Chamber music as performed by some notable and historic ensembles has given this listener impressions of over-wrought interpretations. This was not so with the program presented on Sunday evening, April 10, at Sanders Theatre, which was brilliantly and intelligently performed by members of the Boston Chamber Music Society and guests. When chamber music is this good, it communicates the unmistakable delight a small group of superb musicians shares, taking a willing audience for a thrilling and thought-provoking ride.
The seamless start of the Mozart Flute Quartet in D, K. 285, presaged a sterling performance that continued through the rest of the work. This was in spite of a substitution “on very short notice” of flutist Ann Bobo for Fenwick Smith, which turned out to be, in no way, a disappointment. One would hardly imagine that Ms. Bobo and her partners, Harumi Rhodes (violin), Marcus Thompson (viola) and Astrid Schween (violoncello), could have achieved such a tight and polished rendering without more rehearsal time. Bobo’s sensitive tone and the ensemble’s delicate yet incisive articulation made Mozart’s gallant writing sparkle. At least some of the appeal can be attributed to their espousing a sheer, historically-informed “transitional” style, making the formal aspects of the work transparent.
Prize-winning BSO harpist Jessica Zhou joined Rhodes in Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie in A, Op. 124, for violin and harp, transporting the audience to a radically different time and place. Although the piece gave pride of place to the singing voice of Rhodes’s violin, the dance-like third section allowed Zhou the opportunity to display her flawless technique and impressive timbral palette. A passacaglia, comprised of a descending Phrygian tetrachord of tremendous expressive power followed, evoking a Spanish Renaissance kind of exoticism in this otherwise French watercolor landscape.
The extraordinary surprise of the evening was the reception given a new piece by MIT composer, Keeril Makan. Too often audiences have learned that gambling on a commissioned work does not pay off, but in this case they hit the jackpot. His Nothing is More Important for Flute, Viola and Harp (2009), commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association, created palpable excitement in the hall. It was to have been modeled on the first work of Debussy’s historic Sonata using the same instrumentation, and the commission made explicit reference to it, but the results were a very different kind of piece. Steven Ledbetter explains in his valuable program notes that the “source of inspiration” is the painting The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple of sixteenth-century artist Vittore Carpaccio. Makan saw the painting in Venice, but not familiar with the Christian narrative to which it made reference, was drawn to secondary angelic figures playing instruments – a common convention in Medieval and Renaissance religious iconography. The recorder, lute and viola-sized bowed string not only suggested the instrumental combination of the commission but combined “the formality and elegance as well as the tenderness of the painting…,” Ledbetter noted. This was indeed the case, as the piece began with a repeating phrase structure that lovingly cradled the ear. There was a minimalistic use of musical materials, notably, in an ostinato of hypnotic intensity, but (fortunately without a tiresome, motoric drive) creating a Medieval, contemplative space. Grace-note-like leaps in the flute lent a far-Eastern quality to the sustaining voice of the viola. A returning minor mode motive sectionalized the one-movement work in a way that the various panels acheive in a Renaissance altarpiece.
Ernest Chausson’s masterpiece, Piano Quartet in A major, Op. 30, filled the second half of the program with its broad scale and wide registral and dynamic spectrum. It is a work that is too rarely performed, denying audiences the lush and rapturous voice of this late Romantic French composer. Thompson, Rhodes, and Scheen were joined by veteran pianist, Randall Hodgkinson for this tour de force. From beginning to end, the unanimity and unambiguous pull of their bowing carried the expansiveness and expressiveness of the work. It was especially in the unisons, which were handsomely supported by Hodgkinson’s pianistic élan. The second movement arrived with a viola solo featuring Thompson’s plaintive sound, and recalling the stateliness of the composer’s teachers, especially Franck. A momentary disagreement in tuning marred the entrance of the other strings, which only was made noticeable by the use of senza vibrato. The finale with its symphonic-sized tremolandi signaled a grand ending to a rich and sonorous work.
The journey made us, as an audience, wish we could gain entrance into the inner sanctum of music-making the Chausson evidently creates among these performers, where each instrument has its own distinctive voice within a rich and harmonically variegated conversation. The responsiveness of the performers to each other is at least part of the reason that the hall was nearly filled, and the expectation that the performances would be nonpareil. Surely, these must be considered among the definitive performances of these works, and this audience member is eager to hear more.
Richard Bunbury, Ph.D., has been teaching musicology and music education, first at the Boston Conservatory, and since 2007 at Boston University, while serving a large church as an organist and music director.