The Boston Chamber Music Society ended its season last Sunday evening, May 15, on a high note in more ways than one. In addition to presenting a meat-and-potatoes program of the best German Romantic piano trios, the board president announced that the organization was ending the season in the black, a remarkable achievement in this time of fiscal crisis. Further, the announcement was made that Fenwick Smith, the founding flutist of the ensemble, had decided to retire at the end of the season, marking the end of a period of remarkable musical collaboration and many significant performances.
Because of the discussion ahead of the music and the very nature of piano trios, Sanders Theater seemed transformed into a private salon, and the near-capacity house was treated to a performance of deep feeling and great intimacy. This was music without gimmicks, simply played, but conveying every conceivable human emotion with clarity and beauty. The performers were Martin Beaver, violin, Ronald Thomas, violoncello, and Mihae Lee, piano. Although Beaver is a guest artist, the three musicians played together as though they had been colleagues for years, the music breathing together from a unified image of each piece.
The Schubert Adagio in E-flat major, D. 897, called “Notturno”, opened the program. Although discarded from his B-flat major trio, this beautiful work has intimations of the “Trout” Quintet in the piano and presages his String Quintet in C major, one of his most sublime works, in its slow passages. Despite its short length, it is a work not to be ignored, and the trio gave it a beautiful reading.
The second piece on the program, Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, op. 49 is one of the gems of the piano trio literature. The work presents Mendelssohn’s lyricism in the first and second movements, and the third movement scherzo displayed the light touch that he is famous for in the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. The intensity of the final movement cost Thomas a few bow hairs, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice.
The final piece on the program, Brahms’s Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8 opened with a noble cello theme and featured a haunting unison passage, with the violin at the bottom of its register and the cello at the top. The second movement was a Mendelssohn scherzo grown up and with a few pounds put on: meatier but still airy and graceful. The third movement was a tender lullaby, deceptively simple on the surface, but played with expansive control and a willingness to let the music breathe. The final allegro brought most of the audience to its feet for a standing ovation.
All together this was a very satisfying concert. The musicians showed an affection for the music, each other, and the audience, which made it easy to see why the house was full.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.