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Riveting Messiaen, Sonic Obsessive Chopin and Debussy, Dated Crumb at Gardner


Along with blackbirds and whales, other voices surfaced at Boston’s Gardner Museum, Sunday September 13. All consummate artists, as well as protagonists of new music, flutist Paula Robison, cellist Yeesun Kim, and pianist Bruce Brubaker, described their program as “homage to nature.

Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird) thrust Robison’s flute into an aviary space chirping and singing away. Very birdlike in every way, the sounds she made were packed with the finest minutiae imaginable, the most startling shrillness in the very high register and how-did-she-do-that notes which she ingeniously shaded with air—yes, air. The already fast flourishes in the score were jacked up to blink-of-the-eye speeds, the way birds do.

Bruce Brubaker kept pace on piano, inhabiting a near perfect match of artistic space. His eye, too, was on every detail. Though a bit icy, his playing of the Messiaen held every bit of attention, no doubt perfectly suitable for this conservatory-test piece turned masterpiece. It does not get any better than this. Bravo!

Brubaker briefly introduced Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 as “a hybrid… a fantastic improvisation.” Improvisation was never exhibited. Lyricism (remember that one?) nowhere to be heard in this performance. Every bit of evidence of Chopin, “The Poet of the Piano,” as target for Brubaker’s conception of this crossbreed of a composition pointed in the opposite direction. Declarative, dry, determined, detailed and undreamed pianism lined the pages of this most unusual piece.

To my own surprise, this concert more and more reminded me of the many Domaine Musicale concerts I attended at the Odéon Theatre in Paris back in the mid ’60s, where Pierre Boulez introduced us to his highly impersonalized stance. He acclimated us to sound-making through a fine ear—one not at all unlike a microscope. As years went by, though, fatigue set in on these finicky ways. This concert was clearly a throwback to another time.

As with the Chopin, it was not the Debussy we know who showed up at the Gardner. It may be somewhat of an exaggeration to say that, in the hands of cellist Yeesun Kim and pianist Brubaker, Sonata for Cello and Piano appeared in the garb of pointillism, a trend in music almost forgotten (thankfully) these days. Did the duo take their cues from Impressionism’s fabulous nature-scapes created with dots and splashes? If so, this interpretation did not resemble nature, nor did it bend to the human condition. Tenderness, whimsy, irony, dignity (to name a few) all heard before in Debussy interpretations, were but shadows giving way to sonic obsession. If you like sound for sound’s sake then you would have found the best there is with these three exceptional artists.

Naturally what suffers from sound for sound’s sake is getting the overall meaning of the music, the raison d’être. With both the Chopin and the Debussy, the whole got buried.

Nature was once again spurned by George Crumb’s meddling with whales. His Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) relies on amplified acoustic instruments played by masked musicians in quasi darkness. Composed in 1972, it feels very dated. Its biggest asset is its freedom to draw on whatever, whenever. Its biggest drawback is the unbelievably ponderous tempo of its outright eclecticism. Vox Balaenaen cries out for video! It cannot be denied, however, that these three top-notch artists gave a whale of a performance (yes, I said it!) of Crumb’s multi-hued outing.

Airs de Ballet from “Ascanio” of Saint-Saëns opened the program. Bruce Brubaker began fashioning keyboard delicacies as one wondered where Paula Robison might be. Then, before you knew it, there she came—smile and all. Such pleasure for all!

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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  1. In Echternach, I heard Bruce Brubaker play Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie in the context of a very different sort of program. And it was the first time this strange, wonderful music made sense. I know all the famous recordings (Richter, Rubinstein, Horowitz) but Brubaker’s playing of the piece seemed to pull off the uncanny transubstantiation Chopin conceived — sonic water into wine.

    Comment by eric — September 16, 2009 at 9:40 pm

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