in: Reviews

October 18, 2011

BSCP With Geographic Themes

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The Boston Symphony Chamber Players, who opened their season on October 16th at Jordan Hall, are presenting geographically themed programs this year. Each concert emphasizes composers from a particular country; on this occasion the program was centered on what is now called the Czech Republic, with works by Leos Janácek, Bohuslav Martinu and Antonín Dvorák.

Janácek’s suite for wind sextet (standard wind quintet plus bass clarinet), entitled Mladi (“Youth”), is a piece that ought to be, but isn’t, programmatic. Of its four movements the outer ones feature a motif that, according to Steven Ledbetter’s program note, sounds out the Czech words for “youth, golden youth,” with the music of the finale developing the motif in a tone of wistful nostalgia. (On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Mladi was written when its composer was seventy.) The addition of the bass clarinet provided a solid foundation to alleviate the chirpiness that often afflicts the sound of a wind quintet; here, as performed by Craig Nordstrom, joining his BSO colleagues Elizabeth Rowe, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe, William R. Hudgins, clarinet, James Sommerville, horn, and Richard Svoboda, bassoon, that grounding was amply in evidence. In the opening of the second movement, the duet between Nordstrom and Svoboda achieved a magical blending of timbres. Each of the performers had opportunities to shine in this piece, and they took full advantage: Sommerville in the first movement, Ferrillo in the second, and Rowe in the third, notably delicate and un-strident on the piccolo. Technically speaking, this was about as good a performance as one could hope to hear; the only element occasionally missing was a certain sparkle and sharpness of attack.

A much rarer bird than Mladi, Martinu’s Sextet for Piano and Winds followed. The Sextet was written only five years later than the Janácek, in 1929, but inhabits an entirely different musical world. The composer, having left his native Policka for Paris in 1923, continued his studies there with Albert Roussel and absorbed the fresh sounds generated by Les Six—and that naughty jazz stuff from America. In spirit, Martinu’s Sextet shares a lot with Poulenc’s sextet for piano and wind quintet, though Martin? dispensed with the French horn and substituted an extra bassoon, played on Sunday by Suzanne Nelsen. In sound, however, Martinu’s work is much more heavily influenced by American jazz—or at least how Parisians thought of it (playing blues in 6/8 is not exactly swing). The first of the five movements was a Praeludium with jazzy piano riffs as well as dollops of Ravel, a soupcon of Poulenc, a suggestion of ragtime, and an incongruously neo-Baroque close. A suave and stately slow movement with lots of “white key” dissonance followed; then two movements marked Divertimento, the first a fleet and jazzy duet between flute and piano, the second a highly refracted attempt at blues—more Czech-sounding than the other movements despite a clear tip of the hat to Gershwin. The piece ended with a fugally active finale. Again, the performances—by Rowe, Ferrillo, Hudgins, Svoboda and Nelsen, joined by BSO staff pianist Vytas Baksys—were technically flawless (Rowe and Baksys were superb in their duet); yet with the consistent exception of Baksys, who dove into his part with sympathetic gusto, it was only sporadically that we got the youthful thrill that Martinu evidently intended.

After intermission a complete change of dramatis personae brought out the strings of the ensemble—Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violins, Steven Ansell, viola, Jules Eskin, cello, and Edwin Barker, bass. They assembled for Dvorák’s Quintet in G, misleadingly given the opus number 77 by its publisher, but accounted for as op. 18 by the composer. As with the Janácek, the addition of a low extension gave the work more sonic elbow-room, of which Barker took full advantage in the first movement, sometimes at the expense of Lowe and Martinson. In general, though, the ensemble balanced its sound nicely. In the congenial acoustic of Jordan Hall, the bass sound worked its way into the head in the best possible way, while the members of the string quartet (especially the cello, freed from its anchor responsibilities) carried their lines with admirable equipoise. As to the rest of the performance, especially noteworthy was Lowe’s dolcississimo turn in the slow movement. However, we got the sense that the performers were playing it safe—no breakout moments, no edginess anywhere. This approach must reap its rewards, though: of the three pieces performed, only the Dvorák brought listeners to their feet during the applause.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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