The new work by Gerald Barry Aus Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, which will premiere on 2 June, sets a scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film of the same name to music and exposes human flaws and dreams. Solo bassist Matthew McDonald will interpret the concerto for double bass and orchestra. He spoke to us in advance about the creation of the work and why he paddled across Lake Tegel whistling for it.
You are the soloist for the world premiere of Gerald Barry's new piece. How can we imagine you getting the new piece as a soloist? Did the score come by post? Did you talk to the composer beforehand? How does that work?
Initially, I received sections of the concerto in emails with photos of Gerald’s handwritten solo part. I was working from print-outs of these until the exciting day when a printed version arrived in the post. Gerald and I communicated a lot via email and WhatsApp to discuss technical details, musical expression, colours etc.
I recorded myself playing and sent him videos for comments. I also visited Gerald in Dublin for a few days in February to work on the piece. We got on like a house on fire. In fact, I nearly did set his house on fire when I mistakenly heated his electric kettle on a gas stove.
What was the first thing that came to your mind when you saw the score for first time?
I think it was a cocktail of thoughts: “This looks amazing”. “How will I ever play this?” Also, the concerto is filled with the most unique and vivid directions for expression: frenzy, ecstatic, intoxicated, ghostly, elated, roller coaster, and many more. The words themselves gave me a strong sense of the concerto’s emotional roadmap, even before I really knew the notes.
How do you approach a new piece? Did you play the score immediately, “trying it out”, or did you first read it in its entirety to get to know it?
I played through the concerto quite a lot at the beginning, to familiarise myself with its language and style, skipping over the trickiest parts. It’s a bit like getting to know a person. You spend more time with their fun side at the beginning, but at a certain point have to acknowledge and confront the difficult sides and find a way.
Can you tell us something about the film and opera that is the basis for the concerto? What is the music about? And how does it sound?
In Fassbender’s film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Gerald Barry’s opera of the same name, Petra is a deeply flawed human being who falls in love with a young woman named Karin. Petra’s infatuation is real and intense, but overshadowed by the narcissistic aspects of her character. She ultimately confuses intimacy with ownership and drives Karin, and everyone else in her life, away. The music in the concerto corresponds to the scene in which Petra gets to know Karin and shortly after asks her to move in. Erratic, violent, tender, passionate, this concerto packs in the extremes of human nature.
What do you think is special about a concerto for double bass and orchestra? What can the instrument do that others can't?
Anyone who loves stories about human struggle, or people overcoming huge obstacles, should enjoy a double bass concerto! The double bass is the most physically demanding instrument in the string family. In this concerto, I have countless intervals which require me to shift my left hand more than a metre.
There’s something exhilarating about a bass concerto. There’s a huge range from low to very high, and the range of colours is vast. The low register gives it a certain melancholy, but the bass is equally capable of brilliance and lightness if you ask it nicely.
The bass is an instrument you can and must put your whole body into. This is an exciting thing to see on stage.
Apparently you also have to whistle at one point? Have you practised that specifically?
I have practised my whistling with great discipline and enthusiasm. Recently I went stand up paddle boarding on lake Tegel on a still afternoon and spent the whole time whistling the melody from the concerto. I like to imagine there’ll be a sailor or kayaker in the concert who’ll think “Hey, that sounds familiar”.