in: Reviews

January 25, 2010

Time After Time After Time: BCMS Wraps Winter Series at MIT

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To pick up where we and they left off last week, the Boston Chamber Music Society concluded its three-week winter festival and residency at MIT with a program pursuing the festival’s theme of Musical Time at Kresge Auditorium on January 23. This last installment, with works by Mozart, Loeffler, Still and Foss, was more varied in style and timbre than last week’s all-strings affair, featuring two works—the Mozart Quartet and the Loeffler Two Rhapsodies—with oboe, and one—Foss’s seminal Time Cycle—for a mixed ensemble with a wide battery of percussion. As with prior programs in this series, the relationship of the individual works to the overall theme of time ranged from the obvious to the, shall we say, subtle. All the works received from BCMS’s complement of core (Harumi Rhodes, violin, Marcus Thompson, viola, Mihae Lee, piano) and guest artists (Judith Kellock, soprano, Peggy Pearson, oboe, Michael Norsworthy, clarinet, Joshua Gordon, cello, and Robert Schulz, percussion) performances of high polish and intelligence.

The Mozart Oboe Quartet, K. 370, like his Clarinet Quintet, is part of the bedrock literature for wind with strings. Since your correspondent was unable to attend the afternoon panel discussion, he doesn’t know whether this piece featured in the conversation and its position vis-à-vis the festival-s theme explicated; the program note mentions one episode in the finale’s rondo with a rudimentary cross-rhythm, one way of messing with musical time. That aside, there are larger stylistic grounds on which to hang an argument for its inclusion: although  this is a much earlier work than the clarinet quintet, it is by no means juvenilia, and therefore the very Rococo-sounding arioso slow movement, with its continuous singing oboe line against a highly deferential string accompaniment, suggests a deliberate anachronism in contrast to the compact yet purely Classical style of the outer movements. The BCMS ensemble of Pearson, Rhodes, Thompson and Gordon provided a solid, if not revelatory, reading. Ms. Pearson, whose part’s prominence is seldom interrupted, made this technically challenging work (even for a modern instrument) seem easy. She achieved a comely line with notably beautiful fadeouts at phrase endings.

Marcus Thompson- Dwarfed by a Percusion Kit (BMInt Staff Photo)

Not the Usual BCMS Picture- Marcus Thompson, dwarfed by a percussion kit (BMInt Staff Photo)

It may come as a surprise to many modern concert-goers that, apart from those singular anomalies Ives and Ruggles, American classical music did not begin with the generation of Copland, Gershwin, Sessions, Piston and Thomson. There is a significant body of first-rate work spanning several generations before that, many of whose creators worked from a base in Boston. It is therefore welcome indeed for the BCMS to feature works by such composers, and we strongly encourage them to explore this repertory in depth. In this case, the beneficiary of their attentions was Charles Martin Loeffler, who immigrated to the US in the 1880s, became Assistant Concertmaster of the BSO, and later retired from performance to the life of a gentleman composer in Medfield (the birthplace, coincidentally, of America’s first musical superstar, Lowell Mason). Unlike most of his contemporaries, whose musical outlook was shaped by German Romanticism, Loeffler, despite his own German origins, was one of a small handful (Carpenter and Griffes come to mind) who favored French influences, at least prior to the mass pilgrimage of Americans to the étalier of Nadia Boulanger in the 1920s. The Loeffler presented at this concert was his Two Rhapsodies for oboe, viola and piano, from 1905, an arrangement and expansion of two of three songs on poems of Maurice Rollinat. The poems, whose texts were distractingly projected during the piece—after all, there was no singer to follow—offer broody and spectral midnight meditations on decay and death, in the first instance a grim marshy pond by moonlight, and in the second the sonic memory of a dead bagpiper. Loeffler’s rhapsodies, freed from rigid formal constraints, ramble in whole-tone and pentatonic arabesques. In the second, anent the piper, he indulges in some effective if obvious imitation, with the viola as drone and oboe as chanter. The absence of structure and obvious central melodic hooks allowed all to swirl as atmospherics, very effective in its way and an interesting contrast to the methods Loeffler’s contemporary MacDowell used for similar purposes. Once again, Pearson and Thompson, joined by pianist Mihae Lee, left nothing wanting in their shaping and delivery of this material.

