in: Reviews

January 11, 2010

BCMS Musical Time Program Rattles New Decade

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The Boston Chamber Music Society rattled the new decade with its Winter Festival and Forum series “Musical Time,” three Saturday concerts in the dread of winter, each with a 4 pm forum, 5:30 box supper, and 8 pm show. A modest (200) gathering of voyagers in a heartening generation mix (18 to 80) assembled in spacecraft Kresge (MIT) for the first of these, a time travel shuttle through last-century seasonal stops: Andrew Imbrie’s Serenade for Flute, Viola and Piano, Libby Larsen’s Black Birds, Red Hills, George Crumb’s Eleven Echoes of Autumn, and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor.

Personnel were three, three, four, and three; and durations were about 20, 10, 15, 25 minutes. BCMS artistic director Marcus Thompson played acerbic, russet viola in the first two; Ida Levin’s violin shone richly in the latter two; Tom Hill’s clarinet elucidated the middle two; Randall Hodgkinson’s piano — immense and iridescent — moved ever forward and briskly shook each piece.

The Imbrie, “fraught with potential energy,” opened with a lively Allegro vivace. Motoric in tempo (despite abrupt pauses) and classic in shape and interaction, it paused only for Fenwick Smith’s flute and Thompson’s viola cadenza, then wound down like an analog clock. Siciliano, a languid taffy-pull, showed panache in its decorative touches, where echoing motifs overlapped, reacted, and slowed down even further. Adagio emerged as a jazz ballad — its dissonant ostinatos recalled Thelonious Monk’s interpretation of Alex Stordahl’s “I Should Care” – and again dissipated pianissimo, but recouped its forward energy with an Ives-like thrust in a whirlwind of overlaid chords and bells.

Larsen wedded glowing vignettes to six desert paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe in rarely encountered visual/musical reflections. The first took simple impressions of sere tomato-red sandhills. The second, a study of a gray-brown truffle-like boulder, echoed Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. A molten lava-flow captured slow motion wisps of carnal pleasure (esker lips, skeletal teeth) in a stately Greek strophe. The last snapped a raven — mid-flight in ¾ time — soaring through a sun-flash. All shone with that painful aqua lucidity and bracing creosote air of a New Mexico spring.

Crumb typically coaxes tiny, eerie natural sounds – flutter, whistle, hum, breath, strum, hammer, wheeze, pluck – from odd, creative sources, here in “dark, intense” tapestries that tax performers in pan-technical challenges as they puzzle listeners. Levin had to strum her fiddle like a mandolin, later daintily saw the neck above her left hand. Hodgkinson scudded the piano strings, whistled, whispered, and rattled raw ostinati as the winds – Hill (with amazingly shrill attack) and Smith (alto-flute quasi-Native American chant) – moved to the piano to read snippets hung like dry leaves from its lid and blow cavernous overtones into its strings.

An imaginative leap leads us to Ravel, in summer along his rugged Basque coast, where chaotic storm forces crashing upon rocky fastnesses inspire his writing the sonorous, majestic Trio. Levin and cellist Astrid Schween gracefully limn the piano’s rumbling bass ostinati; summoning expressive fervor and dazzling synchronicity, they sweep all along in a triumphant processional and unison song praising Ge, Mother Earth. Here Hodgkinson’s prodigious piano etched Ravel’s powerful lines with a diamond-cutter’s precision, and anchored the keening strings with a deep and clear understanding.

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Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine and All About Jazz, and about wine for Beverage Business; he lectures on jazz at Boston University, and teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music.

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