in: Reviews

August 6, 2012

Old Treasure, Young Debussy, Questionable Piano


The 2012 Hamel Summer Series started up Saturday evening with the first of four concerts commemorating the 150th birthday of Claude Debussy, born August 22, 1862. The Boston Chamber Music Society with Sheryl Staples, violin, Julie Albers, cello, and Jon Klibonoff, piano, cast a French salute at the Mosesian Theater Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

Before his death on March 25, 1918, the composer led music out of an era of Romanticism and into an era of Modernism. Often, we hear especially of his “harmonic chemistry,” instrumental colors, and sensuous takes on nature. To Debussy, music meant pleasure, one reason he has been anointed musicien français.

One of his important mentors was Ernest Guirard, a Louisianan who relocated to Paris. The little-known composer’s music is scarcely to be found — just try to find recordings on YouTube or the giant database of Naxos. In “Deux” Romances sans paroles, Julie Albers and Jon Klibonoff created a respectful tone for Mélancolie and Scherzando in lieu of one of closeness. Perhaps they were aiming more toward a casual salon encounter than one of a more warmly inviting occasion. The distance one experiences in this new Watertown theater may have contributed to this. The real treat, and an instructive one at that, was hearing these Romances in the first place; after all, how many of us are all that familiar with Guirard?

Three of Debussy’s best known and most loved piano pieces followed. Intended to be edifying, the sonorous Reflets dans l’eau, La Fille aux cheveux de lin, and La Sérénade interrompue housed together as such, somewhat eluded that goal, given the utter popularity of the first two, if not the last. Jon Klibonoff was completely relaxed for the last page of the Reflets, from Debussy’s first book of images, to create wateriness, wavering likenesses, lightness, and loveliness; the straighter edges in the preceding pages and, at times, an unexpected sense of urgency, felt out of place. “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” whizzed, both a plus (try sitting through a Boston Pops recording) and a minus: where was the girl, her hair? Bigness of Reflets and smallness of Fille somehow led to the humorous and exotic side of le musician français. It was an odd grouping and a less-than-convincing lesson.

Another teaching entry on the program was Debussy’s Piano Trio in G Major, composed in his late teens, in four movements lasting some 20 minutes. Contact, contact, contact! It was as if le maître himself had coached the BCMS summer players with violinist Sheryl Staples joining Albers and Klibonoff. Their violin and cello unisons exceeded the idea of mere doublings as they produced yet another enticing instrumental effect. Balance? How about interplay, even better, chemistry! It was as though Debussy was right there in our Watertown! A fabulous rendering.

A work of another Debussy teacher, César Franck, was the still popular Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major, which concluded this first Debussy commemoration concert. Staples and Klibonoff conveyed the grand sonata with allied sweeps and swings luxuriously tempered to the chromatic and cyclical style of Franck. Fervor reigned, back and forth, the returning melodic motive, the piece’s hallmark sealed by their splendid dedication to revivifying the old treasure. Their rousing flourish put a final glorious exclamation point on a hugely successful, if but a few tads off, concert.

From the first notes of the evening, distancing was much in evidence in the Mosesian theater. The listener needed time to adjust to the piano, a Steinway seven-footer. Eight acoustical reflectors behind the performers indicated concerns with the natural projection of music-making in the space. The physical distance distracted less and less as the evening went on as this new listener became more familiar with the room. The piano, though, remained questionable.

David Patterson, professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


  1. What was questionable about the piano? Was 7 feet of Steinway too big? Too small? Too American?

    Comment by Michael Monroe — August 7, 2012 at 1:11 pm

  2. Thanks to Michael Monroe for the comment.

    The question deserves a far longer piece, which I hope to see here in the near future. But for now I will say only that I thorougly enjoyed the concert, in large part because I thought both the acoustics of the venue and the sound of the piano were unusually appropriate to the music.

    The Mosesian Theater is a drama theater – intended to maximize the dramatic connection between a skilled actor and as many people in the audience as possible. Acoustically this means speech should not only be intelligible (it takes really miserable acoustics to make speech unintelligible to a skilled actor) but that it should be so easily intelligible the listeners have the impression the speaker is very close by, and speaking directly to them. They can’t help but pay attention. The Watertown theater is this good.

