in: Reviews

August 17, 2009

Great Pieces, Almost Great Playing from BCMS

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On August 15th, the BCMS Hamel Summer Series returned to Longy’s Pickman Hall for its second concert.  Once again the pleasures and pitfalls of presenting music that is well known to a seasoned audience demonstrated both delight and disappointment.

Pianist Mihae Lee opened the program with F. J. Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major (Hob. XVI:50).  The composer’s penultimate work in this genre, it reflects all the wit and easy skill of seasoned mastery colored with a mischievous sense of humor; the humor of a kindly aged genius who takes you by the arm and, with a knowing wink that suggests he will safely guide you to the door, leads you right into the wall.  The music is clever, sparkling, and peppered with quirky counterpoint and textural contrasts.   Lee managed to bring out many of these characteristics through playing that was bright, energetic, and technically facile.  Yet the jouncing contrasts in the development section of the Allegro, as well as the delicious changes in the Adagio suffered from a somewhat monochromatic touch.  And the whole performance was too straight-laced, like that of an actor who can’t quite get out of her shell enough to deliver the capriciousness of the lines—especially in the Allegro molto, which should have just been plain funnier.

Lee more than made up for the short-comings of her Haydn, though, when she was joined by violinist Jennifer Frautschi and hornist Eric Ruske for John Harbison’s extraordinary Twilight Music.  The combination of violin, horn, and piano is a devilishly difficult one to manage, since each instrument has such differing sonic qualities.  Yet Harbison, with his usual mastery of instrumental hues, crafted a four-section work that was acoustically cohesive, and that ran an expressive gamut from achingly impassioned to forcefully driven to nostalgically direct.  In this case, Lee did an admirable job of providing the necessary flavors and colors from the piano.  Frautschi and Ruske also delivered their often very challenging parts with great skill and technical sensitivity.   The only flaws in the ensemble work stemmed from the fact that Frautschi is a far more lyrical and emotive player than either Lee or Ruske.   While this resulted in an expressive imbalance in the intense first section, it actually worked to the piece’s advantage in the final section in which, according to the composer, an “image of separation grows directly out of the nature of the instruments”; and, in this case, the players, too.

Perhaps as homage to the composer who pioneered the horn trio, or perhaps as a pre-intermission palate-cleanser for those audience members who might have found Harbison’s tonal language a bit piquant, Frautschi and Lee offered up Johannes Brahms’s Scherzo in C minor from the F.A.E Violin Sonata.  While it was a rousing performance overall, Frautschi’s lyricism worked against her this time in that it tempered too much the wildly contrasting, Gypsy-bitten abandon this piece needs to really take off.

For the final work on the program, Lee and Frautschi were joined by cellist Andrew Mark for L. v. Beethoven’s Piano Trio in G major (Op 1, No. 2).  This is an early work, written when the composer was in his twenties and still in a more or less good mood.  He was also under the influence of Haydn, all of which led to a piece that embodies an inordinate amount of Gemüt.  The trio played the work with energy, enthusiasm, and a fine sense of ensemble.  However, much like the rendering of the Haydn that opened the program, the performance failed to capture the real sparkle, the heightened sense of playfulness, in this case from a young composer who knows he’s brilliant and revels in it.  Hence, the crafty Allegro could have been livelier, the dulcet Largo could have been sweeter, and the jaunty Scherzo could have been bouncier.   It wasn’t until the very last movement that all three players finally let their hair down and took the music where it really could and needed to go; and, judging by the enthusiastic applause, the audience was more than happy to follow.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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