in: Reviews

December 17, 2012

Super Structure Sculpting by BCMS

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Performative might prevailed in “Beginnings and Endings” put on by the Boston Chamber Music Society yesterday at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. Clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois’s spiraling vision of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and violinist Ida Levin’s super structure sculpting of Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata” merit high praise. Pianist Mihae Lee’s straight-ahead precision would openly contrast with cellist Ronald Thomas’s quest for the emotive and the ephemeral, both Lee and Thomas holding firm to their valued musical ideals in both Beethoven and Messiaen.

The performers cast exemplary focus, programming Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio in B-flat major Op. 11 and Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 24 “Spring” on the first half of their concert. After intermission, taking the good part of an hour, Olivier Messiaen’s epic Quartet for the End of Time sequestered our senses in a world beyond. Over the years, BCMS has continued to be flexible with regards to personnel, and that element was also striking at Sunday’s chapter. The question of individual voices versus a single, uniform voice in making up an ensemble came to mind during this truly enriching afternoon of music.

The voices of Levin and Lee in the “Spring” sonata worked well. These two individuals successfully transferred the four-movement Classical piece, dating from 1801 and on the verge of Romantic era fever, to a psychological state of being. The mind decidedly was at play in their interpretation. The violinist converted the lyrical and dramatic, the songful and suspenseful, to clear and concrete images projected onto the mind’s screen. The pianist played somewhat akin to a soundtrack wherein ambience, the unutterable, and the like accompanied fascinating states-of-mind sequences. Their approaches caused this listener to fixedly observe such psychological unfolding while mostly relinquishing empathy. Altogether, their Beethoven was hugely intriguing.

The 28-year old Beethoven was far more at play in his opus 11. Surprisingly, BCMS elected refinement over fun that should not have been missed in the final movement, the variations on Pria ch’io l’impegno. “Before I begin work, I must have something to eat” is taken from J. Weigl’s opera L’amour marinaro  (Sailors’ Loves), that was first performed in Vienna in 1797. Beethoven composed his trio a year later. Here, it was interesting to follow the trio’s three voices. Individualized inflections of melodic imitations passed from violin to clarinet further underlined the sometimes “soloistic” bent of BCMS.  At other times, cello wisps, well-regulated Alberti basses of the piano, together with a pure, boy soprano singing of the clarinet ultimately eluded convincing fusion.

Unlike Beethoven, Messiaen is not everybody’s favorite. Yet, it was a solid reaction from a solid turnout at Kresge Auditorium to the composer who tried fleeing the Nazis on a bicycle without tires. Eventually winding up in Stalag VIIIA prisoner of war camp, where he composed the eight-movement-long quartet based on an angel’s announcement of the end of time, Messiaen found his way of ending musical time by thwarting measures, bar lines, and meters, which are the traditional means of measuring duration. This does not make his music the easiest to master. BCMS nearly did, enough so that the large space of Kresge filled magnificently with birdcalls and color chords pronounced in Messiaen’s own rhythmic language. At times, it was as though I was having an out-of-body experience. From the opening movement, Liturgie de cristal, in which the performers are directed to play en poudroiement harmonieux, that is in harmoniously rising clouds, to the concluding Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus, in which they are instructed to play extremely slow and tender, ecstatic, soft and paradisaical, BCMS did just that, and Ida Levin did so and more in the latter.

In the Abîme des oiseaux for solo clarinet, the pure and heavenly sound of Romie de Guise-Langlois’s instrument soared and chipped birdlike in a sonic blueness bright, then deep. Then, in one breadth, an incredibly long note beginning inaudibly, then increasing ever so slowly and powerfully to the loudest possible amplitude. Hers is a natural insight into Messiaen’s sublime orbit.

The ensemble was not always on point, technically, in the Messiaen. There were some rhythmic troubles in the brassy sections of the Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes, some sour notes from Thomas in his duet with the piano in the sixth movement, then, when joined by the other two near the end, the piano ended early on the dramatic climax of trills. Lee seemed to have given up on the dotted rhythms in Louange while elsewhere her crystal clear cascades of chords excelled.

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. www.notescape.net

5 Comments

  1. This was my first concert at Kresge and I loved the acoustics from my seat left of center about ten rows from the front. I heard some muttering about the hall’s problematic acoustics during intermission. I wonder if there’s a consensus. Was I just lucky? Should Kresge be used more often as a classical music venue?

    Comment by Jerome — December 17, 2012 at 7:44 pm

  2. Glorious afternoon! I first sat in the fifth row, center, and after intermission I moved (out of curiosity) to the second row, center, of the raised terrace-section in the back. I was struck by the fine acoustics in both locations. De Guise l’Anglois’s playing in the ‘Abime des Oiseaux’ was extraordinarily sensitive (Ah! those repeated grace-note variations on the ‘blackbird’ theme!). Levin’s performance in the final movement of the Messiaen was transcendent. Like Jerome, I too wonder whether anyone found fault with the Kresge acoustics. Someone had warned me that the sound wouldn’t be very good, but from my two locations it was excellent.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 17, 2012 at 8:48 pm

  3. Couldn’t agree more with the previous two comments.

    If you want to actually hear each note and get sucked into the complexities and wonder of music then the open, dry acoustics of Kresge can be a bit of heaven. If you want to relax, bathe in reverberation and have a brief snooze, try any one of innumerable concert venues here and throughout the world.

    I was in the fourth row center – and found the concert magnificent. It is not that there is no reverberation in Kresge – there is just the right amount. In any music where structure is vital – and that includes almost all music – reverberation should be audible but never obscure the notes. So it was at the BCMS concert.

    Just the right amount of reverberation can add a new dimension to the emotional impact of a performance. There is a relationship between the audibility of reverberation and steadiness of pitch. A completely pure tone can never be perceived as reverberant. Add just a touch of vibrato – particularly just at the end of a held note – and the hall comes alive around it. More interesting is some ways is the effect that occurs when a player moves the instrument while leaving the tone pure. The hall comes alive in concert with the movement, but without any alteration of pitch. In the Abîme des oiseaux Romie de Guise-Langlois demonstrated this several times with great effect, holding the instrument steady in the beginning of a long note, and then sweeping the bell of the instrument around in great, slow circles. Absolutely fantastic.

    Comment by David Griesinger — December 18, 2012 at 9:28 am

  4. Who can ever forget the overwhelming power of the Quartet for the End of Time played at NEC in 2008 by James Buswell, Bruce Brubaker, and others. The tides of emotion just poured out over the audience. When Buswell and Brubaker ended the final movement, time really had stopped. And for a very very long time the audience in Jordan Hall just sat there, until the eruptions of shouting and applause began. Unforgettable!

    Comment by Evan W. — December 21, 2012 at 6:13 pm

  5. The Quartet for the End of Time seems to have a way of drawing some extraordinary performances out of people. Two of my most cherished concert performances in the Boston area include a Quartet given at a First Monday at NEC. Harold Wright was supposed to be the clarinettist, but died shortly before the concert, and Wright pupil Daniel McKelway subbed at the last minute. The Abime was one for the ages — a moving, all encompassing tribute to his teacher and an astonishing filling of Jordan Hall with sound from a single clarinet. And I heard a performance at the Gardner Museum with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in which one of the Kavafian sisters (Ida?) gave a heartbreakingly beautiful account of the final Louange. Most of the audience was in tears at the end.

    Comment by James C.S. Liu — December 27, 2012 at 9:59 am

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