The double bass rarely takes center stage in a classical music program.
But Portland Chamber Orchestra, even without its longtime beloved conductor Yaacov “Yaki” Bergman, who died in September, has always presented concerts a bit outside of the music box. In its “Starburst” program Nov. 18 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, 17-year-old Maggie Carter briskly carried her 25-pound double bass onto the floor surrounded by an audience, and played with PCO’s string orchestra for more than an hour like a pro, or like a supremely confident musician who’s one with her instrument. At times, she danced with her bass, and she was leading every note of the way.
Playing the double bass since she was 9 years old, when she finally was able, after several years, to persuade her parents to buy her the big instrument, the 5-foot-3-inch, home-schooled teen has practiced hard, and is blessed with a photographic memory. She played without sheet or tablet music, and moved her way through Giovanni Bottesini’s 1845 Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra, one of the most performed solo works for the bass, which tests the musician’s range and virtuosity. Bottesini had a lot to do with lifting the bass’s low profile, on which he was a magician. He has 21st-century company in Maggie Carter.
She followed the concerto with Germany’s Max Bruch’s 1881 Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, a Hebrew prayer-like work that was written for cello and orchestra. Harpist Denise Fugikawa added a sparkling dimension to the contemplative mood. Then Maggie Carter and the all-strings orchestra took a well earned break.
The last double bass piece featured one movement, “Solemn,” from Dr. John Duncan’s Three Proclamations. Duncan was another discovery of Bergman’s. Duncan’s grandson, Dr. Stephen Shepherd, is the president of PCO’s board and an orchestra violinist. His grandfather was a nationally known Black musician (1913-1975) who championed Black music and composers, and of course, whose music lived many years in obscurity. Shepherd’s wife told Bergman about the piece and Bergman, a champion of underrepresented composers, went for it.
Because Carter is such a fierce player in complete possession of her bass, and on her way to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 2024, the audience went nuts for her, but another star emerged during the evening: Raúl Gómez-Rojas. He led the orchestra and Carter (standing close to his left elbow) in Bergman’s absence, though Bergman curated the “Starburst” program earlier in the year. Along with guest conducting, the upbeat Costa Rican-born artist juggles his role as the music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, which has 12 conductors and serves 500 students in 14 ensembles.
A professional violinist/violist himself, he was at home with the all-strings repertoire that evening, leading joyfully, expressively, carefully and charmingly. Gómez-Rojas said after the concert that he “was very pleased, as well as inspired by Maggie. I know she is very demanding of herself, but I believe she was pleased as well. Working with her felt more like working with a peer than working with a student.”
To reinforce her talent, Carter came well-prepared. “She e-mailed me weeks before the performance with her thoughts and ideas about her interpretation of the pieces,” Gómez-Rojas said. “We met up once before our rehearsals with the PCO, so I could hear her play through everything on her own. Then, she came to two rehearsals and the dress rehearsal.”
Bookending Carter’s performance was Jessie Montgomery’s short frenetic energetic Starburst, a metaphor for the night in many ways with Bergman’s death yet ongoing star-lit legacy, Carter’s joyful star quality, and Gómez-Rojas’ star turn as a gifted conductor of more than musically precocious kids.
The last piece, Antonín Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings in E Major, written when the Czech composer was in his mid-30s — and composed in two weeks in 1875 — was a familiar piece loved by many string players, incorporating four of Gómez-Rojas’ MYS students into the PCO strings orchestra. The students are part of the MYS’s advanced string ensemble called MYSfits, co-directed with Fear No Music’s Kenji Bunch. The group, Gómez-Rojas said in a post-concert email, is “made up of the most committed string players from our top full orchestra. These are the players who are hungriest for extra learning and performing opportunities. They jumped at the opportunity to play side-by-side with professional musicians of the caliber of the PCO. There were some happy coincidences, too. Cyrus Ngan (cello) is a student of PCO cellist Erin Ratzlaf, so he was thrilled to perform alongside his teacher.”
The rest of the evening’s MYSfits included violinists Noah Carr and Leena Karmarkar and violist Amir Avsker, all of whom, along with Ngan, took deserved bows at the end of Dvořák, a shining example of the merging of folk and Romantic music. Gómez-Rojas said he played the piece as a kid in Costa Rica, and as a professional strings player, but this was his first time to direct it. “It was great to really dig deep into the score from a conductor’s perspective. It’s a deceptively difficult piece, which, if done well, doesn’t sound hard.”
Despite Bergman’s absence, the evening was full of stars. The late conductor would have been pleased, his spirit part of the meteorites bursting open and multiplying in the night sky at such an astounding rate that they can change the galaxy.