With a dedicated following, the Winsor Music Chamber Series was able to draw an excellent, engaged audience, apparently without much publicity; at any rate, their web site only listed one composer, Melissa Wagner, on the program with no mention of the other composers or the performers. Their very impressive list of supporters suggests that their own mailing list is the basis of their sizable audience. The setting was the uncluttered United Univeralist Follen Church in Lexington, a lovely space.
Kendra Colton (soprano) and Megan Henderson (piano) opened with an exhilarating set of Brahms Lieder. First was Von waldbekränzer Höhe, (From forest-crowned heights); while rousing and energetic, Colton’s tone was a bit edgy and even brassy. My favorite of the set, Es träumte mir (I dreamed), revealed a side of Brahms I didn’t know before, spare and abstract in its expression of heartbreak and grief. Henderson and Colton were absolutely spine-chilling in their powerful yet restrained evocation of this gem.
Also moving was In stiller nacht (In the quiet night) where the voice floated over the shimmering accompaniment. The mood of hushed poignancy was conveyed perfectly by this artistic pair. While the next song, Die Mainacht, also was effective, I couldn’t help but reflect how Fanny Hensel’s setting of this text is superior.
The program included two area premieres. Peter Child’s Finite Infinity set three poems in contrasting but connected sections. Colson and Henderson were joined by Artistic Director Peggy Pearson on the oboe. The first, from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, was vigorous, bold and declamatory. Next, Emily Dickinson’s There is solitude of space used delicate cascading arpeggios in the piano, building in intensity to the word “soul.”
This segued to a poem by the British poet John Clare, All Nature has a Feeling which was a perfect Baroque ritornello form, with motives exchanged between the voice and oboe, the piano keeping the rhythmic drive; the passage of time and the seasons was conveyed with compelling energy, and indeed a sense of unstoppable transcendence. The whole was satisfying and balanced; the performance was flawless.
In the pre-concert discussion, featured composer Melinda Wagner commented (in her unassuming way) on how composers worry about the title of a piece; you want something distinctive, but hoping that people will try and read things into it. Scritch, the title of her piece, was bound to provoke questions. As she explained, it was a word from a children’s book that her father used to read to her. It was the noise the cat made when advancing on the protagonist mouse of one story. And “scritch” became part of the family vocabulary for any alarming or perplexing sound: “What is all that scritching going on!?”
The work was not about a cat and mouse but rather abstract musical ideas, motives, themes and textures – as she described it, a scratchy burlap precedes a smooth satiny texture, and ultimately threads from the two textures are interwoven. The ensemble of oboe plus string quartet served as the basis for much of the interplay – the oboe juxtaposed from the strings in a tumbling interplay, then the instruments coming together (almost with a surprised gasp) in a rhythmic unison. After catching their breath (metaphorically), the musicians continued with a languid melody surrounded by fragments of ideas. This gradually thickened, and the oboe added interjections around the strings. The work had a taut lyricism, and on first hearing it was completely engaging, and certainly a piece I want to hear again – and again. The themes and their development and relationship to each other would be more apparent with repeated listening. Melissa Wagner is a composer of whom I would like to hear more. For instance, has her Pulitzer-Prize winning Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion been played in the Boston area? I know it from a recording, but it would be great to hear it live — or one of her other concertos. Scritch was played with great sensitivity and electricity by the ensemble, including some seasoned area veterans: Pearson, oboe; Gabriela Diaz and Shaw Pong Liu, violins; Wenting Kang, viola; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello.
Luigi Boccherini is also not programmed enough. I was surprised to learn he wrote over 100 symphonies, but I don’t recall ever hearing one. Whenever I encounter his chamber works, I find them captivating and completely original. The Quintet in C major, op. 28, no. 4, was a showcase for the featured Young Artist, Tony Rymer, on ‘cello. Pearson had arranged this Quintet so that she played the first violin part on oboe, which I found very effective. Rymer, playing the part that Boccherini wrote for himself, was frequently above the oboe as they played the melody in thirds (and the cello also adding some accompaniment with arpeggios on the lower strings). Boccherini was a pioneer in discovering and establishing the capacity of the cello, and Rymer was impressive in his ease and pure panache in this role.
Following the energetic first movement, the Minuetto was elegant and rococo, in an ornamented, graceful style; the Trio section featured the cello in a melancholy mood, followed by the Grave, warmly expressive. While Gabriela Diaz is a remarkable performer, second fiddle is really not the best job for her, as the intensity of her lines and her magnetic presence sometimes overpowered the main melody. The final Rondeau had a bouncy motive with lots of resonant open strings and more opportunities for Rymer to enchant us with his luscious upper range. He is clearly on his way to a stellar career. I was glad that Pearson had warned us about the false ending, so no audience member had to be caught by that trap!
The program ended with a short encore, one of Winsor Music’s “Songs for the Spirit,” commissions to be sung by the congregation of a faith community (as explained by composer Peter Child, and also on the website here, but performed at this concert by Colton with string quartet and oboe. The Peace Poem After an Ugaritic Inscription was a moving invocation, austere and modal in flavor, and providing a spiritual moment for the conclusion of a wonderful evening of music.