The clarinet dominated at the Somerville Armory Café Friday night during Ensemble 451’s “Postcards from Europe.” More unified by mood and theme than the ensemble’s previous eclectic offerings, the strands of melancholy in this nostalgic program still took some unpicking, and the concert ended with probably the most enigmatic piece of all: Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, from the composer’s late glow after he had come out of retirement to write for the clarinetist Richard Mühlfield.
The opener, Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, was a hard act to follow: it aimed right at the center of the whirlpool of time, space and tastes that visitors to the Armory Café have come to expect from their resident chamber players, E-451—a group unabashedly fond of classical mashups. Prokofiev was the enfant terrible middle child between late Brahms and 1990s Penderecki.
In one of its many guises of the night, the clarinet took the stage for the very first few bars of the Hebrew Overture, introducing the gypsy folk hop of the piece, before gliding through phases of sorrow and immortality and acceptance—and back again. Orlando Cela, the flutist of E-451, had a lot to say on the wistful nature of these backward glances. Prokofiev composed the overture during a visit to New York, using melodic material from Jewish émigrés. The result was a Jewish marriage of lively and melancholy moods. As well as occupying the middle of the concert’s compositional timeline, the piece also represented a happy/sad medium between the slippery lushness of Brahms and the dry, cocked-chin skepticism of Penderecki’s Quartet.
Ensemble 451 moved steadily through the demands of the program, playing the Prokofiev with a slow luster, without allowing drastic license to reset the tempo or wring out an emotional slush-round from any of the (equally beautiful) phases. The setting was so informal that E-451’s pianist Yukiko Shimazaki jumped up from her seat to chime in and take a bow with the musicians before sitting back down to enjoy the music. This informality has always added to E-451’s café appearances, and it’s a strong streak in the group’s manifesto.
The group is named for Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451,” a novel that mourned the loss of tangible books, and the players’ stated aim is to tempt audiences away from their computers to enjoy classical music as live, immediate experience. They play the café shows for fun and to promote music’s energy, but their adventurous choices of repertoire also demonstrate their comfort within its range as well as an eagerness to test their limits. Juliet Lai, also of the woodwind Quartet Vento Chiaro, was playing because the Brahms Quintet is a piece that she loves. She described the clarinet’s welling through the sound of the other instruments, and how her enjoyment of the piece was a product of its “extreme expressive range.”
The Brahms had a subtle coloring, very unlike the Prokofiev’s progressive, joyful melancholy, or the plucked, conversational Prokofiev, and it served as a very long programmatic fadeout, perhaps in fulfillment of the “Abschied” (departure) that the Penderecki’s final movement announced. But 35 minutes of fading was occasionally hard to endure. Somehow the acoustics in the cafe didn’t quite allow a full flowering. Or perhaps the quintet was just enigmatic by nature—sounding like a beautiful landscape viewed from a vehicle. Scenes slipped by and the free nostalgia for every moment had the potential to obscure the beautiful tone colors in the piece, like moist stones on the beach—gems until they dry and start to look alike.
The Penderecki occasioned probably the best exposition of Ensemble 451’s individual’s talents. During the short, unnerving opening section, Annegret Klaua bowed in a faint saw-like whine. The piece was something of a conversation, through which each of the individual voices wove its unique personality: the reedy, eccentric clarinet and the tense warning of the lead violin both eventually yielded the last word to the cello. Penderecki and Brahms wrote similarly grave, final pronouncements. Juliet Lai distinguished between the harmonic agreement of the Brahms—“a reiteration,” and the Penderecki’s final note “not so much a reiteration as a remnant.”
Both somber closing statements suited a program that led with Hebrew themes, and which poised counterpoints of happy and sad. But the unacknowledged pleasure of these conclusions was not their bleakness, but their decisiveness. At the intermission, an audience member dropped his phone, which struck the floor, sounding its own tragic note. “Mazel Tov!” exclaimed Orlando Cela, without missing a beat. Congratulations were the last thing you’d expect, but sometimes a decisive toast to fortune is better than any extended commiserations, as the night’s melancholy, dignified compositions suggested.