Not too long ago, Boston’s mainstream ensembles would not have attempted a program consisting entirely of 20th– and (just barely) 21st-century music. Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert on January 13 at Jordan Hall, containing works by Witold Lutosławski, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Aaron Copland had other remarkable elements: one was remarkable for that ensemble in that is that two of the three works were conducted, in this case by BSO Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger. The second, though this is of lesser significance, is that, owing to the absence of BSO Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and the necessity to scale up for Copland’s Appalachian Spring, this concert could have been dubbed “Assistants’ Day,” as not only Lehninger and Associate Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova, but four other assistant principal BSO players participated, together with guest pianist Jonathan Bass.
The program began with Lehninger conducting Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes, in its 1959 chamber ensemble version, with Elizabeth Rowe, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe, William R. Hudgins, clarinet, Richard Svoboda, bassoon, James Sommerville, horn, Smirnova, Steven Ansell, viola, Jules Eskin, cello, and Edwin Barker, bass. This 1955 work, perhaps best known in its original scoring for clarinet and piano, also exists for clarinet and orchestra. It is from the composer’s early, folk-inspired tonal period, before, like Carter and Ligeti, he adopted a more aggressive avant-garde posture. Its five movements are brief—the first an outright miniature—but pack in some complex rhythmic and tonal relationships. The expanded scoring gave Lutosławski ample opportunity to add vibrant color, and as you can see from the instrument list, the winds were favored, and were especially notable in their delightful interactions in the third movement, Allegro giocoso. The Andantino second movement offered, within its brief compass, a rising and passionate pathos, while the Andante fourth movement gave Sommerville a soulful solo that he brought off with elegance and eloquence.
The first half ended with Frank’s 2002 Sueños de Chambi for flute (Rowe) and piano (Bass, piano department chair at Boston Conservatory, not to be confused with Jonathan Biss). Frank, an American of partly Peruvian ancestry, has devoted much of her output to exploring South American, and specifically Peruvian Quechua musical culture. These “pictures at an exhibition” are mostly brief contemplations (“dreams,” as the title puts it) of photographs by Martín Chambi (1891-1973). Chambi’s works focus on the lives and culture of the Quechua people, and Frank has evoked not only the images Chambi presented but the sounds of Quechua and other Peruvian music, with all the pieces being settings of actual folk tunes. Notably, in the first and sixth of the seven pieces in Sueños, she uses the alto flute, with bent pitches and flutter tonguing, to evoke the sound of the Andean pan pipe. These two movements, one based on a photo of a cusqueño (resident of Cuzco), the other on a self-portrait, bookend the work musically, in an unusual arrangement that allows for a snappy finale; they offer a slow, dignified and melancholy song of religious origins. Other movements depict a “devil’s dance”—the devil evidently likes jazz, which bit of norteamericanismo informs Bass’s deftly executed piano part—shepherds’ songs, a gentle but not at all maudlin contemplation of a dead child’s wake, and the final “seaman’s dance.” The settings are direct but informed latter-day neo-tonalism (Frank studied, among others, with William Bolcom). Rowe and Bass were splendid and deeply engaged, and got the big reception they deserved. We were surprised to discover that Frank originally wrote this piece for violin and piano, transcribing it shortly thereafter; it is perhaps a tribute to Rowe’s excellence that we can’t imagine how it could convey its intentions otherwise than through the flute.
The concert concluded with the 13-instrument original version of Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring, originally just called “Ballet for Martha” (Graham, that is) because Copland wrote the music before there was a scenario. When you think about it, the resulting ballet was a triumph of choreography, since what resulted was pretty nearly a perfect fit to the music, especially the climactic setting of “Simple Gifts” (some call it variations, but the tune isn’t really varied, just variously accompanied). The only exception is the cowboy-sounding music three quarters of the way through that is incongruous to the Pennsylvania setting Graham gave the story. The music is held by many to be Copland’s supreme masterpiece, and we’re not inclined to quibble. It has, especially in the later orchestral scoring, become about his most popular work, next to the Fanfare for the Common Man. The chamber version (it rather stretches the limits of what one thinks of as chamber music, but it can be performed unconducted) has become increasingly popular as well; the reduced forces convey more bounce and bite than all the massed strings of the bigger version.
Under Lehninger’s baton, the BSCP performance saw Smirnova, Elita Kang and Julianne Lee, violins, Cathy Basrak, viola, and Martha Babcock, cello, joining the regulars— Haldan Martinson, Barker, Rowe, Hudgins, Svoboda—again with Bass. Lehninger’s watchwords for this reading were clarity, delicacy and moderation. Tempi were a bit slower in many places than some others we’ve heard. There was good tonal blending (a bit easier, compared to the Lutosławski, with Copland’s string-heavy scoring) that nevertheless, and undoubtedly by Copland’s design, gave wonderful solos for the winds. We should particularly acknowledge the fine playing by Svoboda, for whose instrument Copland wrote a challenging part frequently at the top of its range. The bassoon also functions as glue for a lot of the ensemble, a bass line that cuts through the creaminess of the strings
What we have said about other BSCP performances was equally true of its take on the Copland: it demonstrated perfect execution in service of frankly unadventurous, incurious interpretation. It may be that the masterworks of the modern era simply have not left enough interpretive leeway, though that certainly hasn’t stopped conductors and performers from taking interpretive risks with the likes of Shostakovich. Still, the BSCP performance was a great one at the micro level, with everyone in top form individually and as an ensemble.