Living only blocks away from the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, I am still shaking my head in disbelief after having attended two of the three Boston Chamber Music Society concerts in the Hamel Summer Series. So far “In the Footsteps of the Romantic Masters” has proven to be a special time of learning and enjoying. Past masters of the Old World, whom we know so well, along with those obscure contemporaries working under their spells lived again through the vision of top flight musicians in a fascinating program. BCMS has virtually transported 19th-century Europe to my doorstep in 21st-century Watertown, leaving me with a strange, wonder-filled sensation.
Permit me some asides before the review proper. This past Saturday evening’s concert drew a near packed house by comparison to last week’s concert that had several rows of empty seats. Did anyone else find it a bit too warm in the theater? Did anyone notice, the AC’s low hum’s sporadic intrusions after intermission? Did anyone else think that Artistic Director Emeritus Ronald Thomas had no real reason for talking before the concert? Lastly, it might be useful to comment here on the program notes by Barbara Leish. As I pointed out in my review of last week’s concert, her writing was of the highest order; we were led eloquently and vividly into the past, the composers seen as real beings, their relationships being the stuff of her notes. Last night, however, less attention was given to such and too much of the usual analysis of this theme and that appeared here and there. How helpful is this?
By contrast, the music making soared beyond these complications and distractions. First off, there was far more than connectivity, that “ability to communicate with another system or piece of hardware or software, or with an Internet site.” No, this far exceeded high tech, this was human-to-human connection, brave and intimate, intelligence always conveyed with a co-requisite—emotion. Short Pieces for Violin and Piano (1894) by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1849-1918) opened BCMS’ remarkable journey via music. Arnaud Sussmann’s violin would weave their thriving melodies as Mihae Lee’s piano would intertwine their tonal harmonies. Both players radiated touching affection. The concluding Capriccio broke from the lyrical and in a dash of liveliness left us attentive listeners surprised and delighted, extending a warm welcome to Perry’s chamber music to our town of Watertown.
If Englishman Perry could only be an ardent admirer of Brahms from a distance, Czech Dvořák actually met Brahms who helped spring the younger composer’s career. Violist Dmitri Murrath and cellist Ronald Thomas along with Sussmann and Lee resplendently fused the folk and formal of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in D Major, Op. 23. This work by the 34-year-old composer exudes the freshness and freedom, which is the very spirit of the 19th century. The quartet’s vibrancy was felt on immediate contact. The trio of strings evolved into a sound of one. Two caveats to this completely refined and expressive recreation: Mihae’s piano at times overpowered and in certain passages became a tad over-formalized; and having to strain to hear Murrath’s viola had me asking what was I missing? On the other side, Lee’s sensitivity and power exposed the extensive capabilities of the Yamaha C7 that replaced a Steinway of the same size that had come up short last season.
In the Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major, Op. 26, Sussman, Murrath, Thomas, and Lee thoroughly morphed into a single-minded entity, the end result being an encounter of the third kind. What elation! There is more. Sussman nodding and smiling, Murrath motioning with bow and body, and Thomas, between the two, responding in kind, cut a subplot of communication as intimate as it was inclusive. More, we want more! Incredible as it seems, Brahms finished his quartet at age 28, its Poco Adagio being one of my favorites. Most unusual for a slow movement is its moving in and out of darkness over and again from that repeating motive of four notes to those bursts of passages riddled with sunniness then of passion. At least four surges of applause from the Watertown gathering were certainly in order for our gleanings about music’s connections between composers as well as between performers. What an evening to be so relished.