Thursday, August 12, 2010

Deak: Big Bad Wolf got a big bad rap

OK, we’re not naming names, but Jon Deak has seen a lot of the clips of people performing his “B.B. Wolf” and, frankly, some of them make him ... well, cringe. Because the piece for double bass and narrator, which he will perform at this year’s Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, is cool and funny and seems easy enough to handle and “open” to interpretation, especially once you finesse the haunting, sublime sound of the Kabloona wolf in the wild. Which is no mean feat in itself. Just ask NCMF artistic director David Yang, who still remembers the first time he ever heard the sound. “I simply had never heard anything like this before,” he says. “How can someone make a bass sound so convincingly like a wolf howl that the hairs raised uncomfortably on the back of my neck?”
But, to make “B.B. Wolf” work, you have to resist the impulse to mug for the cheap seats, to play it for laughs, says the composer. This takes  focus and discipline, because you’re talking about a piece for solo bass and narrator that is, essentially, an apologia by the Big, Bad Wolf, one of the original bad guys, the “star” of all the fairy tales we grew up with, a huffing-puffing, Grandma-eating baddie whose rep is just above Eden’s serpent on the Richter scale of literary evil — and whose real-life counterparts are just as hated. And that is the subtext for the 10-minute piece. It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. Personalizing it, incorporating cutesy quirks or ad-libs, has the same effect as adding “meep-meep,” the roadrunner’s eternal response to the coyote, a wolf for all practical purposes. Improvising in what is pretty much a set piece, “sinks it to a comic level,” he says. “It becomes just a cartoon.”

Deak, 67, associate principal bassist with the New York Philharmonic for nearly 35 years, now in his second year as composer-in-residence with  the Colorado Symphony, will be doing double duty at NCMF. After performing “B.B. Wolf,” which is coupled with his new, stylistically like-minded “The Speckled Band, Scene I,” a piece for solo bass and narration based on the famous Sherlock Holmes locked-door mystery, Deak will also shift gears, joining the Festival quartet for a performance of Dvorak’s Bass Quintet in G Major, B.49, Opus 77 and composer-in-residence Dmitri Tymoczko’s “Tiny Little Boxes,” a world premiere.

A longtime environmental advocate and mountaineer, Deak wrote “B.B. Wolf” in the early 1980s, after a climb on the north face of Mount McKinley with Richard Hartshorne, a colleague from Oberlin and Juilliard, now an international peace advocate. “It was a very spiritual journey,” he says, “not just knocking off another peak. It was life-changing in a way.” During the climb he heard the Kabloona, or tundra wolves — luckily in the distance. He didn’t know they were this specific species. That information came from Alaskan natives during performances of the piece there. But he remembered the sound — and captured it. It’s become something of a signature sound. “As artists, everything we do finds its way into our work,” he says. Hartshorne wrote the text, Deak the music.

He’s not setting himself up as a mouthpiece for wolves. Lots of folks, having been brought up in a Grimm world, don’t want to hear about wolves and how they get a bad rap, like suburban mommies and daddies whose pets end up as lunch for hungry coyotes, although they don’t get especially worked up when kitty bags a field mouse or birdies, or cattle ranchers in the Midwest who would rather shoot the varmints than interrupt the hamburger-making process. Like the time a while back when Deak performed the piece at a Big Cheese barbecue attended by, among others, then-Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan and a young(er) congressman/rancher named Dick Cheney, before he took on his official duties as right-wing henchman and ultimate personification of all things evil. After the performance, Sullivan quipped, “Never have we been lobbied so musically.” It’s easy to demonize the creature, which — and nobody wants to hear this — is just doing what nature intended. They try to avoid humans whenever possible. Who wouldn’t? Mostly they keep their distance.

Deak, whose “Concerto for Contrabass and Orchestra” grabbed a 1990 Pulitzer Prize nomination, calls the solo pieces “concert dramas.” The pieces resemble performance art, combining disciplines of theater and sound — especially the Holmes piece, which requires convincing portrayals of three complex characters. “It’s great fun,” he says, “totally absorbing and engrossing. He compares it to “... I don’t know,” he says. “It’s like performing Shakespeare and juggling at the same time.” And, as for many of the guys mugging for the cameras on YouTube and elsewhere, Deak says they “make me want to grab them and have a three-hour session with them.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Jon Deak will present “B.B. Wolf” and “Sherlock Holmes and the Speckled Band, Part One,” two of his compositions for solo bass and narrator, as well as perform in Dvorak’s “Bass Quintet in G Major, B.49, Opus 77 and in the world premiere of composer-in-residence Dmitri Tymoczko’s “Tiny Little Boxes.” at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 14 at St. Paul’s Church, 166 High St., Newburyport, as part of this year’s Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. Tickets are $25 for general admission. Students can attend for free. Festival pass (Concerts I, III and IV), $80. For more information, call 978-463-9776 or log onto the NCMF web.

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