With a cold rain pouring down and no relief in sight, spring was the last thing on my mind. So having neglected to set my clocks forward in honor of daylight saving, I arrived at the Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert on Sunday, March 14, in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall well after the 3 pm starting time. Unfortunately, that meant missing the Mozart F major Quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, K 370(368b), the Villa-Lobos Bachianas brasileiras No. 6 for flute and bassoon, and the first movement of Michael Gandolfi’s Plain Song, Fantastic Dances for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet. horn, and bassoon.
Written on commission from the St. Botolph Club in celebration of its 125th anniversary and premiered by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players in October, 2005, Gandolfi’s three-movement work takes full advantage of the virtuosic and expressive skills of the BSO’s first-desk players, Malcolm Lowe, violin, Steven Ansell, viola, Jules Eskin, cello, Edwin Barker, double bass, William Hudgins, clarinet, Richard Svoboda, bassoon, and James Sommerville, horn. In a tribute to St. Botolph, a seventh-century English monk from whose corrupted name the Lincolnshire town of Boston takes its name, Gandolfi cites both Gregorian chant and twelfth-century organum in the first movement, titled “St. Botolph’s Fantasia.” The second movement, “Tango Blue,” seemed more blues than tango, the woodwind-horn trio set off against pizzicato strings, with extensive and idiomatically conceived solos for horn and clarinet. The “Quick Step” finale featured witty exchanges among the players in finely wrought counterpoint, and a concluding recall of the Gregorian melody from the first movement. Unlike so much new music, which enjoys a politely-applauded premiere only to retreat into oblivion, this skillfully-written piece seems well on its way to entering the repertory of works for chamber ensemble, and deservedly so.
After the intermission, Hudgins, Lowe, Ansell, and Eskin were joined by Haldan Martinson, second violin, in a performance of the Brahms Quintet in B minor for clarinet and strings, Opus 115. Composed in 1891, and inspired by Brahms’s encounter with the clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, just as the Viennese clarinetist Anton Stadler had provided the impetus for Mozart’s quintet, this was the crowning achievement of the composer’s autumnal years. Commenting on rather than leading off the thematic activity in the first movement, the clarinet comes into its own in the second movement Adagio, with its haunting opening melody and elaborate middle-section arabesque. The playful third movement was a study in tone colors, the clarinet’s mellifluous tones first blending, then contrasting with bowed and pizzicato strings. The final theme and variations began with a call-and-response between strings and clarinet, followed by five variations in which each member of the ensemble in turn came to the fore. An extended coda, returning to the themes and meter of the opening movement, brought the program to a suitably elegiac close. Here was chamber music playing at its very best.