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Kaleidoscope’s Debussy Made the Day


Boston-based Kaleidoscope came to Slosberg Recital Hall at Brandeis University on Sunday afternoon January 24. Its program of three trios was a mixed affair. Claude Debussy’s highly refined and sensuously colored Trio for flute, viola and harp, which opened the program, came alive from the very first sounds out of each of these variegated instruments, its three movements becoming one large escape into a world free of any suggestion of stress.

Described by one of Kaleidoscope’s members as “coarse and in your face,” Dmitri Shostakovich’s  Trio in E minor, for piano, violin and cello, op. 67, took on that very description but not in an artful way. Gabriel Fauré’s, Piano Quartet no. 1 in C minor, op. 15 suffered from heaviness most of the time.

This was my introduction to this chamber ensemble which has been in existence since 1996. This was the second performance of this very program which will be repeated again at 8 pm Saturday, January 30 at Old North Church in Marblehead, and at 3 pm Sunday, January 31 at Longy School of Music, Cambridge.

There was beauty everywhere in Debussy’s unique trio. Flutist Jill Dreeben, violist Dani Rimoni and guest harpist Judy Saiki Couture complemented each other at every turn. Balance was superb. Details in articulation, phrasing, and dynamics lent a particularly rich overtone to the sinuous melodies and transparent harmonies they reproduced with an abundance of colors just right for the ever so finely etched music.

But it was the shaping of the whole—all three movements—that was most wondrous. Nothing muscular, nothing angular, nothing showy ever came close to entering this serene but irresistible naturescape. One way to describe their playing might be to allude to the wind, at times a gust on the verge, at times a drawn-out breeze: bowing over the strings in quick fashion for contrast, breathing low register tones with a mere suggestion of vibrato, maybe even a crescendo, and gliding harp glissandos where every note comes through yet flows along with others. There was much understanding, listening and, I believe, to some extent, exploration here in a most extraordinary performance of this magical piece with its changing scenes and tints.

While the playing was not always technically perfect in the Debussy, those rare instances of notes missed were in sharp contrast to the problems that beset Kaleidoscope’s performance of the Shostakovich trio. While listening, I did look for the clues from pianist Guy Urban’s welcome introductory remarks, which were succinct and interesting especially because they were coming from one of the interpreters.

I looked for but did not find “moody extremes” or “bleakness” in the first movement. A “peasant dance out of control,” the second movement, a scherzo, was strident and noisy. The third, Passacaglia movement with its “despairing melodies” were overplayed by the violinist, Beth Welty, who could not relax, and underplayed by cellist Sandi-Jo Malmon, whose tone came off as strange to my ears. The opening chords under Urban’s hands found a heaviness completely new to me in this music, leaving a residue of vibrations that wobbled weirdly on the Slosberg Recital Hall piano. Kaleidoscope did bring a “sort of lightness” to the Allegretto movement, but this did not help the Jewish folksong oriented finale.

The string playing in the Fauré showed that each of the players had quite a different view of making sound. It was a mixed ensemble. Downbeats received too much attention preventing forward movement.

I am ever so happy, though, to have heard the Debussy. That made the day.

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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