in: Reviews

August 23, 2010

Pearson Headlines in Loeffler, Unfamiliar Mozart and Prokofiev

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The closing concert of this summer’s Portland Chamber Music Festival on August 21 at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center saw Boston-based virtuoso oboist Peggy Pearson in a series of unfamiliar works, even though two of the composers, Mozart and Prokofiev, are household names. The program featured Pearson’s transcription of the 16-year-old Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 136, originally for string quartet; the Two Rhapsodies for oboe, viola and piano by the Alsatian-born German-American Charles Martin Loeffler, and the seldom-performed Quintet in G minor, op. 39, for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass by Sergei Prokofiev.

The Mozart Divertimento is one of those mystery pieces for which no clear purpose is discernible from Mozart’s records and correspondence. In his program note, Willard Hertz suggests that Mozart wrote it in advance of a concert tour to have something to play at the drop of a hat, should a dinner party arise (pieces in the nature of divertimenti being typically used for background or between-course music on such occasions). Be all that as it may, it should surprise no one that Mozart, having in a sense thrown this music off, did not create throwaway music. It is scored rather simply, though, so that the composer could play the somewhat elaborate first violin part, and whoever else was available could fill in the rest with little difficulty. In her transcription, Pearson has done little other than to rearrange some notes to squeeze the violin’s wider range into the oboe’s compass. This works extremely well, and serves, by the oboe’s stick-out sonority, to drive home how much substance Mozart has packed into this ostensible trifle. There are, for example, passages harmonized in thirds that most composers would have left as solo lines with thump-thump chords and melodic lines that create delightfully contrasting rhythmic textures. The piece only has three short movements, of which the finale is more contrapuntal than the others. Pearson led this merry chase with her customary assurance, perfect intonation and tone, and verve, and the rest of the ensemble — violin Jennifer Elowitch, viola Marka Gustavsson, and cello Natasha Brofsky — were all in fine fettle and clearly digging it.

The Loeffler Rhapsodies are getting to be a passion with Pearson. We heard her perform them with the Boston Chamber Music Society back in January, at which time we found them moody, elegant but rather shapeless (our comments on that performance are here). On the current occasion, however, she took pains to proclaim, in an introduction from the stage, that the music was not nearly as gloomy as the poems on which they were based. The project for these pieces was originally to set three poems by Maurice Rollinart for voice, clarinet, viola and piano. The intended clarinetist’s sudden death, however, prompted Loeffler to change the entire scope of the undertaking, by striking the vocal part, casting one of the pieces as an orchestral work (La villanelle du diable), and the other two as these rhapsodies, replacing the clarinet with oboe. The poems underlying the Rhapsodies are L’étang (The Pond) and La cornomuse (The Bagpiper), each an atmospheric invocation of dark places and eerie sights and sounds.

We are not quite prepared to reverse our assessment of the affect of these pieces, but on this hearing, with Pearson abetted by violist Jessica Thompson and pianist Dena Levine, we discovered much greater formal coherence and a strong sense of purpose and direction. There are some wonderful melodies, traded off between Thompson and Pearson for the most part, and the French-influenced harmonies are as delicate and atmospheric as could be. While the piano writing, admirably executed by Levine, has considerable complexity, it seemed detached from the main thrust and argument of the pieces. Loeffler was clearly not out to create a blended sonority from these disparate instruments, and he seemed loath to bring the piano into the forefront very much. Ah well, they also serve, who only sit and accompany. The oboe and viola, however, play off one another with some surprising harmonic twists, as in the first rhapsody’s sudden, though temporary, move from minor to major just before the end, and the occasional combination of the two instruments as drone and chanter in imitation of the ghostly piper in the second.

After the intermission, we were treated to another curiosity in the development of a composer’s style with the Prokofiev Quintet, which despite its name is not really in the tradition of sonata-like works usually given such names. A product of Prokofiev’s Roaring Twenties Parisian period, this score was originally the accompaniment to a ballet by Boris Romanov on a scenario involving circus performers. The music nevertheless is given not scenic but abstract musical headings: the first movement (of six) being variations, and the others having just tempo indications. The musical idiom here shows the strong influence of Stravinsky, who was at the time the center of musical attention in Paris. The harmonies and rhythms are therefore crisp and neo-classically dissonant, the sonorities pared down, and the attitude somewhat stiff and marionettish — think L’histoire du soldat and the Octet for Winds and you get the idea. The instrumentation was apparently Romanov’s idea, and Prokofiev puts it to good use, with some delightful turns on the double bass. For example, in the second variation of the first movement it plays mostly in its upper range, then suddenly jumps down to the bottom. Often the winds dominate melodically, with edgy rhythmically marked string accompaniments. This is not Prokofiev’s most original writing, but it holds its own with the ‘20s fashion and is, if not exactly circus-y, playful and clever. The ensemble, comprising Ms. Pearson, Todd Palmer, clarinet, Jesse Mills, violin, Ms. Thompson, viola and New York Philharmonic (and jazz) contrabassist David Grossman, all in top form and tight ensemble. It was a strong finish to what has been a strong season for PCMF.

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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