in: Reviews

February 10, 2014

Four Commissions, Three Works by Women

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Andris Poga conducts (Hilary Scott photo)

Andris Poga conducts (Hilary Scott photo)

New England Conservatory president Tony Woodcock remarked after the February 9th Jordan Hall performance by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players that he was unaware of any prior occasion that BSCP gave four world premieres in one go. And so, indeed, they did, sandwiching works commissioned by the BSO in honor of BSCP’s 50th anniversary—by Kati Agócs, Hannah Lash, Gunther Schuller and Yehudi Wyner—between works by two notables from the Second New England School, Charles Loeffler and Amy Beach. Nobody remarked on the fact that this concert also presented works by three female composers, which strikes us as notable in its own right—those of an inquisitive frame of mind might check the records to see if that isn’t one as well.

The program opened with the Two Rhapsodies for oboe, viola and piano (1905, but based on earlier songs for baritone, clarinet and piano) by Charles Martin Loeffler (1861-1935), the German-born but French-influenced violinist and composer who was a long-time assistant concertmaster of the BSO before retiring to pursue composition full time. These pieces, based on poems by Maurice Rollinat, depict, respectively, a still pond in the ghostly moonlight, and the mournful sound of a long-deceased bagpiper haunting the woods. This is a kind of landscape some American composers of the period enjoyed playing with—there must be a dozen or so pieces by Loeffler’s contemporary MacDowell with a similar backdrop, and of course it also fits in well with the tastes of French composers of the period, notably Debussy.

The Rhapsodies do appear on recitals every now and then—we last heard them in 2010 played twice by oboist Peggy Pearson, once on the Portland Chamber Music Festival and once with the Boston Chamber Music Society. Our notes of Sunday’s performance by oboist John Ferrillo, violist Steven Ansell and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, make for pretty consistent reading with our takeaway from those earlier performances, namely that Loeffler’s settings were not very highly influenced by the Poe-like atmospherics of Rollinat’s verses, and that the music meanders a bit through contrasting sections that are, nevertheless, a source of some beautiful licks for the instruments. The players took “L’étang” (The Pond) more ardently than spookily, but with lovely precise details from Ferrillo, admirable sul ponticello passages from Ansell, and a light delicate touch from Hodgkinson. In “Le cornemuse” (The Bagpiper), Ferrillo’s imitation of the piper’s chanter was highly effective and haunting, while the somewhat Debussyan passages were characterful without overwhelming. Like Rachmaninoff and Liszt, Loeffler had a fascination for the plainchant tune of the Dies Irae, which he inserted in the piano part in sometimes incongruously cheerful ways that Hodgkinson pointedly refused to point up, to his credit.

The first of the premieres was by Kati Agócs, a Canadian mostly resident in the US and for the past five or so years on the NEC faculty. Her Devotion is a septet for horn, harp, string quartet and double bass, but it often reads as a concertante piece for horn (James Sommerville). The horn opens with a melodic idea involving a descending minor second followed by an arpeggiated figure and a scalar passage that together evoked in our ears the sound world of Britten. These motifs are largely retained and only slightly modified, while they are at the same time developed in the strings with a skillful assortment of moods and colors, with the harp and horn extending the discussion. A lyrical midsection looked like it was building to a major emotional climax, but it didn’t quite make it that far, and so left one with a sense of thwarted catharsis. The horn part is especially wide ranging, and Sommerville executed to perfection, earning him a big hug from the composer. The ensemble, comprising violins Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, Ansell, Sato Knudson, cello, Edwin Barker, double bass, Sommerville, and Jessica Zhou, harp, was conducted by BSO Assistant Conductor Andris Poga, whose stick was steady (beating faster, interestingly, than the music’s pulse) and whose sense of line, pacing and dynamics seemed perfectly attuned to the score’s requirements. A conductor’s role with a premiere, of course, is different from that attending a familiar piece—just do what the composer says, with as little reading between the lines as possible. This is generally made easier by modern composers’ obsessive specificity in the score, which is sometimes pushed beyond reasonable requirements by the demands of over-anxious performers. Whatever the case here, there was evidence of ample breathing room for the music to speak its say, which was a moderate and decorous discourse.

The next premiere, to end the first half, was the “big band” number of the day, Gunther Schuller’s Games for ten players—a wind quintet and the string quintet deployed in the Agócs, also under Poga’s baton. Schuller, the indefatigable dean of Boston composers, gave himself a playful brief for this piece, which put us in mind of Robert Frost’s couplet “It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling/To get adapted to my kind of fooling.” Schuller had it in mind to combine musical playing with game playing and just playing around, creating something that would be serious fun—Schuller’s customary dodecaphony adorned with abstruse combinations of polyrhythms, polydynamics, lines and layers, with occasional Ivesian burlesques of other people’s music and styles. Planned or no, we caught fleeting glimpses of Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Barber and, naturally, a straight quotation of the final chords of Mozart’s Musical Joke, among the many Easter eggs buried for unearthing through later study (There Will Be a Quiz). We’re not sure what it all added up to, but high wit was certainly evident, and the performers (over and above those mentioned earlier were flutist Elizabeth Rowe, clarinetist William R. Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda) were never less than forthcoming through the often thickly layered counterpoint of lines, styles and timbres.

