The first half of the program by the BSO Chamber Players on Sunday, January 23, at Jordan Hall, presented American composer Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute as well as Mozart’s Piano Quintet, K 452; the mixed program closed with Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), that featured the BSO Chamber Players, joined by additional members of the BSO as well as three actors for the Stravinsky; the acting troupe included names that will be familiar to television and movie buffs.
The first half of the program offered music-making at its polished and professional best. The Stravinsky was also a successful venture, featuring a number of the concert’s most engaging performances, though the artistic conception seemed uneven between the actors as well as at least one member of the orchestra.
Flute soloist Elizabeth Rowe brought her impressive technical skill as well as an especially high level of artistic poise and sensitivity to Lowell Liebermann’s popular two-movement Sonata for Flute, Op. 23; written in “tonally-centered language,” the pieces seems to bear a strong affinity to many of the works from the Paris Conservatory in the first half of the twentieth century, which gave us a number of “show pieces” by composers such as Jacques Ibert, Eugene Bozza, and Pierre-Max Dubois, and Francis Poulenc (Liebermann’s piece bears a particularly strong affinity to the latter composer’s Sonata for Flute). Liebermann, a “native New Yorker,” received his training at the Julliard School; the Sonata, in fact, was written in 1987 for one of the composer’s Julliard colleagues. In addition to the technical skill and artistic poise mentioned above, flutist Elizabeth Rowe and pianist Jonathan Bass showed a particularly refreshing patience and discretion in the execution of the first movement’s various pacings and moods; in this critic’s opinion, this sensitivity outshined even their near-perfect execution of the considerable technical demands of the fast-paced second movement.
The BSOCP executed the Mozart Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 452 with great elegance, offering a triumphant response to the challenge of performing a work so familiar. The technical skill and musical sensitivity with which the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players performed leaves this critic in the agreeable place of having only positive words to share. In addition to impeccably clean technique, the flawless sensitivity to the composer’s formal and tonal design, in perfect ensemble, successfully related the “galant” sensibility of Mozart’s musical world.
Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale premiered shortly after the armistice that ended World War I; the realities of this historical circumstance required the creative scoring of musical works, given the general shortage of financial resources. Accordingly, the work was originally scored for an instrumental ensemble of seven musicians and a troupe of three actors (the composer also intended to include dancing in the work, though the BSOCP’s performance did not include any such performers). Jacqueline Knapp served as the narrator, Michael Aronov played the Soldier, and Leland Gantt performed the role of the Devil. Knapp, a member of the teaching faculty at the world-renowned Actor’s Studio, has recently appeared on many popular television programs, including HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as well as the Law & Order series. Aronov is also a member of the Actor’s Studio and has recently been featured opposite Kyra Sedgwick on TNT’s The Closer. Leland Gantt has participated in a number of stage performances in New York and Cincinnati as well as film credits in the recent Miracle at St. Anna’s and modern classic, Malcolm X.
The actors, separated from the orchestra for this performance, read their lines from behind their respective music stands in a more “oratorio-like” presentation. The artistic conception among this group of actors seemed very uneven. Whereas Knapp’s narration was well suited to the intimacy of film (or perhaps a smaller, more intimate stage setting), Gantt’s “diabolical” characterization was modeled after the fairground and the melodrama; Aronov’s portrayal of the Soldier seemed to be based on a “goofball” character from a television sitcom, including a few puzzling attempts at dramatic gesture. Historically speaking, Gantt’s portrayal was by far the closest to Stravinsky’s conception, which is modeled after the rustic troupe of traveling actors. (During this period, Stravinsky’s “narrative” or “programmatic” works centered almost entirely on the savage or rustic, including The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, The Wedding, as well as the “Shrove-tide Fair” of Petroushka.) By following the “stylized outlandishness” of the composer’s musical style, Gantt’s performance created the strongest artistic connection between the actors and the musical ensemble.
The orchestra’s contribution in this work was outstanding, in the work’s nearly constant technical demands as well as the wide range of musical styles within the score. This skillful musical interpretation was particularly impressive in the dance trio (“Tango,” “Waltz,” and “Ragtime”), for which the musical style was split between individual members of the orchestra, some of whom represented the “classical” aspect of these forms while others personified the “rustic” nature of the story. Despite an impressive display of technical and ensemble aptitude, clarinetist William R. Hudgins’s playing seemed to remain much closer to the elegant style of the Mozart, though he did move closer to the “rustic” style for the hot-jazz-inspired “Devil’s Dance.” In keeping with the plot’s centering on the Soldier and his violin, violinist Malcolm Lowe was placed next to the actors, and apart from the orchestra, adding a nice “representative” touch to the group’s performance. Lowe’s performance was perhaps the most engaging of the evening, deftly moving through a number of musical styles, from the fiddle-sawing of the “Airs by a stream” to the sultry sensations of the “Tango”; trombonist Toby Oft and percussionist Timothy Genis also stood out with their rousing performances, particularly in the “Military March.”