Eugene Kurtz's The Last Contrabass in Las Vegas
performed at Staunton Music Festival
August 13, 2017
Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, VA
Gwen Grastorf, actor
Erik Higgins, double bass
video by Stewart Searle
About the Music
Despite his connections to several prominent figures in music, Eugene Kurtz (1923-2006) is not a recognizable name among American composers. His teachers included members of the influential Parisian coterie called Les Six (Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud), and one of his own students was John Hilliard, longtime professor at James Madison University and a composer-in-residence at Staunton Music Festival on many occasions. Kurtz lived most of his life in Paris, but he continued to interact with trends in American contemporary music through recurring invited teaching posts in the U.S. Tonight we hear his most famous work, The Last Contrabass in Las Vegas, which, as one might expect from the curious title, ventures beyond pure music into a bit of comic theater.
Written in 1974 for bassist Bertram Turetsky, the work is scored for two performers: female voice and double bass, also called the contrabass. We usually envision the contrabass in a supporting role, situated at the bottom of the orchestral texture or possibly anchoring the rhythm section of a jazz or bluegrass band. Yet at various points in history, the unwieldy contrabass has had its moment in the spotlight. One can find contrabass soloists as far back as the mid 18th century, at a time when the instrument (the largest and deepest of the string family) was called a violone. In the modern era it was Serge Koussevitsky, with his stature as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who helped further develop the solo and concerto repertoire of his own chosen instrument.
In The Last Contrabass, Kurtz sets out to catalog all manner of the bass’s expressive devices—and you may be surprised to hear all that it can do. He begins with an agitated motif punctuated by glissandi and percussive strikes on the body of the instrument. All of these pings and pops and slides would be only mildly interesting were it not for the added commentary provided by the female voice. Or better put, what begins to draw our attention is what the contrabass is doing to the woman on stage. Modesty suggests this is better experienced that described in words. Suffice it to say that “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
© Jason Stell, 2017
Gwen Grastorf is a performer and actor in the DC area, where she performs with Happenstance Theater. As a permanent company member, she creates devised physical theater with Happenstance throughout the year, touring in Baltimore, New York, and beyond. Gwen has worked additionally with Constellation Theatre, Faction of Fools, Taffety Punk, We Happy Few, Rorschach Theatre, the Kennedy Center Page to Stage Festival, the Capital Fringe Festival, and the Source Festival. Raised in Frederick, Maryland, Gwen has a strong background in dance and music and loves working on physical, ensemble-based shows. She holds a B.A. in Theatre Performance from the University of Maryland, College Park.
Erik Higgins, double bass, is a musician known for his versatility and fluency in many different styles and musical languages. After graduating from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in 2007, he moved to Germany where he completed a post-graduate training program at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra Academy. In 2009, Erik became a tenured member of the Hamburg State Opera Company as well as an active Baroque and Chamber Musician throughout northern Germany. In 2013, he relocated to Boston where he joined A Far Cry Chamber Orchestra and plays regularly with Handel & Haydn Society and several other Boston Groups.
Happenstance Theater actor Gwen Grastorf returned to SMF in 2018 to provide visual artistry, developed by Mark Jaster, for this performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. A modernist landmark composition expertly performed by soprano Megan Chartrand and festival colleagues.
The otherwise unknown composer Franz Hasenöhrl made this stunning arrangement of Strauss' famous Till Eulenspiegel for chamber ensemble. Bassist Erik Higgins is joined by Antti Tikkanen (violin), Igor Begelman (clarinet), Larisa Gelman (bassoon), and Ian Zook (horn).
If Kurtz's The Lass Contrabass in Las Vegas shows anything, it is the astonishing range of the double bass. In this performance from 2014, Anthony Manzo and Robert Nairn team up to take the story even further with seven jazz-inspired duets by American composer Dave Anderson.
The modern double bass (or contrabass) has a long history reaching back into the Renaissance, when it was known as a violone or bass viol. Heather Miller Lardin takes a few minutes to show four violone from her collection, including instruments suitable for Bach, Haydn, and Schubert.
In the same vein as Kurtz's theatrical Last Contrabass, Kagel's Match is part concert performance, part Dadist spectacle. Percussionist I-Jen Fang referees this imagined tennis match between cellists Michael Unterman and Jan Mueller-Szeraws. Game on!
In this Perspective, Gwen Grastorf (actor) and Erik Higgins (contrabass) talk about their 2017 performance of The Last Contrabass in Las Vegas, an intriguing mix of theater and musical bravura, by Eugene Kurtz.
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