Last Friday, during this bleak time of year for concerts, IBIS Chamber Music Society warmed St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, and all in attendance, with a concert of winter-themed music, ranging from familiar to obscure. The ambiance was folksy and low-key, the playing was thrilling.
IBIS is a small ensemble comprising musicians from Washington, D.C. and Boston communities. Founded by Joseph Scheer, violin, and Susan Robinson, harp, the assemblage includes a string quartet, flute, harp, and piano. Scheer was joined by violinist Gregory Vitale, violist Scott Woolweaver, and cellist Sean Neidlinger. Flautist Deborah Boldin rounded out the ensemble.
The concert opened with William Alwyn’s 3 Winter Poems for string quartet. This 20th-century British composer, better known across the Pond than here (except perhaps for Lyra Angelica, brought to wider attention when Michelle Kwan used it as the soundtrack for her 1998 Winter Olympics figure skating routine), achieved financial success with his many film scores. He embraced dissonant harmonies and also created a serial compositional technique (first heard in his Third Symphony) which divided the dodecaphonic scale into tropes of unequal length and then used these as the basis for large-scale works. In 3 Winter Poems, both facets of Alwyn’s compositional genius were on display: “Winter Landscape” was impressionistic, chilly but with fleeting intimations of a gypsy tune; the middle Elegy, “Frozen Waters,” used fuller harmonies and a consistent rhythmic pulse that brought to my mind winter train rides before it faded away into nothingness; the final Serenade “Snow Shower” captured the energy and motion of the eponymous snow shower, initially in the viola part then joined by the cello, while the violins skittered above – snowflakes dancing in the cold wind.
Edvard Grieg’s String Quartet in G Minor, op. 27, continued the wintry theme. This work, drawing thematic continuity from Grieg’s own tune, “Fiddlers,” fragmented over the course of the four movements, also shows Grieg struggling with the composition process and trying out many new ideas. The work has a sonic density that stood out in relief after the Alwyn, and also a lustiness and a tension (the latter inspired by three of the four movements being marked, in part, agitato). The musicians gave a fine reading of this work, delineating the larger architecture while reveling in the smaller-scale details.
Following intermission, Boldin, Robinson, and Woolweaver took the stage for André Jolivet’s Pastorale de Noël. A versatile composer, Jolivet, like his friend and colleague Olivier Messiaen, embraced and explored the religious dimension of music; Pastorale, composed in 1943, dates from his “magic” period and dwells on the mystery of Christmas. The original scoring is for flute or violin, bassoon or viola or cello, and harp. Performed with flute, viola, and harp (as here), the grouping was highly effective and brought a lovely blend of timbres to this music. The opening “L’Etoile” moved from calm to ecstatic, while “Les Mages” was misterioso in character; “La Vierge et l’Enfant” was meditative, and the concluding “Entrée et Danse des Bergers” ended ecstatically.
Robinson remained on stage for the harp interlude from Britten’s The Ceremony of Carols. The music was stately and ethereal and Susan Robinson gave a deeply moving performance that kept the audience rapt. Boldin and Neidlinger returned to the stage to join Robinson for Respighi’s L’Adorazione dei Magi from Trittico Botticelliano (arranged by Dan Reiter). The musicians communicated the beautifully lyrical essence of this work which alternates between familiar (drawing on the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) and unfamiliar melodies, the whole being an example of joyful introspection. Here, as in the first half of the concert, I was enchanted with Sean Neidlinger’s beautiful tone and expressive cello playing.
The finale to this concert was Vivaldi’s Concerto in F Minor, op. 8, no. 4 – L’Inverno from his Four Seasons. Joseph Scheer read out (in translation) Vivaldi’s sonnet associated with this concerto, commenting on how the music portrays the words and the words summarize the music here. In this performance Deborah Boldin, flute, played the violin solo, while Susan Robinson on harp played the continuo. The music is ubiquitous; this did not stop the players from making exciting music happen. Deborah Boldin, especially, gave a truly bravura performance, deftly navigating the challenges inherent in performing a violin part on flute, and doing so with style and grace.
The ensemble performed Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on “Greensleeves” (1934) as an encore: a sweet goodnight before we parted into the cold night, the winter less bleak for the warming strains we heard.