The press devours controversy (and should be admired for often synthesizing its own food). One minor ripple in this frog-pond of journalism has reflected the acoustical properties of the Mosesian Theater at Watertown’s Arsenal Center for the Arts, whither the Boston Chamber Music Society has repaired for its Hamel Summer Series focusing on the sesquicentennial Debussy and his influencers, teachers, friends, coevals, and followers. One colleague has inveighed [here] about what he perceived as a distant sound and a dodgy piano, while another [here] panned the hall’s dryness and lack of carrying power. Thus, when we encountered another colleague, acoustic physicist David Griesinger, in the line for BCMS’s fourth and final program of the summer on August 25th, we were delighted to learn that he felt the hall was excellent; his take was that the clarity of sound was ideal for chamber music. The unanimity of opinion thus broken, we anticipated a chance to wade into the fray.
This not being a journal of acoustics, let us put those issues aside for now and devote attention to the main business of the evening. This concert was a recital by a quartet of BCMS regulars, namely violinist Harumi Rhodes, cellist Ronald Thomas, pianist Mihae Lee, and Israeli pianist Benjamin Hochman, newest BCMS regular. It opened with Gabriel Fauré’s Violin Sonata in A Major, Op. 13, a work of Fauré’s early maturity, dating from 1876 when the composer was 31, but one that left its mark. (At the time, many thought it was a blot.) It is full of footloose modulation — the scherzo is especially squirmy — covered over by many melodic felicities. Rhodes and Lee performed with great commitment and finesse; we were impressed by Lee’s nimble negotiation, after a bit of early hesitancy, of the opening movement’s complex piano part, the progression from tenderness to ardent passion and back in the slow movement, and by Rhodes’s delicate pizzicati in the scherzo and the brio with which the pair attacked the rhythmically assertive finale. OK, so we have to say something about the sound: our aural reception was often not the equal of our visual sense of the players’ giving their all — yes, the clarity was there, but except for the finale, the power was not; and we don’t think it was the players’ fault.
The pre-intermission closer was André Caplet’s four-hand arrangement, with the composer’s blessing, of the middle Ibéria movement (itself in three sections) from Debussy’s three Images for orchestra. Considering what a genius Debussy was in bringing color to piano writing, it is no small compliment to say that Caplet’s arrangement gave no indication that it might not have been the composer’s own. The piano reduction, as it often does, clarifies lines that, especially with Debussy, can haze over with orchestral effects. The clarity is instructive in other ways as well; while all the Spanish licks were there, it was easier to see how they subordinate themselves to Debussy’s larger structures.
In the arrangement it is hard to determine which part is primo and which secondo; both are virtuoso turns. Hochman took the bass side and Lee the treble, but there was a good deal of playful looping of hands around one another. Hochman took sole possession of the pedals and did his best to fill out the rather wan sound of the seven-foot Steinway. There was certainly enough gusto to engender more than a few “wows” from the audience at the work’s end.
The one work post-intermission was Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, in which Thomas joined Hochman and Rhodes. This is one of Ravel’s most popular and most highly regarded abstract works, despite (or is that because) of the obsessively meticulous composer’s knocking it off in a few weeks before he had to report for duty in the Great War. (Both he and Vaughan Williams, older than standard soldiery, served as drivers.) Within Ravel’s impeccable classical structure there is much color and vitality, notably in his use of actual and suggestive Basque music, reflecting his origins in southwest France. In the first movement his themes come off rather Spanish in flavor, unsurprisingly, but Ravel doesn’t exploit that color as much as its rhythmic insistence, yet ever so gently. The BCMS trio was superb in its dynamic nuance, topped by a gorgeous fade-out. In the second movement Scherzo, lightness of touch continued to be the prevailing impression, although, as in the Fauré, the failure of projection was, from the visual evidence, not to be held against the performers. What was wonderful here was the unanimity with which they attended the coloration of the sound and Ravel’s slick but idiosyncratic sonorities. Things did get a bit intense at times: Thomas shed quite a few bowstrings in this movement. The passacaglia slow movement, with its very odd modal-pentatonic theme that sounds almost Appalachian, was stately and lovely, marred only by the piano’s dullness in the low registers, where the arch-like movement begins and ends. The finale, performed with great urgency, tautness, and élan, again brought the house to its feet.
So what to say about BCMS’s experiment in Watertown? We don’t think the problems are irremediable, but they will require close attention from the proprietors and the performers, whoever they may be. A larger, more resonant piano might help, as might some enhancement to the sound reflectors behind the performers. It’s actually a good location for concerts, with ample free parking and excellent sight lines, although it has a truly weird and functionally nonexistent lobby. We hope someone does it up properly for music.