A real change of pace for Boston’s classical scene came with the Boston Chamber Music Society’s “Marvelous Mirth and Pastimes” Saturday afternoon at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium. Beethoven was about 31 when he wrote the D major Serenade. Charles Ives’ Piano Trio S. 86 evolved over seven years; he began it at the age of 30 and completed it at 37. If Beethoven were the revolutionary and Ives the visionary, then Boston Chamber Music Society, it would have to be said, is certainly some of both. These two trios back-to-back made quite the impression.
Beginning with Beethoven’s Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola in D major, Op. 25, flutist Jennifer Grim, violinist Harumi Rhodes, and violist Marcus Thompson, offered plenty of spunk and bite. These three instruments made for a nifty treat. Grim’s flute has an ever so inviting classiness. Just enough reserve hovered over her vibrant tone with a less-is-more vibrato. In high-speed scales and arpeggios, Grim’s fingers found spiffy inflections enlivening such predictable patterns. She played purposely with the two stringed instruments, with the BCMS trio sharing sheer delight.
Lots of short-bow work from Rhodes and Thompson rallied charms of all sorts, even some good old pluckiness perfectly fashioned for Beethoven’s style. If the Viennese master was writing this serenade mainly for amateurs as the program notes suggest, there must have been some pretty good players back then, especially if they took the tempos that these three did, though a tiny few high E-string high-speed passages did elude Rhodes.
For the Ives trio it was Rhodes, with Raman Ramakrishnan on cello, and Randall Hodgkinson at the piano, in a super duper page-turner of the daredevil score from the Danbury, Connecticut composer and New York City insurance man. I cannot imagine a finer, fiercer rendering of the trio than that delivered by these three stalwart players. Throughout the 37 pages of the John Kirkpatrick edition that I followed, I could only marvel over and again at how these musicians elevated their huge virtuosity into Ivesian manifestation. Their handling of everything, the out-of-whack timings and tonalities, the philosophical gazing and home-spun mirth, created a truly transcendental experience, perhaps the very kind of which Ives intended to educe. Ever, ever so moving were the Adagio, which is a slower repeat of the Andante con moto section, and the coda with its major-minor coloring of the hymn, “Rock of Ages”—“Then suddenly it is Sunday, with a retreat to the calmness and uplift of a church service” as program annotator Barbara Leish put it so aptly.
The second half of “Marvelous Mirth and Pastimes” gave yet another turnabout, coupling Ingolf Dahl’s Divertimento for Viola and Piano and David Diamond’s Quintet in B minor for Flute Strings and Piano. Dahl and Diamond, once oft-played Americans, no longer enjoy the same attention. One might wonder why. Leish pointed out that Stravinsky said the Dahl was “the best viola-piano sound I have ever heard,” and that Benny Goodman said, “Did you learn all that jazz in my house?” Quite unlike Ives, both Dahl and Diamond took traditional routes. My trouble with these two pieces is two-fold, too much sameness rhythmically and too much sameness tonally. I have yet to deduce the breath in either piece.
Artistic Director Marcus Thompson and pianist Randall Hodgkinson did all they could to beautify and jazz up the four-movement finely crafted work of Dahl. Thompson’s smile afterwards—and quite a smile it was—spoke volumes. Artfulness abounded, particularly a fine loveliness in the lullaby-like Barcarolle, a scintillating pizzicato meld with treble piano later on. Thompson and Hodgkinson masterfully gave much care to the carefully carved out tempers and humors of the Divertimento.
All five of the afternoon’s performers came together in a polished, energized interpretation of the Diamond quintet. If not my cup of tea, having had this chance to hear this and the other neo-classical pieces was, at the very least, satisfying, though informing might be more accurate. Certainly the craft of the two composers, like that the five performers, merits bundles of admiration.