    The question is – should chamber music also speak directly to us, drawing us into it with our ears as well as with our knowledge of the score? Is chamber music as dramatic as well intoned speech? I think so, sometimes I think it is more so. Chamber music was composed to be performed in chambers, in the day these chambers were stuffed with furniture, tapestries, and people in fancy dress. The rooms were acoustically dry, small, and extremely clear. But we insist on performing most music in far larger and far more reverberant spaces. Aren’t we missing something important?

    From my seat in the center of the fourth row – which I got at the last moment – the sound had the exceptionl, gripping clarty that I love and seldom hear. In tests before the concert I had the great opportunity to listen to the sound from the stage in most of areas of the hall, and the sound had this clarity and considerable strength in all of them. Yes, the sound is dry, but the piano makes its own reverberation, as Kilbonoff aptly demonstrated when Debussy demanded it. If David Patterson found the sound “distant” from wherever he sat, he could easily moved next to me – the next seat sat empty for the whole concert.

    As for the piano – the young NEC pianist at our tests loved it, and so did I. It is “only” a seven footer, but had a lighter, quicker sound than the usual concert grand. How long was the piano played by Debussy, and how massive was its sustain? Is there any sense in matching a fine del Gesu violin with a nine-foot monster designed for playing a Tchaikovsky piano concerto? The piano in the last two BCMS concerts I attended drowned out the strings way too often. Exciting, yes, musically appropriate, no. The Steinway B, under sensitive hands of Kilbonoff, never did that – and in the Cesar Franck the climaxes were powerful – both in the piano and the violin. Together they matched passion with passion. I loved it. Kudos to all!

    Comment by David Griesinger — August 7, 2012 at 4:44 pm

  3. David Griesinger, sitting in the fourth row thought the piano was loud enough and that the sound was gripping and clear- no surprise there.

    I suspect that David Patterson was sitting many rows further back.

    Tell us where you were sitting, Mr. Patterson.

    Comment by de novo2 — August 7, 2012 at 9:17 pm

  4. Thank you for your question about the piano. As I recall, unlike listening to the strings, I had to work to feel the music coming from the piano. Presence it did not assert for me. I would even go so far as to say it sounded as if we were in some sort of vacuum, there wasn’t an openness or roundness to the piano’s sound.

    Yes, I was sitting very far up, some five rows from the top. Distance was in evidence not only to me but as well as with listeners close by, one person even commenting quite extensively on the matter. Could you try listening from up there with warm bodies filling much of the theater? I would appreciate learning what one has to say about such. I will be attending Saturday night’s concert and will be sure to sit up close. Once again, Mr. Griesinger, I enjoyed coming to understand a different listening space. We heard what we heard.

    Comment by David Patterson — August 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm

  5. I was particulary happy with the piano/violin balance in the Franck. I felt the piano might have been too gentle compared to the cello in the Guirard. But it is so rare that the piano is not overbearing that I chose not to mention it. I would call the accompianment “gentle” – as was the music itself. The pianist in our tests was seldom gentle, and the sound five rows from the top was plenty strong.


    Comment by David Griesinger — August 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm

  6. I bet John Klibonoff does not consider himself overbearing and I bet he doesn’t consider it his job to play too loudly in an ensemble and I bet he would have preferred a 9 ft. piano.

    If Griesinger was sitting five rows from the back during a “test”, then the hall was probably empty at the time. Wouldn’t an audience deaden the sound? And isn’t it fair that Patterson reviewed the sound from where he sat? Not everyone can sit next to Griesinger in the fourth row from the stage.

    One should not worry about a “del Gesu” violin being covered by a modern piano. The violin had probably been modernized over its lifetime with steel strings, etc.

    Comment by de novo2 — August 9, 2012 at 7:29 am

  7. Not having attended the concert, I cannot comment on the appropriateness – or lack of it – of the piano. However, for anyone interested, I would cordially invite you to hear and play such pianos as Debussy was accustomed to; the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA has these instruments and many more. The Historical Piano Concerts (Spring and Fall since 1985) have featured Erard and Bluthner pianos in music of Debussy, Franck and Ravel, among others. We have an exciting live-performance recording of the Franck violin sonata with our 1877 Erard concert grand, as well as a commercially issued pair of CDs of Debussy’s “Preludes”, Books I and II with our 1907, nine-foot Bluthner. Ensemble balance and solo voicing effects with these pianos are ear-opening.

