RAMSIER:  Divertimento Concertante on a Theme of Couperin.  Road to Hamelin.  Silent Movie. Eusebius Revisited.
Gary Karr, Mark Alison Morton, double bass/Christopher Finkelmeyer, piano/Louisville Orch; Robert Bernhardt, cond.

ALBANY TROY 237 (F) (DDD) TT: 72:22

In the 18th century there was Domenico Dragonetti; in the 19th century Giovanni Bottesini (to a lesser extent Fritz Simandl); at the end of the 19th century Serge(y) Koussevitzky—all of them doublebass virtuosi, all of them with the same problem. Their repertory was not only limited but in greater part musically negligible. Each wrote at least one concerto (Bottesini, who also conducted and composed operas in particular, wrote two). But their other works were mostly of the "variations on..." type—"Carnival of Venice," typically and inevitably, plus operatic excerpts in the Liszt tradition without the sonorous resources of a grand piano (or Liszt's genius). All of them left study manuals and exercise books. However, when Koussevitzky put aside the bass-fiddle for a baton, the instrument languished as a solo performer for more than half a century.

Happenstances brought precocious Gary Karr (b. 1941 into a Los Angeles family of bass players) and composer Paul Ramsier (b. 1927) together in New York City at the start of the 1960s. Ramsier had been a piano student of Beveridge Webster at The Juilliard School, and for seven years (1954-61) was pianist for Balanchine"s City Center Ballet—originally Ballet Caravan, later on the New York City Ballet when it moved from 55th Street to Lincoln Center. Ramsier—pronounced "Ram-zeer"—had been a composition pupil of Ernst von Dohnányi at Florida State University, and studied privately in New York with Alexei Haieff from 1956 to 1960. While Thor Johnson and Leonard Bernstein launched Karr's career as a soloist, Ramsier began composing for the doublebass. The first concerted work, Divertimento Concertante on a Theme of Couperin, was premiered by Karr in 1965 at the Ravinia Festival, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In the years since it has been played by Karr and others more than 150 times with orchestras worldwide.

In 1978 Ramsier wrote Road to Hamelin for narrator, bass soloist and orchestra, in which Karr doubled as soloist and narrator at the Toronto premiere, as he does on this disc, made with Ramsier's hometown Louisville Orchestra under the direction of its former associate and now principal guest conductor, Robert Bernhardt. Like the Divertimento, it has been widely played in its original form as well as in Ramsier's piano version, all but replacing Tubby the Tuba and like-styled silliness on children's programs.

The seven-movement Silent Movie suite came later (for film scenes the composer imagined, including among its titles "Martians," "Dracula," "Mata Hari" and "I Found the Treasure!"). So did Eusebius Revisited, subtitled Remembrances of Schumann, for whom the doublebass was an orchestral and chamber music instrument, although late in life he did venture to write a Cello Concerto (a tiresome business compared to major works by later composers). Like most of Ramsier's work that I know—including his droll opera, Man on a Bearskin Rug—everything here but Hamelin is musically subtle, lyrical, tonally anchored (which is not to say without harmonic spice). By no means are these the sum of Dr. Ramsier's work for the doublebass (did I mention he has been a practicing psychotherapist since 1977, in New York City until 1999, and once more in Sarasota, Florida, where he relocated thee years ago?), although a schism in his long relationship with Karr, who retired last year, soured him for some time.

Then he heard Mark Alison Morton, who plays Silent Movie and Eusebius on this disc, principal bassist of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony and a most artistic representative of the new generation developed in the last half-century. So is John Miller, principal bassist of the Florida West Coast Symphony in Sarasota, with whom Ramsier has recorded a forthcoming Albany CD of his music to be issued imminently, with the composer himself at the keyboard despite initial qualms. Just as you never forget how to ride a bicycle, you don't forget how to play the piano.

Did someone ask why review a disc published in 1997, although the sound is as fresh as yesterday? For one thing, it preserves the artistry of Karr as well as the composer, who has written most generously and congenially for his soloist's instrument. I don't care much for Karr as a narrator—it is an amateur's performance that condescends to youngsters—but his playing is compensatory when he shuts up, and the piece does, along with the Couperin Divertimento, "belong" to him. Or did. The upcoming generation is altogether as poetic and threateningly virtuosic—Morton's two performances are eloquent examples—with a tone as honeyed and uniquely beautiful as the cello produces, with greater carrying power in the bargain.

Frank Proto (b. 1941), a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra stalwart, also composes for the doublebass, but his metier is more "third-stream"—it too can be sampled on CD. But Ramsier has been an exemplar in the tradition inherited from Koussevitzky (as Karr inherited the maestro's instrument, after Koussevitzky's widow heard him play). None of several other concertos Karr commissioned subsequently survived their premieres. The contrabass viol is a lyrical instrument—an open secret Paul Ramsier underscores in his music. Listen to it; be surprised, maybe even dumbfounded that an instrument so bulky can produce music so suavely eloquent.

R.D. (Feb. 2002)