in: Reviews

February 16, 2010

Ebony Light and Dark at BSO Community Concert

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There has not been nearly enough said about the Boston Symphony’s outreach program, funded by the Lowell Institute, that brings chamber music concert featuring BSO players into venues in the various cities and neighborhoods of eastern Massachusetts. On Valentine’s Day the seventh such performance (the fourth discrete program) in this series (ten in all) took place at Roxbury’s Twelfth Baptist Church, before a full and commendably diverse house. The performers on this occasion were clarinetist Thomas Martin and the members of the Hawthorne String Quartet, Ronan Lefkowitz (in the first piece only) and Si-Jing Huang, violins, Mark Ludwig, viola, and Sato Knudsen, cello.

The program for this brief recital (one hour, no intermission) was a bit of a moveable feast. The season flyer for the series promised works of Penderecki, Viktor Kalabis, Gideon Klein and Franz Krommer. In the event, we got three movements of Hadyn’s D minor quartet, Op. 76 No. 2, the Krommer B-flat clarinet quartet, Op. 21 No. 2, the Klein string trio, and the première of Mr. Martin’s arrangement for clarinet quartet of Gershwin’s three preludes for piano, a considerably more demotic assortment. This series has not hitherto shied away from difficult music; we hope the BSO has not despaired of finding audiences for it.

The Haydn “Fifths” Quartet (so called for the pair of descending fifths that underpins the melodic and harmonic content of the first movement) is an unusual work in several respects: it is in the minor mode, a relatively rare thing for Haydn, particularly after his “storm and stress” period; it contains a minor-mode minuet (sometimes called the “Witches’ Minuet”); and that minuet is chiefly canonic in structure. This rather stern and learned façade could not, of course, fully conceal the vast store of profound wit at the heart of Haydn’s art. This performance omitted the slow movement in order to keep the program at an hour while accommodating all three Gershwin preludes. This naturally compromised the tonal structure of the work, with all its movements alternating between D minor and D major, with the finale moving from the former to the latter. The performance stuck to the standard interpretive playbook, and focused primarily on austerity and gravitas, with too few acknowledgments of the offsetting suavity and grace. The Ländler-like trio in the minuet was distinctly heavy-footed, and the finale lacked pep; on the whole, a fairly perfunctory reading.

Franz Krommer (the Germanized form of his Czech name), a near contemporary of Mozart who outlived Beethoven, wrote a fair amount of music featuring the clarinet—two solo concertos, one duo concerto, a clarinet quintet, and six clarinet quartets. The Op. 21 quartets, from around 1802, are his first published efforts in this genre (there is some disagreement in the literature whether the B-flat one is No. 1 or No. 2). The one heard on this program clearly reflects an understanding of the Mozart quintet, and while not a masterpiece on that level, is a thoroughly engaging and rewarding work—more substantial than Robert Kirzinger’s program note gives it credit for. The opening movement exhibits great grace and polish, pointing in the direction of Weber certainly more than of Beethoven. The slow movement is dappled in light and shadow; the minuet, if you lose focus for even an instant, is gone; the finale, not terribly subtle, is brisk and bubbling. The remaining Hawthorne strings were, this time, glossy and elegant. Mr. Martin’s playing was a  joy supreme: rich and sonorous, with attacks as perfectly controlled in staccato as legato, by which we mean that you never hear them as attacks. It goes without saying that members of the BSO are at the top of their profession in terms of technique; however, when they venture out as soloists, they demand an even more exacting standard of scrutiny. In this context, let it be said that we have heard many a fancy-pants career soloist who didn’t sound half as good as Mr. Martin did on Sunday afternoon.

The esthetic centerpiece of the program was the Klein trio, which comes replete with a poignant history: it was its composer’s last work before being shipped out from the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp to Auschwitz, whose gas chambers he improbably dodged only to be mown down in the Final Solution’s final tidying-up exercise. Klein, like Krommer a Moravian by birth, was at age 25 beginning to absorb the teaching of Bartók, yet without as many of the sharp edges. The trio, despite the inherent darkening of color the absence of the second violin entails, is not basically a dark or self-pitying work. It begins with a short, bustling movement, in a vaguely Bartókian extended tonality, which ends as if suspended in air. The slow movement, which dominates the work, is a set of variations on a keening Moravian tune harmonized with a pungently harmonized modality. The variation plan begins straightforwardly, and gives each instrument its solo turn, but the scheme allows for two significant slow variations, including the final one, of high plangency and richly voiced sonorities. The sprite Bartók returns for the finale, but with a mellowness and fullness of sound that belies the limited instrumental resources at hand. The Hawthorne crew obviously put much physical and psychic energy into this piece, and rendered it with most affecting particulars.

Arrangements of George Gershwin’s piano preludes exist for solo clarinet, violin, cello, and for all we know viola, with piano accompaniments. Mr. Martin has now brought all this together, without the piano, in a highly engaging manner, and with some distinct touches of his own, including a wonderfully guttural rasp at the beginning of number 1, followed by a Rhapsody-in-Blue style swoop. The second of the set, the most popular with its lilting theme, received a delightfully elegant and dignified reading. Mr. Huang’s solo was sweet but utterly free of schmaltz. The final prelude might have been a little too elegant for Gershwin’s 1926 persona: the clarinet part recalls the composer’s last published instrumental composition, the 1937 “Walking the Dog,” which is a much more refined product than these Roaring Twenties preludes. In Mr Martin’s scoring, the lines were carefully parceled out among the players. There was never a feeling that a piano part was missing; indeed the music could find the cracks between the keys that are perforce only implicit in the original. Although clarinet quartet is not a common ensemble, this arrangement deserves an independent existence.

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.

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