It's so easy for double concertos to devolve into knife fights - J.S. Bach was notorious for pitting his soloists against each other to see who would come out the least bloody and ragged at the end of the affair, and the intervening three hundred-plus years haven't done much to change that perception. An easy way around that problem, from a compositional standpoint, is to make the featured instruments in a concerto compete, as it were, on different playing fields by assuring that the instruments' ranges only barely overlap. That particular practice wasn't wholly accepted until the 20th century, and even then was featured in less accepted works of the canon.
That appears to be changing, though. As early as the 1950s, double concertos for odd instrumentational pairings started to appear as the musical landscape became more accepting of less standard forms - Elliott Carter's Double Concerto, for instance, featured not only two soloists (piano and harpsicord) but two complete and separate chamber orchestras on-stage at once. Paul Hindemith featured trombones (an instrument taken serious by no one in the classical world until he came along) as often as possible. Okay, like, twice. Still.
Andre Previn's "Double Concerto for Violin, Contrabass, and Orchestra," though, is an entirely different animal despite its instrumentation.
It's easy to see why - it was written with a purpose: to showcase the talents of a young bass dynamo, Roman Patkolo, a man brought to Previn's attention by violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. To that end the violin part is backgrounded slightly, a tricky feat to pull off considering its range, and the contrabass lines are multifaceted and varied, again designed to prove that Patkolo has game.
And boy, does he. It's tough to think of the contrabass as a subtle instrument as its low register doesn't really afford the player the opportunity to be both loud and tender. Previn neatly side-stepped this issue by doubling the more emotive passages with higher registered instruments in the orchestra so that sweepingly melodic passages would be bolstered by the mid-strings or the woodwinds. Ms. Mutter, on the other hand, seems to have a hard time restraining herself from overtaking her compatriot and her normal style of playing has a bit too much verve to it for her to have been totally successful. Hopefully this particular problem will be rectified by the talents of a more varied range of musicians tackling the piece in the future.
Previn's a quoter, and the double concerto rings of the old New York greats. He quotes "Tonight" from Leonard Bernstein's score to West Side Story (though modifies the end of the quote to counterpoint the original in a dissonant upwards movement and throws in an unexpected accidental in the middle) as well as pulling a line here and there from Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," and, I mean, how much more New York can you get than those two works?
This is difficult music. It's dissonant and abrasive and historically weighted, managing to reference its antecedents while bringing a new life to them. It's something special - it's so easy to forget that, at its most basic level, classical music is written by a single person with a pen and performed by friends. Apparently the Viennese mentality is alive and kicking.
I'd call it date music, but I'm odd.