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BCMS Performers Please, But the Sound Doesn’t


Last night at the Mosesian Theater in Watertown, the Boston Chamber Music Society offered the third of its four summer concerts honoring the sesquicentennial of Claude Debussy (the actual birthday is this coming Wednesday), by presenting Debussy and Ravel sonatas for violin and piano and their lone string quartets.

The program opened with the Debussy Sonata  in G minor for Violin and Piano, L 140, played by violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist and BCMS veteran Mihae Lee.  This three movement work was Debussy’s last, and captures his distinctive mercurial harmonies, conflicting rhythms, and exotic stylings — sometimes Spanish, sometimes gypsy.  Frautschi was every bit equal to the task, matching Debussy’s quicksilver shifts with style and aplomb.  Lee accompanied skillfully and diplomatically and even though Frautschi stood in front of Lee rather than playing from the crook of the piano, they responded to each other and matched Debussy’s curvaceous music step-for-step.

After a pause for a stage change, Ms. Frautschi took the first violin chair alongside violinist Xiao-Dong Wang, violist Dimitri Murrath, and BCMS co-founder and cellist Ronald Thomas for the Ravel String Quartet.  For the most part, this was a fine performance.  Each player had distinguished solo moments, with a particularly warm singing tone from second violinist Wang in the slow movement and masterful playing and support from cellist Thomas. There was also some gorgeous ensemble playing, with the two violinists responding to each other well and a hushed sheen over the soft ending of the first movement.  Unfortunately, I came to this concert fresh with the memory of an extraordinary performance by the Harlem (String) Quartet at Tannery Pond reviewed here a few weeks ago , and a comparison of the two performances points up the differences between a group of musicians dedicated to chamber music but who don’t perform together regularly with a dedicated quartet ensemble who (mostly) play together all the time. The Harlem Quartet looked and listened for each other at every turn and their tones matched impressively.  Frautschi’s tone seemed more forward and didn’t always match Wang ideally, and this was particularly noticeable in the pizzicato playing of the second movement Scherzo.

Mr. Wang and Ms. Lee returned after intermission to play Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G Major, another three movement work which figures among Ravel’s last pieces.  Mr. Wang dispatched the sonata with a warm, full-throated tone, but indulged in cheating the scoops and portamentos of the central “Blues” movement.  If I have any reservation with the playing of the first two movements, it was that it sounded like the same thick, rich, almost Russian violin tone was applied in equal measure to every phrase, lending the movements a distressing sameness.  However, for the final “Perpetuum mobile,” Wang deployed a supple, lightning-fast tone, making Ravel’s challenging runs and leaps sound like child’s play.

In a review of last week’s BCMS concert here, David Patterson objected to the piano, citing an unbalanced sound and a percussive, non-resonating decay. Apparently the society had a technician work on the piano before this concert, as I did not sense the same problems. To my ears, the tone was dry but did not decay too quickly. It sounded acceptable in all of its registers, and could be heard clearly without ever drowning out the violinist in front.

My problem with the program was with the performance hall, the Charles Mosesian Theater in Watertown’s Arsenal Center for the Arts.  This is the temporary home for the BCMS summer series while their usual space is under renovation. Their artistic director admitted in a BMInt article here that the acoustics are better suited for spoken theater than for music.  The setting does allow for intimate contact with the performers, and all the details can be heard with pinpoint clarity, but the dry acoustic swallowed up any efforts at a singing tone, and struck my ear as sounding rather tinny and shrill. I wonder if Frautschi’s forward tone in the Ravel Quartet and Wang’s homogeneous sound in the Ravel Sonata were results of overcompensating for the theater’s lack of reverberance, leading to an effort to play louder at the expense of nuance.

After another rearrangement of chairs Mr. Wang returned, this time as the first violinist, with Ms. Frautschi, Mr. Murrath, and Mr. Thomas for the Debussy String Quartet.  The quartet seemed better adjusted to the theater for the final work of the evening, with both violinists matching tone beautifully. They evinced lively and puckish interchanges and responses in the Scherzo, and offered exquisite hushed ensemble playing especially in the final two movements.  Mr. Murrath gave a soulful account of the viola melody in the center of the third movement, and Mr. Thomas’s furtive sideways glances to the other members of the quartet, his bouncy pizzicato playing and his rock-solid harmonic foundation for those hushed chords were inspirations.

The theater was almost full, and the patrons showed warm appreciation for the performers.  The finale of the summer Debussy series will be next Saturday, August 25 at 8 p.m.  Mr. Thomas and Ms. Lee will return, along with violinist Harumi Rhodes and pianist Benjamin Hochman, in Fauré’s Violin Sonata #1, a piano four hands arrangement of Debussy’s Ibéria, and the Ravel Piano Trio. Details are in BMInt’s Upcoming Events.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night.  He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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