in: Reviews

March 8, 2010

Concord Chamber Players with Dicterow, Barker Offer Treats and Trifles

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The Concord Chamber Music Society closed out its season on Sunday, March 7 with a program at the Concord Academy’s capacious, well-raked, and sold-out Performing Arts Center, featuring guests Glenn Dicterow, violin, and Edwin Barker, contrabass, with members of the Concord Chamber Players. What was on offer musically were two works of substance and two trifles, one amusing and the other charming. We missed the introductory lecture by the CCMS’s program annotator Steven Ledbetter, but we did not miss an exceptionally entertaining fundraising appeal for CCMS from newbie board member Bruce Karlin, who is probably the most engaging tout north of Peter Gomes.

The afternoon’s musical entertainment began with the amusing trifle, Rossini’s Duo for Cello and Double Bass, written, it is said, for a bibulous dinner party in London, which was Rossini’s way station after quitting Italy and before his forty-plus-year residence in Paris. The three-movement work, which explores the extreme registers of both instruments, is not devoid of purely musical interest—Rossini invested this piece not only with his typical tunefulness, but with passages of lightly worn contrapuntal dexterity. The slow movement’s cello part is played so much at the high end one is tempted to think of it as the Air for the A String. Michael Reynolds, cello, and Mr. Barker—the BSO principal bass—played this for laughs, with occasional tippling gestures, but this was high-class clowning on the order of the Harlem Globetrotters: the technical challenges, notably in the outer movements, were quite real. Real enough, at any rate, to put some apparent stress on Mr. Reynolds’s articulation.

The second work up was the second “little” piece, the four Miniatures, op. 75a, of Antonin Dvorák, for two violins and viola. These were written in 1887, thus mature pieces, for amateur performance, and consist of Cavatina, Capriccio, Romanza and Elegia—moderate, fast, moderate, and slow—in which Dvorák spins lovely Czech melodies for the first violin, with purely accompanying figures for the other players. These, of course, vary depending on the section and the moment, and are lovely in themselves, but violin I gets to hog all the tunes. Charming, beautifully played by Dicterow—for 30 years and still counting the New York Philharmonic’s concertmaster—and adeptly supported by CCP members Wendy Putnam, violin and Karen Dreyfus, viola.

The first half ended with a work short on instrumental forces but quite substantial in content, the D major Duo for two violins by Ludwig, a/k/a Louis, Spohr, op. 67 no. 2. Mr. Ledbetter’s program note avers that Spohr has disappeared from notice except for W.S. Gilbert’s reference to him in The Mikado; the situation is not nearly that dire—several of his clarinet and violin concertos are occasionally broadcast, if not that frequently performed live, his Septet for mixed ensemble gets played, as do other chamber works. That said, he should be performed much more often; while not, as Gilbert would have us have it, in a league with Bach and Beethoven, he is surely the equal of such other early Romantic composers as Weber (his clarinet music is generally superior in musical depth). The Duo is a fully rounded three-movement work whose opening movement takes many fascinating harmonic detours; whose slow movement is lyrical and sentimental in a Weberish or proto-Mendelssohnian way; and whose concluding rondo provides many melodic twists. Granted, it does not plumb vast depths, but it more than justifies its place on a program. Dicterow and Putnam brought it off with style and grace.

The main event on the program was the Dvorák G major Quintet for string quartet and bass, with the misleading opus number 77 (Dvorák’s personal catalogue called it 18, but his publisher thought low opus numbers equaled low sales). It is unusual indeed to see program notes disparage a work to the degree that Mr. Ledbetter’s did this Quintet, but we are happy to take issue with him. Written in 1875, when the composer was 34, this is not juvenilia, even assuming Dvorák was something of a late bloomer (he was nowhere near as late a bloomer as Bruckner, for example). The instrumentation is a creative experiment: the bass counterbalances the treble-heavy sound of the string quartet, and as Ledbetter correctly observed, allows for use of the cello as a melody instrument, which the piece does to great effect. Throughout, the melodic content is recognizably Czech, and harmonized in Dvorák’s unique voice—several licks sounding quite premonitory of the Eighth Symphony, for instance, and utilizing colorful and characteristic progressions such as from the  tonic to the modally lowered leading tone triads. The first movement expands on a rhythmic idea clearly invoking Beethoven’s fate-knocking, from within a Bohemian melody; the scherzo is heavily accented in the outer sections and contrastingly gentle in the trio; the slow movement (a bit overlong for our taste) is beautiful and moving. The finale is musically the least successful, but it is well wrought and ties things together in proper, if perhaps too dutiful, fashion. The performance was spirited, cohesive, and persuasive, though—could this have been an acoustic artifact, since we had the same sense in the Rossini?—the cello, especially in the high range, seemed a few cents short.

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.

1 Comment

  1. In writing about the Concord Chamber Players concert this past Sunday, Mr. Koven draws attention to — these are my own words — his heightened sense of pitch at revealing moments in the program. This invites the comment that, in the often unresonant venues where much of our regional chamber music is presented, it is both difficult for the audience to accurately perceive the pitches of instruments at certain ranges and challenging for even experienced musicians to look to the performance acoustic for accurate tuning support. A month or so back, my own pitch sense was in annoyed disarray in this same multi-purpose hall at Concord Academy. In my assigned seat, the transformer and air handling noise level was so great that I moved the moment I could do so, only to land in a different mix of the same noise floor. Strong first reflections off the high ceiling above the stage chased me to yet another seat. A further move would have been disruptive that sold-out afternoon.
    It could be that, as a classical recording engineer, I am ill-equipped to just settle for what’s available in rooms not originally designed for the subtlety of acoustic music, but this particular experience was especially off-putting. When I hear repeated odd intonation from musicians whose ability and ears are beyond question, I tend to want to know what’s going on acoustically. That’s part of my profession. Most dry venues substantially absorb certain frequencies, subtly or markedly emphasize others. Flat walls and shells project strong first and subsequent reflections (echoes) to unpredictable reaches of the seating. How well and enjoyably a listener then hears a performance is a matter of luck. Skilled ensemble placement on stage and the reduction of ambient noise levels throughout the room yield good results, but this is not always enough.
    What can a concerned, life-long music lover do when these experiences are common, even the norm? Voting with one’s feet means missing fine music making. Sitting in noisy, dead halls is a dreadful way to try to pierce through to committed music making and profound scores. Politely, neutrally drawing the attention of hall personnel to loud lighting buzzes or the persistent thunder from big vents overhead is not often constructive. Comments of this sort predictably elicits frost or institutional defensiveness.
    I hope with all my being that the new halls the Constellation Center has promised us will encourage our public to demand excellence in acoustics, and to become consciously pro-active in the process. The availability of not just one, but four profoundly well-designed new sets of acoustics may well startle folks into an awareness of what a quiet, uncolored, mildly (and tunably) reverberant ambience can do for the enjoyment of music.
    This exchange of views will have to follow the sinking of a silver spade into Kendall Square sod, of course.

    Christopher Greenleaf, Avondale, RI

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — March 9, 2010 at 11:34 am

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