Gorgeous was the word circulating Jordan Hall Sunday, May 1, to describe a nearly indescribable performance by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players of Maurice Ravel’s extraordinarily fine-sounding Introduction and Allegro. No doubt, it was a smash hit of smash hits, if that could be said of something exploding like the splendor of spring around us in Boston these past several weeks. Applause and still more applause showered the seven players. Scored for the odd combination of oboe, percussion, harpsichord, and double bass, Henri Dutilleux’s Les Citations went beyond merely piquing our curiosity as a quartet of BSO players continually amazed in their complete tackling of an unusual and highly demanding and moving piece
Two more twentieth-century Frenchman of different ilk in the personages of Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) and Jean Françaix (1912-1997) offered tuneful contrast and humorous conceit respectively. After intermission, Claude Debussy’s chef d’oeuvre, Sonata for flute, viola, and harp, took an about face. Perhaps it was the magnificent Ravel coming before Debussy that simply left no more room for the players to go, except down. Tense at times, languid at others, the three Chamber Players forged a version quite unlike any I can remember hearing.
It is not an overstatement comparing the most ravishing of spring days in Boston to this singular and ravishing piece by French master Maurice Ravel. Witnessing harpist Jessica Zhou in this music was nothing less than seeing, hearing and most of all feeling spring all around, so absolutely natural and perfectly achieved was her performance. I have to admit that tears were running down my cheeks so taken in I was with her Ravelian harping. Later, I realized, I wasn’t the only one carried away in such euphoria.
Somehow, someway, Zhou transformed the composer’s many glissandi into spring winds, breezes, and drafts of all kinds, each motion outspread with the smallest of intricacies timed in sparkling clarity. Arpeggios she formed into superior sceneries of harmoniousness. The plucking variousness she superimposed on the catchy melodies melted away any and all remnants of winter. When it came time to take their bows, everyone — including those onstage — was pointing to Zhou to acknowledge her incredible accomplishment. That her modesty prevailed did not surprise one iota.
Violinists Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violist Steven Ansell, cellist Jules Eskin, flutist Elizabeth Rowe, and clarinetist William Hudgins all became a single entity with Zhou. As if spurring the other on, together, the seven created simply gorgeous music — nonpareil.
Les Citations is a diptych: “For Aldeburgh 1985” and “From Janequin to Jehan Alain.” The first a birthday piece for the English tenor Peter Pears and the second for the French organist and composer who quoted a theme from his Renaissance predecessor. Harpsichordist Mark Kroll described to me some of the treacherous features of this recent work by Dutilleux: handful after handful of notes, not just simply clusters, but each one discreetly written; strings of notes to be played at high rates of speed; and another, probably the most challenging of all — phrases that have to played starting, say, after a 32nd rest. Kroll pulled this all off with brilliance and élan.
Quite often throughout the jaw-dropping performance (even if you had stopped watching) percussionist Timothy Genis, who was encircled by an assortment of instruments, looked to the other three to give his signals for synchronizing start-ups. He did this having completely memorized his own part for the twelve-minute all-engaging work. Dutilleux asked the double bassist, here, Edwin Barker, to play spacious pizzicatos, uncommon harmonics, and other extreme sounds that suggested a less conservative Dutilleux had been drawing from his serialist contemporaries, easily outdoing most of them, musically and inventively. This was still more evident in the great range of sounds emitted by oboist John Ferrillo. This was a fabulous performance of an equally fabulous chamber piece.
Kroll also informed me that the BSO Chamber Players will soon be recording the Dutilleux on their own label, BSO Classics. I cannot wait for its release. Will their gorgeous Ravel also appear? I can only hope so.
Bassoonist Richard Svoboda and hornist James Sommerville joined others in Tomasi’s Cinq Danses profanes et sacrées for wind quintet and later for Françaix’s Dectet, for wind quintet and string quintet. These two players, too, were outstanding bringing fun, if not sweet courses, to the table.
The three for the Debussy didn’t make for a compelling trio. Rowe’s flute adopted Swiss clock precision while Zhou’s harp took to contemplative internalizations. If only they could have taken prompts from Ansell’s viola that sang and vibrated the way one imagines this piece to be played. His flexible and invigorating flair injected a most inviting musical life all its own.
I wanted to note that no on-stage practicing was heard and virtually no tuning was done. This fine sense of decorum added so much to the concert, and their welcoming stage presence could be picked up by others.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net.