There’s only so many ways to describe Catalin Rotaru’s skill as a double bass player, and all involve some variation on "mind-blowing."
“He’s quite a phenomenon,” Maria Larionoff, artistic director of the String Orchestra of the Rockies said. “He’s one-of-a-kind in the world.”
Rotaru, a Romanian-born bassist who teaches at Arizona State University, is the guest soloist for the opening performance of SOR’s 2019-20 season. His uniqueness comes from what exactly he plays on the bass.
A Hadyn cello concerto? Rotaru sits down with his bass and plays the lead part, no problem. Paganini violin caprices? No problem, either.
As a violinst, Larionoff said she was skeptical when she heard tell of Rotaru’s transpositional talent. Then she saw him play.
“It’s not only technically spectacular, but musically has such a sensitivity,” she said. “When you’re sitting in the audience, and you see him doing these incredible feats live, it’s breathtaking.”
There's essentially no one else in the world who does what Rotaru does, Larionoff said, aside from maybe Edgar Meyer, a bass player of similar skill who focuses on jazz.
Rotaru will be featured for two pieces in SOR’s opening concert: Hadyn’s Concerto for Violoncello in C Major (in Rotaru’s own arrangement) and Bottesini’s Elegy and Tarantella, written for bass.
The Hadyn Concerto for violoncello in C Major has a fun, upbeat moderato, with much attention paid to the cello, of course – lines that are given to Rotaru’s double bass in his arrangement.
The adagio gives the lead cello plenty of room to draw emotion from their notes, in a thoughtful and optimistic middle section.
The allegro molto races, bows whizzing with no room to breathe as the melody flits from one run of notes to the next — it’s hard to imagine seeing a bassist play that cello line.
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Rotaru will also give a master class in the University of Montana's Music Recital Hall on Friday afternoon, which is free and open to the public.
“He gives a fabulous master class,” Larionoff said. “He’s very charismatic and well-spoken.”
The other two pieces to be performed Sunday are Dvořák’s Nocturne in B Major, a nice, quiet piece with a dainty melody, and Suk’s Serenade for Strings.
Dvořák, Larionoff said, was Suk’s father-in-law and mentor, and he encouraged Suk to write a serenade as one of his first works.
“I think Suk was not even 20 when he wrote it,” Larionoff said. “It’s a very beautiful piece.”
This performance is the opening to SOR’s 35th anniversary, and Larionoff said they have four members who’ve been in the orchestra since the beginning: Colleen Hunter, Madeleine McKelvey, Fern Glass Boyd and Christine Sopko.
This summer, Larionoff worked on updating SOR’s website (sormt.org) as well, with a new layout and more information, including interviews with guest soloists and biographies for each musician in the orchestra.
“I think it’s great for audience members to get to know people,” she said. “They see us on the stage, but don’t know anything about our personal lives.”
The new site also has more information on SOR’s youth education component, called Next Gen. They’ve always been focused on student outreach, but Larionoff said they’re working on expanding that focus in the coming year.
Larionoff encouraged people not to miss their first performance, and first guest artist of the season.
“It’s a special weekend,” Larionoff said. “It’s kind of exhilarating and exhausting.”