in: Reviews

April 27, 2010

The Coming of Light: Winsor Music Premieres Lieberson

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Since 1996, oboist Peggy Pearson has been directing Winsor Music, which in addition to regularly programming chamber music performances in Brookline also commissions new chamber works by some of the most prolific American composers alive today. On Sunday evening, April 25, The Winsor Quartet (Peggy Pearson, oboe; Randy Hiller, violin; Drew Ricciardi, viola; Tony Rymer, cello) featured some refreshing interpretations of Beethoven and Bach as well as the Boston premiere of Peter Lieberson’s cycle, The Coming of Light, with some top-tier local instrumentalists and singers. Among the lists of featured musicians were tenor Frank Kelley, baritone Sumner Thomson, soprano Kasey Fahy, and the Boston Children’s Chorus led by director Anthony Trecek-King.

Beethoven’s Quintet in C major, Op. 29 represents one of the rare moments in musical history when one can actually hear a composer’s stylistic voice evolve, a sort of aesthetic hiccup, within the context of a single piece. As with many of the Classical pieces that Winsor performs, this piece was arranged to include the oboe — for the most part, replacing a violin. Not being a purist of any sort, I found the integration of the oboe into the ensemble gives a beautiful new timbral element to the piece and illuminates some of the inner-voice counterpoint with an interesting coloristic gleam. The “Allegro moderato” and the “Adagio” have more elements in common with Beethoven’s earlier period. The playing of the “Allegro” was a bit too tense and rigid, and that of the “Adagio,” though exhibiting an impressive degree of control and expression, especially in Hiller’s wonderfully emotive solo moments, lost some of its confidence towards the end of the movement.

The “Scherzo: Allegro” contains some of the first examples of a darker complexity that ultimately defines Beethoven’s second period. The ensemble danced through this movement with conviction and vivacity, featuring some rarely heard acrobatics between the two violas. The “Presto” received a dynamic performance, marked by an effective effort to blend the oboe into the string ensemble in the appropriate moments.

Peter Lieberson, who came to prominence as a composer in the Boston area before moving to the Southwest, is well known for including Buddhist themes as a philosophical element in his music. The Coming of Light was co-commissioned by Winsor Music and the Chicago Chamber Musicians for the centennial of the dedication of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple. Interestingly, the piece relies more on general humanistic ideas of impermanence and love, in response to an architectural corollary. Pearson shared some words on behalf of the composer before the piece was performed:

“…We create structures all the time to shield ourselves from impermanence – not only for shelter and comfort but also as edifices built to celebrate our stay here on earth. Architecture by its very nature is constructed out of materials that are impermanent. We make structures that we think are beautiful and interiors that are inviting, and the very fact that these edifices may point to something noble expresses a kind of sacredness about what we as human beings do. That we do these things at all is itself an opportunity to reflect on their impermanent nature, to appreciate how fleeting and precious all of life really is. And love of course is love. It’s simple to understand and be touched by the impermanence of all of that we love. So from that perspective and from my own personal experience of having been ill over the last three years, I thought about how life provides many opportunities—love returns, one’s life changes…“

The piece set two poems each by John Ashbery, Shakespeare, and Mark Strand for baritone, oboe, and string quartet. The settings, consistently oriented towards an ultra-conservative harmonic language, displayed an undeniably exceptional level of craft, sense of continuity, and at times, imagination. Sumner Thomson’s voice fit the ensemble and the composition perfectly. The most effective setting was the second Ashbery text, Forgiveness. The song grew out of unison between the strings, into elastic iterations of a serene melodic line that managed to be both emotional and cerebral. The following movements were characterized by some interesting developments to thematic material introduced in earlier movements but began to rely increasingly on constant, square pulses that became expressively restricting. The performers were constantly engaged with the music (even through the moments when the music was not engaging). Pearson’s lyricism as lines between the oboe and baritone mingled was definitely a highlight of the evening.

The closing performance of Bach Cantata 159, “Sehet, wir gehen hinauf gen Jerusalem” pulled the full forces of the evening’s performers together, with the addition of Kasey Fahy, Jazimina MacNeil, Frank Kelley, and Boston Children’s Chorus. Thompson’s enchanting and powerful voice was most enthralling when set against mezzo MacNeil’s euphoric placid tone, which meshed perfectly with the oboe in the second aria and chorale. The Boston Children’s Chorus provided wonderful depth to the closing chorale and a powerful finale to the evening.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

1 Comment

  1. Kasey Fahy sang instead of Grace Thompson. Kasey is a member of the Boston Children’s Chorus.

    Comment by Ben — April 28, 2010 at 9:08 am

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