It has been almost half a century since then-Boston Symphony music director Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 encouraged his new concertmaster Joseph Silverstein to assemble the principal players of the orchestra (and a pianist) to form a varied group of superb instrumentalists to investigate the full range of chamber music in diverse combinations, including groups of three to six instruments, but also larger chamber music combinations. In the decades since then, this group — the Boston Symphony Chamber Players — has offered a four-concert subscription series in Boston during the winter months and gone on tour elsewhere during the Pops season (BSO principal players do not perform with the Pops).
Because of the size of the basic ensemble, the Chamber Players often perform the larger works — septets, octets, nonets — that other groups can do only through the addition of many extra players. And when they commission new works specifically to display the size and tonal variety of the ensemble, these naturally are composed for ensembles rarely occurring elsewhere.
The newest such work made its appearance on Sunday afternoon, October 17, with the premiere of a quirky-titled work by André Previn: Octet for Eleven. The new piece (commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the support of the New Works Fund of the Massachusetts Cultural Council) was placed between two smaller chamber works for winds, which provided a 20th-century framework for what might be called a 21st-century divertimento. Since the woodwinds (and two brass instruments, horn and trumpet) play an active role in the Previn piece, the smaller framing works — Martinu’s Four Madrigals for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon at the beginning and Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi René for wind quintet before intermission — lent something of an outdoorsy flavor to this part of the concert.
The Martinu work is one of several sets of small chamber music works that he labeled “madrigals.” These have little to do with the Renaissance madrigals by which the term is best known, except in offering brief compositions unfolding in a free, flexible counterpoint. The Renaissance madrigals are usually designed to project a text with great specificity of imagery; Martinu’s madrigals, having no texts, are abstract, but alive in their interaction of the three parts. In the last year (which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death) the various sets of “madrigals” returned to the repertory quite often. Indeed, the Boston Chamber Music Society performed a different set — for violin and viola — a few hours later at Sanders Theater (reviewed by John Ehrlich), Oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William R. Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda gave a well-shaped performance with exquisite long lines in the Lento (second movement) and the trills, chirps, and crisp staccato chords elsewhere.
The curious title of Milhaud’s wind quintet, The Chimney of King René, comes from a 1939 film, Love Cavalcade, involving stories from three different periods scored by three different composers (Milhaud, Honegger, and Roger Desormière). Milhaud’s portion was set in the 15th-century world of King René of Anjou, who lived in Aix en Provence, where Milhaud lived for many years. From the film score Milhaud adapted a suite of charming tone-pictures depicting images of that time and place: processions, a morning song, jongleurs, a joust, hunting scene, and so on. Without knowing the film it would be impossible to say whether the music is designed to echo the scenes, but the results are thoroughly charming, with a subtle “antique” cast without being fussy about recreating a period style. To the previously named wind players, the Milhaud added flutist Elizabeth Rowe and hornist James Sommerville for a light-hearted and lyrical romp.
André Previn’s new Octet for Eleven was, of course, the pièce de résistance. The title, which is typical of Previn’s wit, came about because Previn announced, when accepting the commission, that he did not intend “to get fancy” but would probably write just an octet — presumably thinking of a piece like Schubert’s Octet for mixed instruments, or its evident model Beethoven’s Septet — works for a rather large chamber ensemble, but more in the tradition of the divertimento than of the symphony. When they heard this plan, the Chamber Players told him, “But there are eleven of us!” So, in a cheerful practical way, he wrote an “octet”—but for eleven instruments.
The work is in three movements designated only by metronome tempi but with a rough feeling of fast-slow-fast. Each movement offers a quite thorough contrast as a middle section. At first Previn plays with the instruments in groups. The woodwinds open with music in a chorale-like character, with a feeling of rocking triplets as accompaniment; then the brass brought in a more vigorous rhythm, and finally the strings joined, building up a roiling cauldron of activity.
The second movement unfolded, for the most part, in a series of smaller combinations: a substantial solo for double bass, then a dark passage for bass and cello, duos for clarinet and cello, then flute and cello, with the sonorities gradually brightening. Strings and trumpet and later oboe built to a climactic passage with the full ensemble that dies away in tranquility.
The finale begins with horn and trumpet setting off a vigorous music of dance character. The contrasting music in this movement is quiet and slow, recalling elements of the middle movement, but gathering everyone for a rousing close. Throughout the work, Previn wrote extended, beautiful, soaring lines for the first violin—the kind of music that a concertmaster often gets to play whenever a composer gives him a solo. Malcolm Lowe shone in these sustained, elegant, bright passages. All of the other performers, too, played the diverse musical elements—chorale, dance, jazzy licks, and virtuosic outbursts—with great color and flair. In addition to the performers already mentioned above, the ensemble included Haldan Martinson, second violin, Steven Ansell, viola, Jules Eskin, cello, Edwin Barker, bass, and Thomas Rolfs, trumpet. The work was received with an enthusiastic and extended ovation for the players as well as the 81-year-old composer.
André Previn had been scheduled to take part in the program himself as the pianist in one of his favorite pieces, the Mozart Piano Quartet in G minor, K.478. Unfortunately, an accident described as an encounter with a door injured a hand, and he was obliged to cancel. Randall Hodgkinson came in at the last minute and played expressively and elegantly with Mssrs. Lowe, Ansell, and Eskin — and this despite that fact that he was performing a very different piano quartet by Saint-Saëns just a few hours later.
Following the lively wind-dominated music of the first half, the Mozart quartet lent a generally more serious mood to the last half, though not in the least weighty, just an excellent stylistic and aural contrast.