in: Reviews

March 27, 2012

Copland’s Clarinet Sextet BCMS Highlight


The Boston Chamber Society has been concertizing for about 30 years, and it has always seemed to be modeled on the highly successful Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — mostly mainstream repertoire played by a core group of very good musicians. It was a good formula and it worked. The Boston Chamber Music Society had enough of a fan base to perform each of its programs in Jordan Hall and Sanders Theatre. The ensemble continues to play four concerts in the summer and several concerts in the winter season at MIT. From the beginning, one has always been assured of a high level of musicianship and sound programming.

If chamber music aficionados were asked to list their 10 favorite chamber music pieces, the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 would be on many people’s lists. The Quintet is one of three sublime works Mozart wrote for the great clarinetist Anton Stadler around 1781 (the others are his Concerto for Clarinet, K. 622 and the Clarinet Trio (“Kegelstatt”), K. 498. (Later, Brahms would also have a clarinetist muse, Richard Mühlfeld for whom he wrote the great Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Trio, Op. 114). This performance by the BCMS last night at Sanders featured two guest artists, violinist Yura Lee and clarinetist Paul Green. Lee has won or placed in an astounding number of competitions, has played at the usual prestigious festivals, and has studied or is studying with a galaxy of famous teachers. Paul Green has a strikingly unusual résumé. He had spectacular success as a clarinetist as a teenager and young man, picking up degrees at Yale and Julliard and winning the Young Concert Artists International Auditions in 1965. He then became a lawyer for 15 years. In 1990 he returned to music and has taught and played in southern Florida as well as getting a master’s in Jazz Studies and directing Klezmer East.

Yura Lee played first violin; the other strings were Ida Levin, violin, Marcus Thompson, viola, and Ronald Thomas, cello. While the piece received a good performance, there were balance problems, built into the piece. The strings, all excellent players, didn’t always project important melodic material over the clarinet. For example, the strings in the second (slow) movement are muted, the clarinet is not, so the strings must play their material more expressively, or risk not being heard. Green did not deploy a contrasting, subdued tone color; his tone was bright almost all the time, so he had the acoustical advantage in the fast movements. Still, it is always a great pleasure to hear this piece, and to hear it played by these musicians was a pleasure.

The Copland Sextet for Clarinet, String Quartet and Piano is a very exciting piece, and it received a exhilarating, extremely skillful performance. It is extremely challenging rhythmically: it contrasts stretches of quirky rhythms with episodes of warm lyricism. The six musicians seemed to be loosened up and the strings, particularly Ida Levin who was playing first violin, were working hard but looked like they were having the time of their lives. Randall Hodgkinson, no stranger to the music of Copland, was the terrific pianist. The program notes refer to this piece as “a compressed glossary of Copland’s composition style: frequent time signature changes and shifts, open sonorities, broad vertical gestures, reconstructed elements of jazz, leaping melodic motives, and unmistakably ‘direct and vigorous.'” The instrumental blend was much better than in the Mozart. The middle movement, Lento, was gorgeous and played with beauty by all. For me, the Copland was unquestionably the highlight of the evening. I venture a lot of people grew fond of this piece because of this great performance.

Following intermission, the group continued with their year-long exploration of piano quintets with the popular Piano Quintet by César Franck. This is a lushly romantic piece, which like other music of Franck, has tunes so catchy, and repeated so often, that, as my companion remarked, “you leave the hall either singing or humming them.” Ida Levin (playing first violin again) and her string colleagues all played their various melodies and countermelodies with distinction. In the second movement, she is given beautiful melodies, while the other strings act as her elegant back-up band.

The piece, which, alas, is not my favorite piano quintet, received an energetic and excellent performance. The idea of a year of piano quintets was a great one, and I’m glad that during the year I heard the Franck — once.

Last night, the audience was just getting ready to hear one of the sublime works of the chamber music literature, Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, when a gentleman came on stage to say attendance the past several years is down, funding is down, subscriptions are down, and so on, for 10 long minutes. Two people I overheard in the hall at intermission said it all but ruined their mood for the concert. Surely there is a better time for such a tale of fiscal woe. Worse, he recited the entire next year’s program, which people were already holding in their hands.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


  1. I’m grateful for your last paragraph. I was tempted to shout down, from the balcony, “We have all this in print! Get off the stage and bring on the music!” But I chickened out. If he does this again next year, I won’t hold back.

    Sorry you didn’t mention the pianist for the Franck. I thought Randall Hodgkinson was terrific in the Franck as well as in the Copland.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 28, 2012 at 1:42 pm

  2. Alan, I presumed people would know it was Randall Hodgkinson who played in the Franck. You’re right, he was terrific, and always is. A belated bravo to him.

    Comment by susan miron — March 29, 2012 at 12:10 pm

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