Flutist Paula Robison’s and pianist Paavali Jumppanen’s program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall on Sunday featured a selection of early-mid-20th century French works by Roussel, Boulez, Poulenc, and Debussy and also marked the inauguration of Calderwood Hall’s new piano.
The German Steinway D concert grand, with a price tag approaching $200k, was Jumppanen’s selection from the Steinway factory in Hamburg. Most pianists liked the Gardner’s previous piano, chosen at the same Steinway showroom in Hamburg by pianist Malcom Frager in 1984, and there apparently had been no plans to replace it until pianist Jermey Denk was reported by The Boston Globe to have declared “Nice hall, but this place needs a new piano.”
It sounds dynamic, crisp, and very bright — but not overly so, despite the demand that the lid be removed during performances to accommodate the Calderwood’s 360° three-tier seating configuration. It may also be a solid fit for the venue’s high volume of modern programming. Jumppanen couldn’t have chosen any better selections than the two Boulez pieces to “break it in,” which may be an understatement.
The instrument was donated by Brit d’Arbeloff in honor of her husband Alexander Vladimir d’Arbeloff, a co-founder of Teradyne and a former trustee of the Gardner, who died in 2008. Music Director Scott Nickrenz warmly announced before the concert that he would like to name the piano Alex, then eccentrically welcomed “Paula, Paavali, and Alex” to the stage.
Albert Roussel’s Joueurs de flûte is a fascinating cross-section of Debussy-influenced French style and Neoclassicism. Robison’s powerful, breathy tone was more than enough to compensate for the bright, lidless piano, even in the piece’s most dynamic moments. The Jumppanen and Robison team exhibited strong, musical chemistry in the pointillistic third movement, “Krishna,” and brought their seasoned musicality to the fore with the dramatic fourth movement, “Monsieur de la Péjaudie” (named after the character in de Régnier’s La Pécheresse (The Sinful Woman)).
The Boulez Piano Sonata No.1 provided a stark contrast to the Roussel. The program notes, courtesy of Aaron Grad, grouped all the selections of this program as exemplars of “the French musical sensibility,” dubbing the represented composers of the programs music “Debussy and his stylistic heirs.” While describing Roussel in this way may be an oversimplification, grouping Boulez as a stylistic heir of Debussy is grossly inaccurate. The sonata is an early champion of Boulez’s International Style, and is as much a rejection of Debussy and Ravel as it is an expansion of the expressive profile of German Serialism. The piece sharply turns between contrasting musical personae, and the second movement is a rollercoaster of staggering gestures. Few pianists could contend with this piece’s sheer technical demands, even fewer could shape it all into a vivid musical narrative, set in high relief, full of character. It seemed clear to most of the audience that the performance of this piece, at this quality, was a far more extraordinary event than the mere initiation of a new instrument.
Debussy’s Syrinx, for solo flute, was far lighter fare. The piece is arguably the spark for a multitude of unaccompanied flute works by a wide array of 20th -century composers. Robison’s interpretation of the piece was genial but not overly sentimental. The acoustic neutrality of Calderwood Hall was of particular influence here (though many players may find it intensely unforgiving). With hardly an ounce of reverberation to speak of, all of the subtleties of Robison’s playing were distinct and clear, ripe for the picking.
“It seems we’re now blood brothers,” Jumppanen said, wiping blood off the keys left by his ferocious performance of the Boulez Piano Sonata. The Sonatine for Flute and Piano is just as virtuosic. Robison and Jumppanen’s unique mixture of playfulness and brashness worked well for the piece. There was an ardent focus on clarity of the gestural dialogue between the flute and piano, from its most delicate moments to its outbursts of percussive definition. Again, the players keenly exhibited that the music of High Modernism need not be cerebral and cold, but could instead be expressive and cheerfully intriguing.
Despite being one of the more accessible selections programmed on Sunday, Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano is not one of his finer works (and this is coming from an avid lover of Poulenc’s music in general), yet Robison and Jumppanen gave it due diligence. The Allegro malinconico, in particular, contained some welcome moments of alluring lyricism.
Paula Robison returned for an encore of Saint-Saens’s Voliére, which was deservedly welcomed by enthusiastic applause. Much of the audience took the opportunity after the concert to admire the newest addition to the Gardner’s spectacular concert venue. Paavali Jumppanen’s and Paula Robison’s impeccable musicianship could not have given “Alex” a better welcome.
Peter Van Zandt Lane is a widely performed composer of chamber, orchestral, and electroacoustic music. He is currently on faculty at Brandeis University.