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BSOCP Looks Back on a Half-Century


Celebrating 50 years of music making, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players revived a program from its inaugural season on Sunday at Jordan Hall. The one founding member, cellist Jules Eskin, was joined by  Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violins; Steven Ansell, viola; John Ferrillo, oboe; William Hudgins, clarinet; Richard Svoboda, bassoon, and James Sommerville, horn. Pianist Gilbert Kalish, who performed with the group for over thirty years, rejoined them for this occasion. These BSO principals and friend showed us ensemble playing at its very best.

The program opened with the one-movement piano trio Vitebsk by Aaron Copland. Composed in 1928, the work is based on a folk tune Copland heard in the Yiddish drama The Dybbuk. The play is set in the village of Vitebsk in Belarus, birthplace of the painter Chagall and once home of a thriving Jewish folk culture with more than a hint of the fantastic. Copland opens his piece with crashing simultaneous major and minor chords in the piano, the harmonically ambiguous combination meant to invoke the quarter tones that appear later on in the violin and cello. The melancholy tune with its initial rising sixth is introduced by the cello, then taken up by the violin; it reappears in the central fast section in the cello and violin to a perpetuum mobile piano accompaniment. A slow tempo returns for the final section, in which the cello presents the entire theme. This is an engaging piece that shows Copland seeking, as he often did, to expand his musical language by exploring “exotic” flavors and making them his own. Kalish, Martinson, and Eskin made the flavors of Vitebsk fully appetizing.

Boston-born composer Irving Fine (1914-1962) studied composition with Walter Piston and Nadia Boulanger, and conducting with Serge Koussevitzky; he taught at Harvard, then at Brandeis, and also at Tanglewood. Beginning in the 1950s, Fine, a neoclassicist by training, adopted—like his mentor Aaron Copland—some elements of twelve-tone technique. The Fantasia for violin, viola, and cello is a three-movement work from 1956. In the first movement the viola leads off with a complete statement of the tone row, which is then taken up by the violin and the cello in turn. The fast second movement features rhythmically insistent contrapuntal interplay among the three instruments, with a return to smoothly contrapuntal lyricism in the slow finale. Despite dense harmonic and contrapuntal textures and often dissonant harmonies, the three players (Martinson, Ansell, and Eskin) never lost track of the clarity and underlying lyricism that remained the hallmarks of Fine’s style.

Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat for piano and winds, K.452, was first performed on April 1st, 1784, at a concert of his own works given at the Imperial and Royal Theater (Burgtheater) in Vienna, with the composer at the piano. Still one of his most popular works and a favorite of Mozart himself, the quintet has many features in common with the piano concertos he was busy composing and performing in the 1780s. The pianist leads but never overwhelms the winds, engaging with them in witty dialogues that allow each player his turn at lyrical expression as well as virtuosic display. After a spacious slow introduction, the Allegro opens with the piano on its own, interrupted by the winds acting as orchestral tutti; these roles are then reversed. In the Larghetto second movement, Mozart’s sensitivity to the affinity between wind and piano sonorities came to the fore, with a variety of tone colors offered by various instrumental pairings as well as brief solo passages for each instrument. The Finale, a rondo with a series of rollicking episodes, reached its expressive climax in a prolonged cadenza (written out by Mozart) in which all five instruments took part before a final restatement of the main theme. Bouncing effortlessly off one another, the seasoned ensemble players brought off this joyous movement with light-hearted wit and virtuosic flair.

After the intermission, the Brahms Quartet in C Minor for piano and strings, op. 60 (Malcolm Lowe was the violinist), brought a complete change of mood. Clarion calls of unison octaves in the piano were answered almost hesitatingly in the strings before resolving into a furious tumble of densely juxtaposed motives and harmonies alternating with lyrically expressive moments. The turbulence of the opening movement was maintained in the frenetic Scherzo, with its driving rhythms and frequent cross accents. The Andante opened with a haunting, long-breathed melody for cello that was answered in the violin, the harmony thickening as the viola joined in. The restatement of the opening, now scored with the melody in simple octaves in the piano and the strings supplying harmonic and contrapuntal density, was one of many sublime moments in this movement. The concluding Allegro is something of a tour-de-force for the piano, its insistent eighth-note motion clarified and defined melodically by the strings; Kalish and the BSO players maintained the movement’s dark energy to a rousing conclusion.

Haldan Martinson,Gilbert Kalish and Jules Eskin
Haldan Martinson, Gilbert Kalish and Jules-Eskin (Stu Rosner photo)
Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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