New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was filled with the warm, round tones created by breath and fingers Sunday afternoon, September 25, as flutist Paula Robison and pianist Katherine Chi collaborated in a Faculty Artist Recital. Robison has occupied NEC’s Donna Hieken Flute Chair since its inception in 2005 and is currently celebrating her fiftieth performance year. Canadian Katherine Chi matriculated to the prestigious Curtis Institute at age ten and has recently received her D.M.A. from New England Conservatory, where she currently teaches. These two accomplished solo artists made for a formidable musical duo.
Sunday’s program featured works by Griffes, Lanier, Taffanel, and Franck. Sounds wall-to-wall French, but Charles Griffes and Sidney Lanier actually hailed from the U.S. In addition to sharing American roots, these composers both led tragically abbreviated lives, with neither living to see age 40. By comparison, Frenchmen Taffanel and Franck were downright long-lived, making it into their seventh decades.
Given his brief life filled with numerous hardships and distractions (poor health, supporting his widowed mother, a dead-end teaching job, dealing with his closeted homosexuality), Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920) produced a surprisingly significant corpus of musical works. Robison and Chi brought his Poem for flute and piano to life in an impassioned performance. This music is toothsomely impressionistic, reflecting the flavorful influence of Debussy, seasoned with a dash of Scriabinesque harmonization. Griffes’s musical poetry describes a rather somber and darkly beautiful emotional landscape. Ms. Robison was a glowing vision of amber and honey, with golden hair, dress, flute, and shoes. Her warm, shimmering physical presence matched her stage personality, which was engaged and inviting. Her playing was fluid and pure as she drew the audience into Griffes’ ethereal auditory world, expressing emotion not only with her instrument but also with her eyes and flowing body movements. Yin to Ms. Robison’s yang, Ms. Chi’s piano accompaniment was appropriately controlled and subdued.
In Griffes’s Three Tone-Pictures, Op. 5 for solo piano, Katherine Chi demonstrated a solid tone, very deep in the keys. This exemplary technique was perhaps not ideally suited to the diaphonous nature of the music, though the evocations of the subject matter suggested by the titles (The Lake at Evening, The Vale of Dreams, The Night Winds) shone through. Ms. Chi was especially adept at consistently teasing out the melody line from the cascade of notes in the final piece. Sobering to realize that Charles Griffes was gone by age 35, just as he was gaining the recognition and respect that had so long eluded him. Taken by complications from influenza, he was one of the estimated 50 to 100 million who perished in the The Great Flu Pandemic.
Following this solo piano work, Ms. Chi yielded the stage to Ms. Robison, who explored a piece by another American, Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). His Wind Song for solo flute did not, to this listener, compare all that favorably to the Griffes compositions. While this work contained a smattering of impressive virtuosic passages, adroitly handled by Ms. Robison, the overall effect was somewhat academic, with a lack of flow. This was certainly due in no part to the performer, however. A more apt title may have been Bird Song, as this piece seemed to consist of relatively distinct bits and bobs. That said, Wind Song was not without its moments of haunting beauty. Interestingly, Lanier was also an accomplished poet and oscillated throughout his short life between penning words and musical notes. Like another, more well known Romantic composer, he succumbed to tuberculosis at the painfully young age of 39.
Hopping across the pond, the final two pieces on the program originated from nineteenth-century French composers. Prior to launching into Paul Taffanel’s (1844-1908) Fantasy on Themes from Weber’s Der Freischutz, Ms. Robison crossed herself and blurted out “It’s my first time playing this piece!,” endearing her all the more to the rapt audience. Fantasy is a rollicking, dramatic, jaunty, toe-tapping, tuneful romp that showcases piano as well as flute. Both artists performed this challenging work admirably, flutist Robison exhibiting impressive breath control and dramatically wiping her brow after a particularly demanding riff. Great deal of whooping and hollering as the final notes died away, performers responding with blown kisses. Let the lovefest begin!
Saved for last, the Sonata in A Major by César Franck (1822-1890) was the pièce de résistance of the afternoon. This lush and majestic composition, presented as the wedding gift of all wedding gifts to Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, was transmogrified from violin/piano to flute/piano by none other than Paula Robison herself. Rich and highly demanding, this quintessentially Romantic music was deftly handled by both performers. Robison’s playing was colorful and assured; Ms. Chi tossed off the large, growly piano sections, featuring both cross-unders as well as cross-overs, with aplomb. (Only slight reservation being that the flute/piano balance became slightly skewed towards the latter as the piece drew to its dramatic conclusion.) Even a slight technical malfunction could not deter the indefatigable Ms. Robison: when a small section of her mouthpiece fluttered to the floor between movements, she calmly replaced it and soldiered on (the five-second rule apparently applying to the Jordan Hall stage).
Our sustained and enthusiastic ovation was rewarded with a succulent encore: Maurice Ravel’s Piece in the Form of an Habanera, a fitting ending to a performance that showcased both artistic beauty and humanity.