William Grant Still was far from the first African-American composer to achieve recognition, but except for Duke Ellington he is probably now the best remembered. His Suite for violin and piano, from 1943, attempts to interpret in musical time what the eye can take in all at once from three sculptures by African-American artists. On this occasion, the projected images of these works served an eminently sensible purpose. The first, of a figure frozen in the midst of dance, allowed Still to uncoil over time the intense energy only implicit in the static form. His result was propulsive, jazzy, modal, and once again pentatonic, an abstraction of dance rather than its representation. The second, a mother and child sculpted in a fairly stylized and abstract way, yielded music contrastingly more concrete in affect, with a gorgeous tune full of plagal cadences that could easily do duty as a popular song or, ironically, an aria somehow omitted from Porgy and Bess. The third is a stunning bust of a young man, cloth cap slightly askew, with the knowing half-smile that bespeaks urban cool. His face bears, to this viewer, a close resemblance to the young Nat King Cole, and Still’s musical portrait conveys the type of easy, knowing grace of Cole’s early piano playing. The pictures in this exhibition were admirably conveyed by Rhodes and Lee, perfectly capturing each mood.

The grand finale of the concert and the series, which seems to have drawn forth a notable crowd of Boston musical notables, was the late Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle. Back In The Day of your correspondent’s initiation into the world of contemporary music—early-to-mid ’60s—this setting of four texts, poetry by Auden, Housman and Nietzsche, and a diary entry by Kafka—was, if not the ne plus ultra, then at least a formidable paragon of avant-garde sensibility. In its initial incarnation for voice and orchestra, it interpolated wholly improvised sections between the four songs. It also reflected Foss’s break from his more mellifluous past into the trendy world of happenings and Webern as the new Beethoven (that is, respected though slightly dowdy and passé). Eventually, Foss moved along and caught the next wave; meanwhile, Time Cycle settled down into a chamber version for soprano, clarinet, cello, piano doubling celesta, and percussion, and lost its improvisatory interludes. That was the version presented by BCMS, and dare we say, it has withstood the test of time. Stylistically, considering what came after it, it seems almost old-fashioned: its melodic lines, jagged as they are, nevertheless set rather than fight their texts. The instrumental techniques and timbres are unexceptional, and percussion part mellow. There are some noticeable drolleries: the Kafka text, in which the author sees time tearing apart and him with it, calls forth a suitably Webernesque pointillism of pregnant articulations. Soprano Judith Kellock has performed this work with some frequency, and her supple voice and carefully attuned phrasing is perfectly married to a grand dramatic flair that found a highly receptive audience. The Kafka setting was in several places almost like a patter song, and in this and in the Nietzsche her German diction did not quite meet the score’s demands. Otherwise, she and the rest of the ensemble were faultless: Messrs. Norsworthy and Gordon, within the limited emotional ranges of their parts, crafted their lines with great effect; Mr. Schultz was deft and nimble at the multifarious and often muted percussion forces; and Ms. Lee effortlessly negotiated the occasionally simultaneous piano and celesta parts. Foss, who died almost exactly one year ago, would doubtless have been much gratified by this rendition.

There remains but one observation about this concert, which confirms what your correspondent witnessed last week, which is that these BCMS performances drew out a marvelously varied and multigenerational audience, from the venerable and middle-aged to more than a few young adults and students, to a troop of very young concertgoers. Whatever BCMS did to make that happen, we ardently hope they keep it up.

Related Interview here.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

3 Comments

  1. How many concertgoers know another once famous African-American composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor? His grand oratorio, “Hiawatha” is occasionally revived. But what about his chamber music?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 25, 2010 at 10:14 pm

  2. Lee, I believe Coleridge-Taylor was English, not American. But he, and certainly others of his era, deserve revival: how about Henry Lawrence Freeman and Will Marion Cook (who wrote classical music as well as popular, very much like Still)?

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — January 26, 2010 at 10:56 am

  3. I need to enter a mea culpa here, which was for an unforgivable crime: I see Robert Schulz on a fairly regular basis as a member of Dinosaur Annex, and so I really ought to know how to spell his name. Sorry Bob.

    Comment by Vance R. Koven — January 26, 2010 at 11:02 am

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