in: Reviews

March 27, 2012

Winsor’s Oboe Commission: Audience Breathless


The final concert of this season’s Winsor Music Chamber Series on Sunday night at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline began with Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52. I’m not a fan of this work, but let me place my excursion on programming at the end of this review. After all, the performance was quite exquisite. The voices melded perfectly — soprano Kendra Colton, mezzo Katherine Growdon, tenor Daniel McGrew, and baritone Andrew Garland. Smaller poems were sometimes effectively linked to make a larger dramatic unit, as no. 11, “There’s just no getting along with people” connecting directly to 12, “Locksmith, I want to lock up all their evil mouths,” the latter with great vocal emotion from Garland — we caught an edge of anger in his voice.

The piano four-hands, with Megan Henderson and John McDonald, was sparkling and effervescent, often illustrating the text, as the chirping of nightingales, or the twinkling of stars. The singers all sang warmly and lusciously. The featured Young Artist, Daniel McGrew, has a lovely, nuanced tenor. He warmed to his role gradually and clearly has great potential. In general I wanted more drama from the singers, with the exception being mezzo Katherine Growdon, who used her eyes and expressive face to heighten the meaning of all she sang; I was riveted and felt like she was singing directly to me. Perhaps the Met HD opera broadcasts have raised the bar. We really expect content to be communicated; singers must also act. There were a few flirtatious glances among the singers, but mostly Growdon cast glances while the others read their music. A theatrical director might be employed to bring out the dramatic potential of a work like this.

Peggy Pearson, artistic director Winsor Music, is a well-known local oboist. Following intermission was the premiere of a work commissioned by the group, Oboe Quartet by Scottish composer Helen Grime (b. 1981). A former oboist herself, she has a real understanding of the oboe as an expressive and passionate instrument, and she also is from a musical family with siblings who are string players. Grime and composer John Harbison offered some commentary on the work, pointing out its slow and gradual unfolding. Pearson, whose playing was inspired and flawless, begins as the protagonist, provoking the strings with evocative and lyrical gestures; they comment and respond. The oboe glided into high registers and later rumbled at the bottom of its range; at points a cloth inserted in the bell was used to mute it, subtly rounding its tone. Eventually the four instruments reach a point where instead of dialogue and argument, they become, as Grimes observed, like one big instrument. The shape of this dramatic opening up, and the sustained but gentle ecstatic fervor of the work reminded me just a bit of the last movement of Ives’s Quartet no. 2; there was something transcendent in its spirit, drawn from the subtle use of timbre, of melding pitches from the oboe to the strings in a way to suggest an endless expansion, a glimpse of something infinite; it gave me goose bumps. This subsided very gradually, leaving the audience collectively breathless.

Some readjusting of the stage for the next work allowed us the necessary brief interval. Then followed J. S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 99 Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. Directed by Harbison, this was given a modern instrument performance (except for the use of a small organ), but the influence of period instruments was there in the flow and lightness of the tempo, with the recitatives reflecting the natural speed of speech. In the multi-layered splendor of the opening chorale, the rich harmonization of the voices, and intricate dialogue between the instruments (two violins, viola, oboe d’amore, flute, and organ, with ‘cello and string bass as continuo) suggested the intricate shimmering majesty of God’s rule. The solo flute in the tenor aria was relentless in its fast pace and energy. Ann Bobo (flute) was sure-footed in this exhilarating passage, which must be the “sweetness” mentioned in the text, offering encouragement to the “despairing soul” that the tenor evocatively addressed. The penultimate movement, with soprano-alto duet, suggested the inevitability of the slow march with the cross and its somber path to redemption. Redemption, in the final choral verse, was presented in a simple affirming harmonization and brought the program to a satisfying close.

Now, back to that Brahms. . . G. F. Daumer’s texts for the Liebeslieder Waltzes are so mawkish that you just wish, in this case, that Brahms had put his skills to better use. They certainly do not bear a lot of deep thought. Rather it’s like eating a box of chocolate bon-bons. Delicious for two or three. More than that, cloying and even a bit annoying. Moreover, a chamber series as distinguished and well attended as this one is in a place to be more inventive and adventurous in its programming, to go beyond including two of “The Three ‘B’s.” I commend its devotion to new music and commissions, but this also could have been a chance to excavate and explore historic works that for whatever reason have been unjustly neglected and blocked from any possibility of entering the canon. This program had a need to use the singers on hand for the Bach cantata, fine. But this Brahms is rather overdone and not substantial.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.

1 Comment

  1. Winsor Music could hardly be accused of being unadventurous in their programming. The series has introduced countless new works to the Boston music scene.

    Pianists and singers return to the Liebeslieder Waltzes again and again simply because they are masterpieces – and an absolutely joy to perform; audiences simply love them. Whatever you think of the poetry they are far more than musical bonbons.

    Now, just what is a modern instrument performance of Bach? The organ, I know, was built at the end of the 20th century – probably a good bit later than most of the ‘modern’ instruments used in the Bach. I’m not sure that I agree that ‘flow and lightness of tempo’ need be the result of the influence of period instruments.

    Just a few quibbles.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — March 28, 2012 at 1:36 am

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