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.