We do not normally cover non-public events, but, as Ben Bernanke might say, exceptional circumstances require exceptional responses. Thus it is that we can provide at least a public report on the Borromeo Quartet’s collaboration on December 11 with famed clarinetist Richard Stoltzman at the Harvard Musical Association, in a program featuring the premiere of the late Andrew Imbrie’s Clarinet Quintet as well as a performance of Gunther Schuller’s String Quartet #4 and Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Quintet K.581.
These pages have already commented on the Schuller quartet, which the Borromeo performed at Jordan Hall on November 30. A second hearing so soon after the first provides an opportunity for a few supplemental remarks. One is impressed yet again by the elegiac lyricism pervading this work, and second time around it is possible to highlight the remarkable sostenuto in the cello part, again beautifully conveyed by Yeesun Kim. One notes as well the similarly effective way in which Schuller carries a single held note past the end of a phrase, particularly in the finale; one could, in fact, regard this gesture as a synecdoche for the operative structure of the whole piece.
One can also detail some other striking sonorities and effects, such as the chirping harmonics in the central scherzo and the notably jazz-inflected second subject in its “A” section. An interesting bit of logistics at this performance illustrates how musicians sometimes have to be inventive with stagecraft: it was not practical, in HMA’s auditorium/library, to have the players walk off stage one by one to end the work, as they did at Jordan Hall. They achieved their effect instead by first dimming the house lights in stages, leaving the quartet illuminated only by their electronic music stands, which were then virtually snuffed-out by each “exiting” musician. Nice touch. Schuller, who was on hand to receive the plaudits of the overflow crowd (HMA even had to “simulcast” the event to an auxiliary room upstairs), has produced here a work of great stature, which will benefit from repeated listening.
The featured event of the evening was the first performance of what turned out to be the last work composed by Andrew Imbrie (1921-2007). In fact, the Clarinet Quintet was commissioned by HMA for the Borromeo-Stoltzman ensemble, so this performance can claim authority on several bases. Imbrie, whose teaching career centered on Berkeley but who often took visiting positions, including locally at Brandeis and Harvard (plus a stint as composer-in-residence at Tanglewood), combined the free atonal harmonic processes of Roger Sessions—one of his teachers—with a strong melodic sense. His sense of structure, as well, derived from the traditions of European classical music, but his personal idiom was unquestionably American in its rhythmic pep and occasional jazziness. In fact, though you would not mistake one for the other, he had a lot musically in common with Gunther Schuller.
The circumstances surrounding the completion and performance of the Clarinet Quintet were complicated. Imbrie was in his final illness during its composition. He finished writing all the notes, but not elements like dynamics, articulation and phrasing. A Berkeley colleague and former student, Hi Kyung Kim, and her clarinetist husband John Sackett (both of whom, together with Imbrie’s widow and son, were present at this concert) worked with Stoltzman and the Borromeo to put the work in final shape for performance. Although valedictory in the literal sense, this work sounds anything but the work of a dying man: it is light, lively, engaging and snappy. It perfectly illustrates Imbrie’s virtues as a composer, combining intricacy with lucidity, enabling the attentive listener to follow the argument and appreciate its many wrinkles and byways. The clarinet part, save only a mini-cadenza near the beginning, is integrated with the string quartet. The clear melodic ideas presented at the beginning are developed in a single movement in a dancing, jazzy way. This was a very fine work on which to end a career, and the performers, who brought to it a full measure of verve, helpfully repeated it (it’s only about 12 minutes long) to allow it to penetrate even better. One hopes for some timely public performances and recordings, which are only its due.
To complete our report on this event we will mention that the concert closed with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, a bedrock of the clarinet chamber repertoire. The ensemble took the opening Allegro at an amble hard to distinguish from the finale’s Allegretto and opted for a broad, round sound like what one would imagine was common in the 19th century. We don’t know how often the Borromeo has performed this work, but can only imagine that Stoltzman has done it dozens, maybe scores, of times. Having dedicated a good deal of effort in bringing forth the Imbrie, and except for a few exquisitely shaped phrases, he seemed to be phoning in this one. Still, even on “off” occasions, these players can, and did, deliver a solid reading of this indelibly magical work.