IN: Reviews

Harmonium, Schulhoff, Light Up Jordan


(Stu Rosner photo)
Haldan Martinson and Elita Kang, violins; Vytas Baksysand Jules Eskin (Stu Rosner photo)

Antonín Dvořák’s Bagatelles for two violins, cello, harmonium, Op. 47 sounded indescribably revitalizing in Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players’ Jordan Hall performance this afternoon,  thanks in big part to that keyboard instrument on loan from our publisher, Lee Eiseman, who wrote:

My harmonium, a 1933 Mustel from Paris was purchased by UCLA the same year Schoenberg arrived. Though Schoenberg wrote a fair amount of music with a harmonium part, there’s no proof that UCLA imported the instrument for him. The French term for a harmonium of this stature is ‘orgue expressif.’ The instrument on stage incorporates Debain’s percussion stop, so named because hammers strike the reeds to permit prompt speech. The French harmonium works on pressure wind and is capable of variable dynamic expression and attack; the American reed organ, by contrast, works on suction wind and is limited dynamically.

We would like to have seen more of this fine instrument—its keyboard, stops, and pumping action were hidden from view. And, more especially in the first Bagatelle, we would like to have felt more of its presence. It did not serve simply as harmonic glue; rather, it added delightful rustic hues to Dvořák’s pieces. In addition to those refreshing sounds of the harmonium played by Vytas Baksys, it was Jules Eskin’s cello that caught the real spirit of this music, blending so naturally with that instrument. Eskin’s varying brushed strokes from his fascinatingly expressive bow promoted timbral as well and ethnic cohesion. The violins’ classical shaping of Dvořák’s melodic became more and more noticeably off the mark. Rhythmic figures abundant in the fifth Bagatelle came with accented finish from Eskin, while Haldan Martinson and Elita Kang delivered the same in plain fashion.

Harmonium's elusive frontside (BMInt staff photo)
Harmonium’s elusive frontside (BMInt staff photo)

This afternoon’s Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ concert was well worth attending, if only to hear Eskin’s cello and the Eiseman’s harmonium and a one-of-a kind performance of a one-of-a kind composition, Ervin Schulhoff’s Concertino for flute, viola, and double bass. Packed full of low strings and flute-piccolo exchange, one could not ask for more. Elizabeth Rowe, flute and piccolo, Steven Ansell viola, and Edwin Barker, double bass went past precision, putting it second to wonder-filled Americana scored by composer Schulhoff. There was dancing and singing in a most absorbing performance imaginable. The audience was with them all the way. No bravos or bravas needed, just plain unadulterated American applause for one of the best experiences in music I have had in a long, long time. Attention living American composers: you do not have to be cute with endings to evoke that sigh from the audience; just check out Schulhoff’s ending to the second movement marked “Furient.” Perfectly natural, a good amount of surprise and admirably adorable—and not in the least “cute.”

Expecting to hear the Brahms Trio for Clarinet, or Viola and Cello in A minor, opus 114, I learned just before the concert was underway that Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K. 516 was the closer. Cathy Basrak, assistant principal viola, joined Kang, Martinson, Ansell, and Eskin. It became clearer still that Kang’s sound was too bright for the lower strings, standing out above them. In the third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, a fine blend in softer passages finally surfaced. I would say, judging from the reaction of the audience, that there have been more engaging BSO Chamber Players’ performances of Mozart. But who will not remember the Shulhoff-BSP CP we experienced today, or the harmonium bedecking Jordan Hall.

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.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Right on! That is to say, we agree with you. The Mozart, especially in its finale,
    came across as a violin concerto rather than chamber music.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — March 11, 2013 at 8:22 am

  2. I for one was not so happy with the cello playing. I found Eskin’s incessant tuning to be annoying, and after all that twiddling, he still didn’t sound totally in tune. For the Dvorak, I thought Kang’s ensemble playing was superior to the other strings, and I found her tone the warmest and least harsh. I’m not sure how my experiences could have been so totally opposite.

    What I can agree on, however, is that the Schulhoff — the reason I was there — was delightful. These are three of the best orchestral musicians anywhere playing a piece that is particularly engaging. The musicians seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly, and their enthusiasm was infectious.

    Comment by Mark — March 11, 2013 at 8:54 am

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