in: Reviews

September 16, 2012

Serenity and Well-Being from Alcyon

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Next Sunday Alcyon Chamber Ensemble is repeating in Belmont the well conceived, satisfying program it performed this afternoon at the Parish Center for the Arts in Westford.  The three pieces, by Ralph Vaughn Williams, Antonín Dvořák, and Sidney Richardson (premiere), had the common element of serenity, sometimes midst stormy passages, but altogether gently melodious, oftentimes spell-binding. Attendance was small, but the day was arguably one of the most beautiful so far this year.

The rational for reviewing this concert in Westford is to give readers time to plan to go (which this reviewer strongly advises) to a venue within our remanded district for seasonal coverage. (Why was your editor reviewing? If BMInt had known of this concert before today, we might have found an available reviewer among our large contingent.)

Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Quintet in D Major is reportedly seldom played. What a pity! Born to a family of prestigious antecedents, he had many options open to him in his life, but he chose to honor noblesse oblige: he joined the British Army as a private when he was quite overage (41), and when he inherited his Wedgwood family’s estate, he immediately turned it over to the National Trust. One senses this generosity and pleasure with life in his music.

The second section of the first movement begins with a horn solo (Michael Weinstein), followed by the entrance of the cello, melding into a gentle melody. The clarinet (Kathy Matasy) played a passage beautifully with sensitive, satisfying dynamics and phrasing; then the piano joined in, with liquid runs, so well played by Emely Phelps.

(Bettina A. Norton photo)

The piano was a Steinway, which pianist Leslie Amper afterward called “a particularly beautiful instrument.” The setting was ideal for chamber music. The former church has a square interior room with a small “chancel,” an estimated 15 feet wide and high, and 10 feet deep, with an arched ceiling. The floor is raised, along with a raised extended stage, which may have been added later. One of the stained glass windows was repaired last year, and the Westford Center for the Arts used the opportunity to have two vignettes, red-edged diamond-shaped, added to the plain leaded window: in the center of one, an artist’s palette, and in the other, a piano, raised full stick.

Phelps used a full stick. But she never strayed from appropriate volume, and her ppps, delicate as they were, could be heard at the back of the hall. All the musicians commented afterward agreed about the excellent acoustics, that they easily could hear each other. This obvious acoustical plus, in addition to the sun streaming through those windows, added to the sense of serenity.

The third movement begins with a horn solo (again), followed by the piano, then violin, then cello, then clarinet. One felt during this extended passage that Vaughn Williams had a very good sense of the blending of voices of the different instruments. The entire piece leaves one with a sense of well-being — and the impression that we were witnessing Vaughn Williams’s attitude on life. He has been called the supremely English composer; yes, but in the sense not of superiority, but of good fortune: as R. L. Stevenson’s nursery rhyme goes: “Little Indian, Sioux or Crow, Little frosty Eskimo, Little Turk or Japanee, Oh! Don’t you wish that you were me?”

Sidney Richardson, a native of Belmont, who was born in 1987, was the winner of the Alcyon’s competition to celebrate its fifth anniversary. His Aprés la Transfiguration de la Nuit seemed a natural flow from the Vaughn Williams. The first movement, Crépuscule (“Twilight”), consisted entirely of the solo clarinet. Matasy really showed her chops. Her dynamics, breath control, and nimble fingering all came to play, from mysterious low notes to the few high shrieks, for this mysterious beginning. The solo piano morphed beautifully into the second movement, Minuit, in which two or three musical “screams’ alternating with an intense pounding beat (one’s heart?). The end of this movement is one of the loveliest of the piece: with light ppp tremolos from the strings, the notes slowly rise in a very effective suggestion of the rising sun. But Aurore is the final movement.

Composer Sidney Richardson (Bettina A. Norton photo)

Richardson, who is now a graduate student at Boston Conservatory, is an alumnus of Tufts, where his mentor was composer and Tufts Professor John MacDonald.

“Dumky,” the Dvořák Trio No. 4 in E Minor, kept to the mood of the afternoon concert. His quiet, almost meditative passages were interleaved with robust folk tunes, and the players responded to the changes. (Vaughn Williams also recorded folk music.) The pianist for the Trio was Leslie Amper, who also used full stick, and showed once again that she is a superb chamber musician (as well as soloist and accompanist).

For all three pieces, Shannon Snapp, founder of Alcyon, was cellist; Shufang Du, violinist; and Melissa Howe, violist. Snapp stressed that all the players are committed to teaching, fitting in with her goal of bringing music to children and young adults.

Not that this was a perfect performance. There were a few intonation problems in the strings, and one fleeting moment where piano and horn were not in sync, but these minor infractions did not interfere with the pleasure of a well played, well programmed, concert.

Bettina A. Norton, editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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