in: Reviews

August 11, 2011

Hint of Pastoral Imagery from BSO Chamber Players

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Boston Symphony Chamber Players (Hilary Scott photo)

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert on Tuesday, August 9, in the Florence Gould Auditorium of Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, took the audience simultaneously backwards and forwards in time with a hint of pastoral imagery to complement the external setting. Throughout all the changes of mood and tone inherent in this program, the ensemble performed with an obvious love and affection for each piece that filled the hall with a rich and satisfying sound.

In Bohuslav Martinü’s Four Madrigals for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, classical tonality was tangled up with twentieth-century chromaticism and even a touch of jazz harmony, hearkening back to the not-quite modal, not-quite tonal works of Monteverdi and Gesualdo. Without the narrative impulse of Renaissance madrigals, this set of four movements lacked a certain amount of excitement even as the music moved from cheerful to melancholy and back to playful camaraderie. Nevertheless, the players brought together all the individual strands of counterpoint, homophony, and solo passages in a pleasing unity against which each instrument had its moments in the spotlight.

Following Martinü’s hat tip to the past, the complete chamber ensemble of ten players, plus trumpet, presented Andre Previn’s Octet for Eleven, a three-movement piece that, while composed in 2010, dwells firmly in the recent past. Previn may dress up his ideas in a judicious amount of dissonant harmonies, extended techniques, and a few fresh orchestrations, but he cannot hide his Romantic core. In the Octet for Eleven, the winds and strings are consistently used as opposing but complementary forces. The winds supply most of the accompaniment and countermelodies, which the Chamber Players performed with gusto and warmth, moving from Previn’s big, open chords to tighter, more biting sonorities with a smooth and flowing sound that captured the individuality of each harmony. The strings had the lyrical, romantic foreground material. Here, Malcolm Lowe, first violin, was given ample opportunity to display his beautiful tone and expression, particularly in the recurring soaring theme of the first movement.

The second movement of the Octet begins with a very serious, somewhat Eastern European theme presented by solo bass, an unusual orchestrational choice that hints at the more inventive timbres (flute flutter-tongue, strings sul ponticello) to come. The first half of the movement concentrates on small subsets of the ensemble, giving individual instruments a small spotlight as they present their own variations on the bass’ serious theme. After this taste of timbral variety, it was a bit of a disappointment to have the ensemble return to their strings against winds orchestration for the close of the music, despite the interesting thematic material.

In the final movement, the added trumpet finally gets the spotlight in a fast, staccato theme dominated by woodwinds. Here, Previn’s work in theater and film exerts its influence, and for me, this movement had a touch of the Western, conjuring the expansive landscapes of John Huston and John Wayne’s archetypical action heroes, complete with a triumphant ending and a majestic ride into the sunset.

Although derived from music he wrote for a 1939 film, Darius Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi René does more to invoke medieval aesthetics than familiar cinematic tropes. The seven movements of this suite for woodwind quintet progress from formality to playfulness and back again, with frequent use of medieval harmonies and cadences. Throughout, the ensemble rendered all of Milhaud’s gorgeous sonorities with a luxurious, expansive sound that highlighted the sheer variety of all the shades of sonic beauty Milhaud creates. James Sommerville’s smooth and warm horn solos of “Joutes sur l’Arc” and Elizabeth Rowe’s sprightly piccolo passages among the energetic horn calls of “Chasse à Valabre” stood out as well.

To conclude the concert, Andre Previn joined violinist Malcolm Lowe, violist Steven Ansell and cellist Jules Eskin for Mozart’s Quartet in G minor for piano and strings, K. 478. Previn has a nice smooth touch and a clarity of expression that suits Mozart perfectly. This quartet is one of Mozart’s darker, moodier pieces and yet the performance felt a bit restrained. Perhaps it was just the contrast with the rich expressiveness that preceded the quartet on the program.

Stefanie Lubkowski is a composer and doctoral candidate at Boston University. She is very active in the Boston new music scene and sits on the board of the New Gallery Concert Series.

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