in: Reviews

August 23, 2012

BSO Chamber Players’ Hodgepodge

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The programming for last evening’s concert in the Florence Gould Auditorium of Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood seems to have been made more on an occasional and practical than a thematic basis, and the most common thread was the highlighting of wind instruments. The Chamber Players, comprising the first chairs of the string and wind sections of the BSO, were joined by other BSO wind musicians and invited guests for something of a hodgepodge of pieces that began with Lukas Foss’s For Aaron, commissioned by the BSO in 2001 and premièred at Tanglewood in 2002, the year of the composer’s 80th birthday. It is scored either for 12 musicians or for string orchestra, brass, and winds; the former was heard and featured Elizabeth Rowe, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe, Richard Svoboda, bassoon, Michael Wayne, clarinet, James Somerville, horn, Thomas Rolfs, trumpet, Toby Oft, trombone, Timothy Genis, percussion, Malcolm Lowe, violin, Steven Ansell, viola, Jules Eskin, cello, and Edwin Barker, double bass. The conductor was Canadian-born Julian Kuerti, son of the famous pianist Anton.

Aaron, the dedicatee of the Foss piece, is, of course, Aaron Copland, one of the teachers of the first class of the Berkshire Music Center in 1940, of which Foss was a member. Hence, the choice of the work is undoubtedly related to Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary celebrations. The music is derivative if not imitative of Copland’s and constituted a sort of Americana divertimento with some moments sounding  like traditional fiddle tunes and others  mimicking barn dance and hoedown beats.

A curiosity, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata No.209: Non sa che sia dolore, completed the first half. One of only two of the master’s cantatas in Italian (No. 203 is the other) among the hundreds that he composed, there has been cause for some dispute concerning its authenticity.  It is scored for soprano, sung by Canadian-born Karina Gauvin, flute (Rowe), string quartet (Lowe, Haldan Martinson, violin 2, Ansell, Eskin) and harpsichord continuo, supplied by John Gibbons.  To say that its libretto by an unknown author is uninteresting is an understatement.  In fact, the flutist is the more prominent and more present soloist than the soprano, since the opening Sinfonia turns out to be a miniature flute concerto — perhaps the work’s saving grace.  Gauvin’s enunciation was good, and her performance as convincing as any could be for an unconvincing piece.

After the break, we heard an early 20th-century-sort-of divertimento from Paul Hindemith, his Kleine Kammermusik, op. 24/2 for wind quintet, composed in 1922, along with his Kleine Kammermusic Op. 24/1 which was composed for small orchestra. 24/2 was performed by Rowe, Ferillo, Wayne, Svoboda, and Sommerville. Its five short, often witty movements — three fast and two slow were not arranged in an alternating pattern. This was followed by Serge Koussevitsky’s transcription of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Adagio on Hebrew Melodies, op. 47, for double bass (Koussevitsky’s instrument) and piano. (It was written in 1880 for cello and orchestra.) Kol Nidre is another work clearly selected because of its anniversary celebratory significance, but which proved to be astonishingly lovely in this format as offered by Barker. He was accompanied by the Lithuanian-descended, Boston-based guest pianist, Vytas Baksys, who matched Barker impeccably.

The closing piece was the Divertimento in E-flat for two oboes, two bassoons, and two horns by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 252 (240a). He composed it, presumably as dinner accompaniment, along with four others in 1775-’77, when he was employed by Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg. A last-minute substitution for the identically scored K. 289, it was played by Ferrillo and Mark McEwen, oboes, Svoboda and Suzanne Nelson, bassoons, and Sommerville and Rachel Childers, horns. The two central movements of its relatively short four are dance rhythms: Menuetto and Polonaise, both having contrasting central sections; and the melody of its final Presto is an Austrian folk song, Die Katze lässt das Mausen nicht [The cat won’t leave the mouse alone], whose humor is obvious even to one who doesn’t know the source song. Only its opening Andante is entirely slow-paced.

The performances attained perfection throughout most the evening, redeeming the somewhat dour feel and disappointing quality of the Bach cantata that did not seem to fit with the rest of the works. The Bach may have been loftier than the three other works that were more entertaining than serious, though they certainly all are works which are worthy of an occasional outing. Somehow, though,  Ozawa Hall did not seem to be the best venue for them – they seem to call for something less formal, smaller, more intimate. A light French work spotlighting the same instruments by someone like Jean Françaix, for example, might have improved and enhanced the variety. The one occasion that went noticeably unmarked in the programming was the birth of Claude Debussy 150 years ago on this date, but he didn’t write any lightweight divertissements for winds.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College.

4 Comments

  1. I assume that was Malcolm Lowe, not Matthew. Julian Kuerti might also be remembered as assistant conductor of the BSO not that long ago.

    Comment by Josh Nannestad — August 25, 2012 at 10:13 pm

  2. Thanks for the correction. Ah, the advantages of disappearing ink…

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 25, 2012 at 11:22 pm

  3. You may want to take advantage of the disappearing ink again to correct the spelling of the name you fixed: it’s Malcolm, not Malcom..

    Comment by Stephen Owades — August 27, 2012 at 10:02 am

  4. Will do

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 27, 2012 at 11:23 am

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