in: Reviews

January 25, 2010

BSO Outreach Stretches Repertoire

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I heartily enjoyed the Boston Symphony’s Outreach concert on January 24 in Somerville, and I heartily support the idea, and its successful realization, of a free chamber-music concert in the suburbs, especially one that might attract young people. This one may have been the first ever in the former Somerville Armory on Highland Avenue, and it drew a mixed audience of all ages to full capacity. The Boston Symphony’s Outreach concert on January 24 may be the first ever in the former Somerville Armory on Highland Avenue.  It was certainly my first time in the newly-rehabbed hall, in what might have been a gymnasium in former decades.  The rebuild includes a burgundy-painted foam ceiling and some thoughtfully integrated overhead ventilation ductwork, but there is still considerable natural light through large windows, and, best of all, the sound quality in this big room is not bad.  I sat up front with some students from the West Somerville neighborhood school, seventh and eighth graders, who listened with absorbed interest.  The players were Victor Romanul, violin, Michael Zaretzky, viola, and Mickey Katz, cello, all outstanding and longtime members of the Boston Symphony.

The program began with Walter Piston’s Duo for viola and cello.  Piston was my beloved teacher exactly half a century ago, but this work, composed in 1949, was new to me: three movements in A minor, C major, and A major, with chromatic and comfortably dissonant diatonic harmony equally balanced in a characteristic and convincing way.  The opening Allegro risoluto was marked by plenty of steady eighth-notes in both instruments, and occasionally engaging in a rhythmic dialogue.  On a single hearing, I thought I heard the sonata form that Piston, as a modern American neoclassicist, frequently excelled in writing.  The slow movement in 6/8, Andante sereno, was actually less serene and more resolute than the first, and more dramatic, too, with a more obvious contrapuntal opposition of the instruments, and beautifully shaped melodic lines that brought forth a lot of parallel thirds and sixths.  The finale, Allegro brillante in 2/4, again sounded like a sonata form, more compressed but just as vivid, with some attractive canonic writing.  This Duo dates from between Piston’s Third and Fourth Symphonies and at about the same time as one of his most ingratiating works, the Piano Quintet.

Webern’s nine-minute-long String Trio, op. 20, from 1927, is one of his most granitically difficult works.  One could hear this a dozen times or more and not feel that one had understood it.  Robert Kirzinger’s well-written program notes were certainly helpful, but hearing the piece repeatedly is an absolute necessity, as is so often the case in Webern’s minutely concentrated twelve-tone work.  It was possible to distinguish episodes of greater or lesser saturation, volume, and tempo, and even of drama — even when marked Sehr langsam (very slow) it seemed as though the isolated pointillistic gestures were coming at lightning speed.  But the performance was clearly as sensitive as it was intense.  Mickey Katz, the cellist, apologized in advance for the interruptions caused by page turns (more abundant than usual, because all three performers play from full score).  In 1959, at one of the Stravinsky concerts in New York, I heard Webern’s then-unpublished Triosatz (a single movement) in its American premiere; the op. 20 Trio is more interesting, and certainly more monumental, and it’s understandable that the piece I heard in New York didn’t make it into this work.  The Trio has an earlier Boston Symphony connection as well: the violist of the premiere performance, in Vienna in 1928, was Eugen Lehner, who for years sat at the first desk of the viola section.

The big hit of the afternoon was Mozart’s Divertimento, KV 563, one of the cornerstones of the small string trio repertory.  It doesn’t have the expressive depth of the late quartets, nor the intellectual involvement of the string quintets, but it is surely their equal in charm.  It is a long work, in six movements, delightfully inventive even though light-hearted.  Like others of Mozart’s divertimenti from earlier in his career, this one is marked by two minuets and two slow movements (Adagio and Andante, the latter a variation set).  The first movement is the most expressive of the six, with some surprising chromaticism in the development section.  The rondo finale has a nice rustic feeling, very much in dance style.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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