The Concord Chamber Players under the direction of BSO violinist Wendy Putman consistently puts on great programs with great soloists, certainly the case on Sunday, January 15 at Concord Academy Performing Arts Center. The program was fascinating; the guest soloist Jessica Zhou, spectacular. The capacity audience, who battled frigid temperatures, was thrilled. Two of the pieces were by composers rarely associated with composing chamber music.
The first, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (2010) by André Previn, was written for the marvelous BSO Assistant Principal Clarinetist Thomas Martin. Previn and Martin gave the first performance of this charming piece at the Prague Spring International Music Festival in the Czech Republic on May 28, 2010. The Principal Clarinet of the Boston Pops, Thomas Martin is well-known as a terrific jazz player, which came in handy in Previn’s four-movement piece, which alternates between jazzy and “classical” music that easily could have been written 60 years ago. Martin and pianist Vytas J. Baksys, a frequent BSO keyboardist, gave a wonderful performance of this four-movement sonata, which was alternately exuberant, lyrical, moody, contemplative, and jazzy. Thomas Martin was a perfect Previn muse.
Jessica Zhou was the star for the rest of the program. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantasie for Violin and Harp, Op. 124 (1907) is by far the best piece written for this combination. Although Louis (Ludwig) Spohr tried hard, writing several sonatas to play with his harpist wife, Saint-Saëns just got it right, and audiences and harpists love it. Wendy Putnam played the luscious violin part very well; Zhou sparkled and enchanted. She began more quietly than I am used to hearing, so that when about three minutes into this 14-minute piece she started a long crescendo, it was very powerful. (Saint-Saëns knew how to write perfectly for harp; he also wrote a solo Fantasy, Opus 95, and a concert piece for harp and orchestra, Opus 154.) The Fantasie is full of harp harmonics and has a lovely harp cadenza, all of which Zhou played with great beauty. When the piece ended, quietly and magically, it was like the end of a dream.
After a lifetime of playing the harp, I now find myself judging harpists, most of whom I know. My first review for the Intelligencer here featured three harpists who had won Pro Musicis International Awards; one was Zhou who astonished me then with the hypnotic beauty of her playing. Zhou was no stranger to success. By the time she won the BSO audition three years ago, she had already won a plethora of prizes including Pro Musicis’s and had distinguished herself as a chamber musician and orchestral player. Her musicianship, the naturalness and lovely fluency and sound with which she plays, all lead to the beauty she brings to solo playing, in chamber music and with the BSO. The BSO is lucky to have her.
After intermission, Zhou played a very rarely heard solo piece, Variations of a Theme of Paganini, for solo harp by Mikhail Mchedelov. It’s one of the many sets of variations written on the 24h and last of Paganini’s famous caprices for solo violin. Like other composers (Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Witold Lutoslawski, etc.) Mchedelov has written 11 variations of great difficulty which showcase the harp. Zhou’s playing was elegant and impressive.
The program closed with a most unusual piece by a composer known best as the most famous film composer ever, and, of course, the former conductor of the Boston Pops, John Williams. BSO cellist, Mickey Katz joined Zhou, Putnam, and Martin for the piece, La Jolla Quartet for harp, clarinet, violin and cello (2010). It has a great back story. Everyone who plays under Williams, it seems, really likes him, and this piece came about because violinist Cho-Liang Lin asked if he would contribute a piece for his festival in La Jolla, California. The idea of writing for harp, clarinet, violin and cello intrigued him, and this second performance of the piece convinced me this is a piece that will be played a lot. Just get the violist, flutist, and extra violinist off the stage after Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro!
The piece is in five movements, the second of which, Williams explained, was helped by his intimate knowledge of the harp after working with the BSO former Principal Harp Ann Hobson Pilot, the inspiration for his Harp Concerto. In a letter he wrote to Putnam, which she read to the audience, Williams noted that this movement, Aubade,” explores the harp’s very unique role as the spiritual center and life-enhancing force of the entire piece.” Zhou played this deftly written idiosyncratic part exceedingly well. The fourth movement for clarinet, Cantando, was dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Principal Clarinetist John Bruce Yeh; Thomas Martin again was a wonder. Williams certainly knows how to thank people musically for their friendships. The perfect Sunday afternoon included a classy guy, a lovely piece, and great players.