Led in its fourteenth season by BSO violinist Wendy Putnam, Concord Chamber Music Society makes its native town a destination. Sunday was my third time hearing them and each time the auditorium has been completely packed with enthusiastic listeners. Putnam employs excellent musicians, has the engaging Steven Ledbetter give pre-concert talks and cooks up interesting repertoire—a perfect recipe for enjoyment.
Having braved cold air and fierce winds, the crowd heard a real rarity, Jean Sibelius’s Suite in A Major for Violin, Viola, and Cello, a four movement piece written in his student days in 1889, when he was 23 and studying with Martin Wegelius. Upon hearing this string trio, another of his teachers declared, “Mr. Sibelius has with one stroke placed himself foremost among those who have been entrusted with bearing the banner of Finnish music. “This might have been wishful thinking, as the piece itself sounds quite student-like, modeled on music of his time. Opinions seem split as to whether it looked forward and anticipated the greatness of Sibelius’s later music (Busoni called him a Finnish Schubert). In any case, the four movements were originally five, but the violin part for the last two movements disappeared, as did the composer’s score. It was pleasant enough, and received a committed, very good performance from Putnam and her two regular Concord colleagues, BSO violist Steven Ansell and cellist Michael Reynolds, both of the Muir Quartet as well.
The String Quintet in F Major, Op. 88 by Johannes Brahms was the second quintet of Brahms I heard over the weekend; I couldn’t have been happier. The players, BSO violinists, Acting Assistant Concertmaster Julianne Lee and Wendy Putnam, BSO Principal Viola Steven Ansell, BSO Assistant Principal Viola Cathy Basrak (playing first viola here), and cellist Michael Reynolds, gave this quintet a polished performance. Apparently, the F Major Quintet is one of Brahms’s least popular chamber pieces, yet a personal favorite of the composer himself. He told his publisher, “You have never before had such a beautiful work from me,” and told Clara Schumann it was one of his finest works. The G Major Quintet is more exciting, has a greater variety of moods, and is more engaging and dramatic, with more colorful instrumentation. That said, the F Major had some very exciting playing, particularly by the first violin, Julianne Lee, whom I heard yesterday for the first time. Lee is a fabulous player, who plays with great authority and beauty. I will certainly try to catch her much more often. Cathy Basrak and Steven Ansell are long-time stand partners, and play wonderfully together. Cellist Michael Reynolds was impressive the whole concert.
To hear Dvořák’s String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97, for two violins two violas, and cello is, quite simply, to love it. What a charming, passionate, sunny piece! For this quintet, Wendy Putnam played first violin and Steven Ansell first viola. Full of ingratiating tunes, it is an always great program ender, leaving everyone elated. It was composed during Dvořák’s residency in Spillville, a Czech community in Iowa in 1893, shortly after he finished the String Quartet in F; both were premiered in Boston by the Kneisel Quartet (first chair BSO players and concertmaster Franz Kneisel) on January 1, 1894, and both works were to be nicknamed “American.” All five players played with great style and flair; it was a joy to be in the audience. Bravi to all.
The next concert of the Concord Chamber Music Society is January 26 at 3 PM. It will feature Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6 by Benjamin Britten; Variations for Clarinet, Violin and Piano (1982) by John Harbison; and the popular Quintet in E-Flat Major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16 by Beethoven. Several winds from the BSO will participate. In an unusual pre-concert appearance, students from Project Step will perform at 2:30 after Steven Ledbetter talks. An exciting afternoon!