This exemplary organization, Boston Chamber Music Society, enthusiastically embarked upon its twenty-eighth season at Sanders Theatre Sunday evening, October 17, with an engaging program of Beethoven, Martinu, and Saint-Saëns. In his welcoming speech, Board President Stephen Friedlaender made note of BCMS’s successful mission and thanked his audience for their ongoing support, mentioning that only a few subscriptions remained to be sold to meet this season’s objective. In a time when other institutions are literally giving away tickets to boost their audience attendance, BCMS’s success in attracting a large and loyal audience speaks well for the quality of its offerings. Indeed, Sanders Theatre was well-stocked with chamber music enthusiasts Sunday evening, and a quiet, attentive audience it was. The proverbial pin-drop would have been a shattering disturbance for this crowd. Bravo to them all for their quiet deportment while the musicians played. However, at the end of each work, silence was banished by well-deserved cheers and fervent applause. What was the program which elicited such responses?
Harumi Rhodes, Roger Tapping and Michael Reynolds opened the evening with Beethoven’s charming and thought-provoking String Trio in D major, Op. 9, No. 2. Rhodes and Tapping, violin and viola respectively, brought a lovely sense of blend and rhythmic vigor to their playing, and Reynolds’s resonant cello provided a gracious underpinning. The first movement’s opening was nicely insinuated, setting up the energetic Allegretto which followed. Only twice did the ensemble’s bright tempo need to slow slightly to accommodate Beethoven’s rapid passagework. Of the remaining three movements, the third and fourth remain happily in memory. The third, dubbed “Menuetto” by the composer was more scherzo-like than overtly danceful, Beethoven looking forward rather than backward. The playful Rondo finale began innocently — the muted string beginning lending a fantasy-like atmosphere — and then blossomed into the more overtly “Beethovenian” middle section of the abaca rondo form. One was once again mightily impressed by the range of this composer’s fertile imagination, even at this early stage of his career.
Something of a novelty was offered as the evening’s second work – Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, H. 313 by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959). Boston and New England have a “history” with this composer; his Symphony No. 6 (Fantaisies Symphoniques) was given its world premiere by the BSO under Charles Munch in 1955, and its subsequent recording helped reinforce Martinu’s reputation as a first-class composer among those who may not have heard his music before. Earlier, a 1948 invitation to teach composition at Tanglewood had held great promise, but a debilitating injury from a fall sadly prevented the composer from leading his seminar.
If the term “madrigal” was meant by the composer to reflect the style of vocal writing which offers melodic lines that play off of each other in close imitation, then certainly this very substantial work for violin and viola abundantly and effectively illustrates this definition. Harumi Rhodes and Roger Tapping were kept happily busy by the considerable demands of this fiendishly difficult duet, bringing all manner of wit, color, verve and virtuosity to their playing. Beginning with a burst of energy which seemingly never lets up, the music moves at lightning speed with intertwining sinuous and vigorous instrumental lines that almost unceasingly imitate and elaborate upon each other’s individual statements. What may sound merely “busy” in this inadequate written description sounded rapturously upon the ear in the hands of these gifted players. The second movement, beginning with instruments muted, created a dream-like, otherworldly atmosphere for the ensuing music of this short but poignant interlude. Shortly, with mutes taken off, the soundscape of Martinu’s “signature” musical style emerged. The final Allegro reestablished the flashing virtuoso demands posed in the first movement with an almost hoedown-like forceful rhythmic pulse. The music grew in intensity and speed, leading to a brilliant finale which at its conclusion elicited cheers from the enthralled audience.
After intermission, pianist Randall Hodgkinson joined the aforementioned string players for a bracing exposition of Camille Saint-Saëns Piano Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 41. Hodgkinson has been playing with BCMS since 1983, and his collaborative presence on stage over those twenty-seven years has been a bulwark of this organization’s presentations. He was in his usual fine form throughout this sparkling and remarkably varied music. Back when I was a music student (don’t ask!) it was fashionable among us young know-it-alls to pooh-pooh Saint-Saëns as a facile and basically “uninteresting” composer. With age comes wisdom, one hopes. The depth and variety of creativity offered by this composer, as clearly heard in this splendid quartet, neatly belies that earlier misconception.
Beginning with a plesant et gentil introduction, the first movement sets the stage for the intriguing and engaging remainder of the work. The second movement clearly evokes, as Steven Ledbetter writes in his admirable program note, a Bach-like chorale melody that is elaborated upon in ingenious fashion, first by the strings singing out the long melodic line, the piano providing active ornamentation. The roles then reverse as the piano’s chorale melody deeply unpins the elaborating strings. Without a whit of tedium, this contrapuntal device pervades the entire movement to delightful effect. The third movement, with its nocturnal and will-o’-the-wisp feel twice offers opportunities for brilliant cadenzas, flourishingly dispatched by Rhodes and glitteringly essayed by Hodgkinson. The work’s fourth movement — cheerful and optimistic along the way of its many delightful melodic and harmonic twists and turns — brought home the thought that here once again are affirmatively demonstrated the wit, depth of talent, and great melodic gifts of this marvelous and rightly admired composer. One departed Sanders Theatre Sunday night refreshed and grateful to the BCMS for its creative programming and thankful for the musical gifts its members offered us all.