    Our nonprofit organization exists to introduce musicians and music lovers to the enormous variety of pianos known to major composers from about 1790 to 1928. Visitors say they knew the experience would be enlightening – they didn’t know it would be such FUN!
    We are always pleased to share these resources with anyone who is interested.

    Comment by Patricia Frederick — August 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm

  8. I can perhaps add something to this discussion:

    I have reviewed a number of recitals at the Frederick Collection involving music by Debussy, Ravel, and Franck, in particular, one featuring the latter’s violin sonata using an 8.5 foot 1893 Érard [].

    I have also researched extensively Debussy’s piano music, playing style, and the pianos that he owned and played to the extent information is available, and written a long and dense piece for a different web site incorporating the results of this investigation. His own grand piano (All his other pianos were uprights, and were lent by their makers.) was a small one, about 6’3″, a Blüthner, with a cast iron frame, with the company’s patented Aliquot system of sympathetic strings that gives additional depth to its resonance, and is still extant in decent playing condition in a museum, so a modern 7-foot Steinway is quite appropriate, although it is undoubtedly brighter because that company strives for power, and its sound is therefore probably somewhat less melodic or musical.

    To my knowledge, although there were Steinways in some private Parisian salons along with other Parisian makes (I also researched these in the aforementioned article.), there were no Steinways in any recital hall in Paris during Debussy’s lifetime, and perhaps not until after WW II, because the main halls were built and owned by the three Parisian piano making firms Érard, Gaveau, and Pleyel, who were featuring their own instruments. The Frederick Collection’s 1877 Érard Extra-grand modèle de concert is an example the largest grand any of those firms built, designed specifically for large concert hall use. I recently reviewed two concerts featuring this instrument, by Hsia-Jung Chang [] and Yuan Sheng []. I also reviewed a recent CD by Chang performed on a modern Steinway concert grand for the other web site which can offer some further insight.

    What is most strikingly different from what I can tell from the review and the subsequent comments is the venue and the nature of its acoustics. David Greisinger nails this in his 3rd paragraph. When such halls aren’t sold out, presenters and musicians themselves would be well advised to invite audience members to move forward if they wish to truly appreciate the music as the composer intended it to sound. This is intimate music written for intimate spaces, not large halls.

    One other problem in the review that no one else has pointed out is the misconception concerning the phrase “musicien français”. Debussy himself had that printed on the scores of all his works composed after the outbreak of WW I, and inscribed on his tombstone. It has less to do with his compositional style, but more with his position as the heir of a tradition going back to the Baroque era, when J.S. Bach and everyone else across Europe used French musical forms, and particularly with his nationalism, not to say chauvinism, and his opposition to German hegemony, both musical and political. Some other French composers took these feelings even further than did he.

    Comment by Marvin J. Ward — August 10, 2012 at 10:46 am

  9. This is the most outstanding forum! Plenty of disagreements, but each writer makes clear what assumptions they start with, how they arrived at their opinion, and what the reader could do to try to experience what the writer did and see if the reader’s conclusion would be similar or different. I wish I could find an election-year forum like that.
    [Note: singular “they” is my current work-around for the “he or she” problem. It’s still not satisfactory.]

    Comment by Mark Lutton — August 10, 2012 at 9:29 pm

  10. “This is the most outstanding forum!” Precisely. I have heard this from several others, though they did not place comments. We are grateful to you or doing so, as this type of debate is exactly what Lee envisioned when he set up the opportunity, and ackowledgement is important.
    How about “Each writer’s assumptions are clear, …”

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — August 11, 2012 at 8:20 am

  11. “Never was heard …..” We were on the right side, about eight rows up,
    and found Marcus’s introductory words barely intelligible; so the baffles
    had a purpose. The instruments were clear, but not as “present” as in
    Sanders or Pickman. Air-handling equipment noise bothered me, but not
    two friends who ignored it because it was constant/consistent.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — August 11, 2012 at 7:28 pm

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