” to ensure attendance was that he exuded the talent of a born comedian. Serious music critics sometimes objected to this side of him, but, of course, Karr ignored such curmudgeonly frowns because he was a super-musician. Karr was featured in two BBC documentaries; The Great Double Bass Race (1978), and Amazing Bass (1984). He has an interesting website.

Double bassist Xavier Foley who played this past Sunday afternoon at Hudson Hall (the old renovated opera house in Hudson) is a rising star approaching the level of Gary Karr. He is an amazing musician at home in a plethora of musical styles. He is (like Wynton Marsalis) that rare musician who can play both classical and jazz. Foley was accompanied by pianist Kelly Yu-Chieh who is finishing her doctorate at Rutgers University under Daniel Epstein. Kelly accompanied Foley with an accomplished touch on the keyboard. I’ve heard Foley play J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos with chamber ensemble before at Lincoln Center and walked away quite impressed.  

Like the 1778 piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310, written in Paris, Mozart’s Violin Sonata in E minor, K. 304/300c, contains a lament for his mother’s unexpected, sudden death in Paris where Mozart had hoped to establish his name yet failed to. Foley’s arrangement captured the emotional core of the work.  The opening Allegro appears to sketch the happy moments upon arriving in Paris; the following Tempo di menuetto is like a mournful love letter to his departed mother. The lament dramatically recreates the symbiotic fusion Mozart felt for his mother. The lower register of the double bass in Foley’s hands is perhaps even more effective than the violin in the hands of an accomplished player. Opening a concert with such a powerful piece takes the risk of alienating an audience, but when the performer actualizes at top level that risk pays the dividend of enthralling rapture with heightened aesthetic appreciation. In Mozart’s hand pain can be an alternate road to memorial bliss. Yes, Foley hypnotized the audience and the audience nearly wept at the death of Mozart’s mother.

Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, D. 821 by Franz Schubert was written in Vienna in 1824; it remains the only important composition written for the arpeggione (bowed guitar). By the time that this posthumous work, written for a friend, was published in 1871, interest in the instrument had long vanished. Transcriptions for this work are available for piano, cello, and viola. Foley has now provided one for double bass and piano. This cheerful piece in three movements appears to be an anthology of various dance modes, both social and folk, including a gypsy motif in the third of the three movements. This piece permitted Kelly to display her pianistic abilities while Foley played comic relief as he leapt from high to his most resonant low notes, nimbly, effortlessly, adroitly. Foley nearly danced with his instrument, often with his eyes closed as his companion instrument sung with astonishing notes.

After a break, Foley played a new composition of his own, Irish Fantasy for solo double bass, which was based upon the folk tune “The Clergyman’s Lamentation,” one nearly a thousand works attributed to the blind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670–1738) who had seven children, only one being male; he befriended Arcangelo Corelli, inventor of the violin concerto; O’Carolan also wrote harp concertos. Foley has turned this O’Carolan tune, usually played on violin, into an embellished double bass essay; Foley retains the circular refrains while providing digressing interludes. The opening was similar to the style of jazz pianist Bill Evans before it settled into somewhat stricter Celtic mode. While this tune is a lament, there are also comic asides. To be a Catholic clergyman in Ireland carried the death penalty, which was often commuted (for commercial reasons) into being sold into slavery; many thousands of clergymen were shipped to the Caribbean (Cannibal Islands) where a dialect argot arose, a blend of Irish and unknown African languages. Foley went through a number of dance rhythms from reel to jig, and from set dance to step dance, even smartly clacking the end of his bow on the body of his instrument to imitate the effect of a dramatic stomp in step dance. This was an extraordinary novelty piece.   

Foley then played a new work commissioned by Clarion Concerts, the non-profit sponsor of this concert. This Sonata for double bass was a shape-shifter. Foley joked that it was a mash of video game tunes, television commercials, YouTube viewings, casual radio gleanings, church music, and a touch of soul music. I would have called it fusion funk; its carnival parade of different styles seemed to have no hearable stitches to connect the amazing colors. I would have called the composition “Jacob’s Dream Coat,” but if I was asked to elaborate, I would decline. But this mash list was a joke, echoing Beethoven's humorous note to his publisher regarding his august Opus 131, String Quartet in C sharp minor: Beethoven remarked that it was "put together from pilferings from this or that" and so upset his publisher that he had to explain the joke.

Kelly joined Foley for an energetic duet: Intermezzo & Tarantella, Op. 9 by Reinhold Moritzevich (later changed to the English Ernest) Glière. Born in Kiev, Glière (with a Belgian-German name), his work is no longer played in Ukraine because he composed Russian music and identified himself as a Russian, as did anyone born in Ukraine back then. Under Communist rule he was not persecuted because he remained a popular, old school, Romantic; at the moment there is a small revival of his work in the U.S. This charming salon duet featured pleasant humor and rural romance.

For encore, Foley, who is only 25, played another original composition, Cranberry Juice for solo double bass. This was a fantastic juice cocktail!

This review is far longer than I intended, yet I wish the concert lasted longer.