The second half began with another work for small forces (we should drop here a note of appreciation for not only the stylistic variety in this program but in the well plotted balance of numbers, starting from small ensembles and moving up), Hannah Lash’s Three Shades Without Angles for the Debussy combo of flute, viola and harp. Unlike the case of Agócs, whose use of a harp in her septet was, judging by her pre-concert remarks, a species of “because I can,” Lash, who now teaches at Yale, came by her usage through a career as a harpist herself. Also unlike the Agócs piece, Lash’s takes a melodic kernel—a sprightly, somewhat syncopated idea—and reshapes it rather than refracting it. While one might spot at times the shade of Debussy hovering as a kind of fourth shade over this attractive little piece, Lash has the harp keep up a nearly relentless chatter in the opening section, almost like (well, maybe just like) a harpsichord continuo. Midway through, the tempo slackens and the piece becomes more lyrical and ethereal, eventually coming to a chordal climax before subsiding into gentle dissonances. Rowe, Ansell and Zhou left nothing out of place, and seemed fully in charge in a lucid, formally well-balanced performance.

The last of the premieres was Into the evening sun” for wind quintet by Yehudi Wyner. The title, from a late poem by Wallace Stevens, was an afterthought, but from the bit of the poem quoted in the program note one takes away a sense of an elegy pointing, in Wyner’s words, to “quiet affirmation rather than a resigned sense of loss.” In this the work delivers as promised, although the music passes from its soft opening for the horn (Sommerville did a lot of heavy lifting in this program) through numerous sections of varying tempi, rhythms, dynamics and moods; their musical relationship to one another wasn’t immediately obvious, but since one left wishing to delve into it more deeply, that knowledge may come in time. What was evident was the skill with which Wyner yoked the notoriously refractory temperaments of these five instruments together (yet giving each its own space at times).

BSO Chamber Players (Hilary Scott photo)

BSO Chamber Players (Hilary Scott photo)

The one indisputable masterpiece on the program came last, with Hodgkinson joining Lowe, Martinson, Ansell and Knudsen in the Piano Quintet in F sharp minor, op. 67 (1907) by Amy (f/k/a Mrs. H. H. A.) Beach (1867-1944). Given her druthers, Amy Cheney might have opted for the life of a traveling piano virtuoso; it was one of the salubrious consequences of her marriage to Dr. Henry H. A. Beach that she spent most of her time composing. The couple did agree that she could do one run-out a year, allowing her, for example, to preside over the premiere of her massive and overwhelming Piano Concerto with the BSO, and this quintet. What is striking about Beach’s style, particularly in contrast to her contemporary Boston composer colleagues (Chadwick was a particular admirer of her work), was her exuberant expressive palette and the use of more advanced chromatic harmony, which is where the program note for this concert got it exactly wrong with respect to her “conservatism”—in the 1890s and 1900s she was in the vanguard; she just changed more slowly afterwards.

One of the things her colleagues found most impressive about Beach was the brashness and boldness, the remarkable power, she brought to her writing and her playing. This is evident from the opening bars of the Piano Quintet, with its big octaves in the strings and the grand rolling entrance of the piano. There are several recordings available, and we have heard live performances with a variety of pianists and quartets. The best of them get this raw energy and convey it unapologetically. In this BSCP performance it was clear that Hodgkinson got it, but less clear that the string players did. There were too many pauses and too little oomph, too much Boston and not enough New Hampshire granite (Mrs. B. was from Henniker), too much H. H. A. Beach and not enough Amy Cheney. This was less important in the slow movement, which is one of those glorious song movements in which all of the New England Romantics excelled, and the BSCP sang it out with heart. Ansell contributed a well thought-out portamento to his solo here. But despite her many homey and delicate art songs, Amy Beach was no Mary Cassatt—the finale needed to fly and not bump into sectional blockades, and when the searing opening motif returns it needs to burn lines into the ear, but alas this time it didn’t. That’s not to say there were actual defects in the playing—you almost never hear that from BSCP—but there were defects in the sonic conception. Our prescription would be to play it again (and again), and while they’re at it the BSCP should investigate the wonderful quintets of Chadwick, Foote, and other American composers of the era, like Carpenter and Cadman, to say nothing of all their (and Beach’s) other chamber music. In its fifty years, BSCP has not played a single work by either Foote or Carpenter, and only one piano miniature apiece by Chadwick and Cadman; this has to be rectified to achieve any balanced idea of what American music is and whence it came.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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