in: Reviews

June 24, 2010

Music at Eden’s Edge Offers Missed Opportunity, Lemonade on a Summer’s Day

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One of the longer-lived summer music series in the Boston area is Music at Eden’s Edge, under Music Director and violinist Maria Benotti, which inaugurated its 29th season on the North Shore with a program, repeated several times, of chamber music including flute and bassoon. We heard the Tuesday afternoon “Seniors and Family” performance at North Shore Unitarian-Universalist Church in Danvers. The program consisted of the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 for flute and bassoon; Max Reger’s Serenade No. 1 in D for flute, violin and viola; Franz Krommer’s Quartet No. 2 in E-flat for bassoon, two violas and cello; and a new work, Structures, commissioned by MEE from Salem resident and Boston College professor John H. Wallace.

The MEE series, like Monadnock Music, is structured a little differently from some of the others; it is a moveable feast. MEE hits several different towns in Essex County: Peabody, Danvers, Salem, Gloucester, Hamilton. In addition, it consists of four programs, each given multiple times in a particular month, June through September. Thus, the program we saw on Tuesday in Danvers had already played in Salem at an open rehearsal, and on Monday night in Peabody; it will repeat on Saturday, June 26 at the Gloucester Art Association.

The performances were arrayed on Tuesday in order of expanding instrumental forces, beginning with the only true chamber work among Heitor Villa-Lobos’s nine-work Bachianas Brasileiras series. Although No. 6, dating from 1938, may by now be the second-most performed of the series, after the phenomenally popular No. 5 for soprano and eight celli, it trails that one by a very large measure. That’s too bad, because the use of only two lines of music affords an opportunity to appreciate the fusion of Baroque and Brazilian elements in its purest form. The problem with that degree of concentration and exposure is that the resultant performance can be rather dry and fussy. What we heard performed by flutist Orlando Cela and bassoonist Neil Fairbairn was anything but; in fact, it was possibly the best we’ve heard, live or on recording, full of both perky, bustling movement (mostly in the flute, to whom Villa-Lobos allotted most of the short note values) and soulful cantilena (mostly in the bassoon—see? it can be done!)

The Reger Serenade, op. 77a dates from 1904 (77b was a string trio, a totally different piece); there was a second, in G, in 1915. The instrumentation, according to violist Mark Berger’s oral program note, was modeled after Beethoven’s op. 25 in the same key. As Reger works go, this one is fairly light in mood and texture. It is not, however, entirely devoid of the harmonic slipperiness of which he was so fond, but in this case it holds attention through melodic clarity and even, in the first movement, hints of country fiddling. The playing by Mr. Cela, Ms. Benotti on violin and Mr. Berger, was bright and friendly, lemonade on a summer day.

Before beginning to play Franz Krommer’s Quartet No. 2 in E-flat for bassoon, two violas, and cello, cellist Sarah Freiberg remarked how the composer, a contemporary of Mozart who outlived Beethoven, explored in the two numbers of his op. 46, written in 1804, the darker contours of string coloration, along with the unique properties of the bassoon. Berger also chimed in to say that “all violists dream of sitting in this seat”—that is, where the first violinist normally sits. The joke on both counts is that this work is all about the bassoon, giving the two violists (Ms. Benotti taking the second chair) nothing like the leading role the violins have in a string quartet, and, except for a bit in the finale, taking no advantage at all of the mood potential of the low string sonorities. The bassoon, however, gets a thorough workout, displaying its full range of registers and articulations (at least insofar as they were used in the early 19th century—nothing like Rite of Spring here!). Mr. Fairbairn provided an excellent compendium, from flashy toccata techniques babbling away in the outer movements, a lush lyricism in the slow movement, and classic guffawing and octave displacements in the minuet. It’s too bad Krommer wasn’t a better composer: too often the music relies on galant style chromatic melody bending rather than any striking harmonic movement.

The focus of MEE’s publicity for its June program quite properly was the premiere performances of John Wallace’s Structures, for the entire ensemble. According to the composer’s program note, (the only note printed in the program book), which he summarized orally at the concert, the work commemorates five Essex County buildings dating from the mid-17th through the early-19th centuries, the three oldest of which have associations with the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692. Complementing these physical structures he has imposed corresponding musical structures on the five movements: Rebecca Nurse’s four-room house begets a four-sectioned movement, with patterns of eight and 40 standing in for her eight children and 40 friends who petitioned on her behalf — unsuccessfully; the finale’s depiction of the First Religious Society’s Newburyport meetinghouse attempts a structure approximating the spire; and so forth. The listing of the five movements does not give tempo indications, but they are all slow. The idiom is a kind of lyric atonality; the writing for the instruments is grateful enough, fairly straightforwardly within standard playing techniques—we detected, for example, only one instance of coloristic string effects, a bit of misterioso, sul ponticello tremolo. In short, there was very little here by which one could get a handle on the composer’s thoughts about these buildings, their inhabitants, or their histories. The second movement, for example, concerned Nathaniel Felton, Sr.’s abode in Peabody. Felton was an ardent supporter of John Proctor, one of the Salem accused. Ought one not to expect some vigorous oppositional drama here? The third movement, depicting the famous House of Seven Gables in Salem, had nothing of Hawthorne about it. The fourth had as its subject the house of Rev. John Wise of Essex, a Revolutionary firebrand, yet it emitted no heat and precious little light. Bottom line, this struck us as a missed opportunity and a pretty sterile exercise in academic hermeticism. The five MEE performers seem to have rehearsed the work thoroughly, and sounded entirely on top of their parts, poor dears.

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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