in: Reviews

August 12, 2012

Fine Playing by BCMS Thwarted by Piano

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The second of four concerts by the Boston Chamber Music Society in Watertown celebrating Debussy’s 150th birthday  touched off with a mild round of applause for an Erik Satie duet and landed with rounds and rounds of applause for a Gabriel Fauré piano quartet. A highly elevated cello performance by Ronald Thomas of the Debussy sonata before intermission was contained, however, not by Randall Hodgkinson’s pianism but the piano itself. Marcus Thompson’s fetchingly earnest viola further exposed the unsuitability of this particular Steinway — an instrument that does not belong in the Charles Mosesian Theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

Disconnection with the Satie in the near-filled theater went beyond the piano problem.  Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes) translates as “Things seen to right and to left (without glasses).” For some reason Satie’s parenthetical phrase did not appear on the printed program. Choral hypocrite, Fugue á tâtons (groping fugue), and Fantaisie musculaire, all short frisky pieces, came off way too seriously with Hodgkinson accompanying Steven Copes on violin. No spoofiness, which is too bad. These really are fun.

Following this was a “piano recital” as one concert-goer put it:  Fauré’s Prélude in D-flat Major, Op. 103, No. 1 and Prélude in C-sharp minor, Op. 103, no. 2; Debussy’s Claire de lune; Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1; and Fauré again, his Impromptu no. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 34. Hodgkinson fought and fought the piano. His moving from piece to piece, preempted any clapping, kept the concert moving along, the set flowing, and allowed more reflection on the sounds and tastes of a musical Paris in Debussy’s time. My admiration is here expressed for Hodgkinson’s utter professionalism in doing all he could do with the instrument, smiling after his performance while graciously acknowledging the audience’s generous applause.

Ronald Thomas connects. Before beginning the sonata, the Artistic Director Emeritus of the BCMS spoke to us about the speed-of-lightning mood swings of the first of Debussy’s six sonatas for diverse instruments, all “offerings” in homage to his wife, Emma. The poco animando melody of the Prologue came ever so lightly from Thomas’s wisps of bow, so tenderly from his floating fingers over the cello’s strings. He told about Pierrot, the stock character of pantomime, having more trouble than can be believed in one futile attempt after another at playing the guitar, and about Debussy quizzically entitling the second movement Sérénade. Plucking and sliding, slowing and accelerating, bowing on the fingerboard, Thomas engaged in some perfectly fine frustrated frolicking. In the Final, his cello passionately sang out the four rising notes, la-do-re-mi. Often, Thomas “played” the music, waving his left arm in the air again, uniting still more listeners with the music of Debussy.

BCMS’s performance of Fauré’s mammoth Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 45 could be described as many-hued and sizzling, a most human endeavor, and an endearing tribute. The players were Steven Copes, violin, Artistic Director Marcus Thompson, viola, Ronald Thomas, cello, and Randall Hodgkinson, piano.

So, what’s wrong with the piano? It was not well tuned. Its bass clef notes grumble, obscuring harmony. Its note decay is fast, fast, fast — no resonance. It’s “percussive,” as another concert-goer observed. A “questionable piano,” as I wrote in my review [here] of the first Debussy concert a week ago Saturday night. At that concert we were sitting in row J seats 2 and 4, the fourth row from the top of the theater.  Last night, we were given press seats B 111 and 112, only two rows from the stage. It became totally obvious from sitting this close that it was not distance, but the piano itself. Time for a new one!

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.

3 Comments

  1. David Patterson’s remarks about the piano are interesting, especially in light of Marcus Thompson’s complimentary remarks about their piano-choosing process in the interview posted on BMINT’s Home page. I’m not astute enough to tell. We did think the Satie pieces were “frisky” and fun, however. Enjoyed Randall Hodgkinson, as always, and all the BCMS players. And enjoyed this review as well.

    Comment by John Melithoniotes — August 12, 2012 at 8:53 pm

  2. It’s not so obvious to me that the piano itself was totally at fault for the sound. One might
    ask Randall Hodgkinson, but he’s probably too discreet to respond. I sat second row, just right
    of center. There the treble was clear, the bass was clean but subdued, and the midrange sounded
    honky-tonk. I suspected that the baffles might be playing a role, so covertly inspected them at
    intermission. They were arrayed in a uniform arc about eight feet behind the players.
    The panels are some thin, stiff material that rattles slightly when tapped. Since the distance
    can’t explain absorbtion at middle C or an octave below, nor cancelation by reflection, I can’t
    guess how they’re implicated. Nonetheless, I would suggest staggering their distances from the
    piano, and angling them slightly in alternating directions. This is assuming that panels
    are needed at all, rather than advancing the musicians into the hall.

    As with last week, the rumbling air-handling equipment was annoying. Another audience member
    came equipped with a sound-level meter, which measure noise at about 51dB, but it was hard to
    separate the blower sound from audience murmur.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — August 15, 2012 at 11:00 am

  3. A short follow-up, responding to the concert of 18 August. We were eight rows back, almost center;
    from there the piano had no midrange problem — it was uniform throughout, but again lacked
    power, bloom. As did the strings. They played accurately, musically, but sounded as though in
    an anechoic chamber. The air-moving equipment was silent during the music, whether by intent or
    because the evening was chilly.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — August 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm

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