The centerpiece of the Boston Chamber Music Society’s grab-bag at Sanders Hall on Sunday night was a premiere of a work brought to being by the BCMS’s Commissioning Club: Portraits of El Greco (Book I) by George Tsontakis. Surrounding it were a relatively light-hearted Beethoven, and sizable hunk of Glazunov.
Tsontakis has a fairly high profile in the low-profile world of American contemporary classical music, having won some prestigious and lucrative awards. The program note ascribes to him a “wonderful ability to combine complexity with accessibility, and light-heartedness with seriousness and profundity.” The second of half of that is a bit hard to make sense of, but it does capture the emotional ambiguity that was evident in the Portraits. The work was written for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, and the six movements refer to seven specific paintings of El Greco: Toledo; Pieta; Christ and the Money Changers; Vision of St. John; Christ Carrying His Cross – Entombment; Annunciation. The paintings were projected over the musicians (requiring them to use stand lights to see their music), which made it possible to map the sounds to the images. The composer states that he “began to compose with ‘all’ of his works in my studied imagination and the impulses found their way to each painting.” This perhaps explains tentativeness of the connection between each painting and its music. The work was a worthy, if conservative, first choice for the BCMS Commissioning Club; the connection to El Greco widens the interest of the work, and the composer’s aesthetic is personal while remaining transparent on a first listening. The idea of a self-selected group of people coming together to commission new music is a heartening one; the Bang on a Can collective has been doing so for 14 years with their “Peoples Commissioning Fund,” which produces several new works a year at a gala concert. The BCMS’s new effort is less populist, a little more intimate, but the idea itself is commendable.
Tsontakis’ language in Portraits doesn’t fall into any familiar category. Predominantly tonal in material, its figures often repeat, often at length, but the music resists the propulsive beat that characterizes most music classified as “minimalist”. There is often an underlying pulse, and melodic fragments often stick right to that pulse, yet there long stretches where note values stay constant, or alternate between one length and another. Longer melodic lines frequently appear in the clarinet and violin, often in very high ranges, and not always in harmonic agreement with the accompaniment beneath it. Often the figures suggest tintinnabulation or bird song (Messaien is mentioned as an influence on the composer). For example, in the opening movement, “Toledo”, matched to a painting of the city as it clings to high mountains over a lowering sky, the repetition of a falling two-note interval is too fast for bells but too simple for birds, and manages to evoke both without forcing either interpretation. “Christ and the Money Changers” is dynamic and occasionally violent, as the music suggests, though it doesn’t touch the perversity of El Greco’s painting, the left half of which is a chaotic mess, with a the right half of which is almost classically calm. The “Vision of St. John” is similarly intense; the “Christ Carrying the Cross – Entombment” is in several varied sections that nevertheless feel self-sufficient. The Portraits resemble their inspiration in the distinctiveness of the voice; but they produce a much quieter and subtler effect. Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein produced an appropriately wailing altissimo tone; Harumi Rhodes on violin, Marcus Thompson on viola, and Ronald Thomas on cello produced some exquisite gossamer effects in the frequent almost-static quiet passages. Pianist Randall Hodgkinson gave the weightiest sections the necessary impact, and made the most of the moments when the composer asked him to play inside the instrument, producing surprising, teeth-rattling strummed and plucked sounds.
The works on either side of the Tsontakis must have been chosen for contrast. The Beethoven Piano Quartet in E-flat major is Beethoven’s arrangement of the Quartet for Piano and Winds, Op. 16. Likely re-set to sell the piece to the more likely amateur instruments of the time, the version retains the original’s charm while losing some variety. For example, the extent to which the Rondo finale theme depends on the timbral variety of winds becomes clear about the third time it reappears; and the slow movement feels a little more emotionally static when played by strings. But quibbles about Beethoven’s own rearrangement aside, this was perfectly lovely and engaging as played by Thompson, Hodgkinson and Thomas with violinist Jennifer Frautschi. It was Beethoven at his best behaved, not exactly humorous, but certainly good-natured. Hodgkinson played the ornamented motives in the first movement in an impish way that suggested some reserves of wit below the attractive surface, and Frautschi produced a sweet, smooth, controlled sound.
The String Quintet in A major, Op. 39 by Alexander Glazunov was a different beast entirely. Allegedly inspired by Schubert’s great C Major Quintet, it shares the doubled cello instrumentation, but is otherwise entirely its own animal. Schubert’s ability to make great architectural structures out of minimal material is well known. Glazunov knew better than to attempt that and instead produced a piece filled with attractive melodies and deftly theatrical gestures. At about 35 minutes the work feels longer than the 50 minute Schubert, but just as a movement threatens to overstay its welcome, Glazunov starts bringing it to a close, always saving the best for. Rhodes, Frautschi, Thompson and Ramakrishnan were joined by Ronald Thomas on the cello. Rhodes, who had been quite precise and measured in her work on the Tsontakis cut loose in the Glazunov, with broad romantic phrasing and a deep, resonant tone. At times the evident passion she brought to the virtuosic part bent the pitch a little out of level, but she quickly righted it without losing her energy. All the players made the most of their melodic highlights and of Glazunov’s techniques – the second movement scherzo, predominantly pizzicato, popped charmingly; the musicians made the most of their individual shots at the long melodies of the slow third movement. The final Rondo, a vigorous “Russian” dance, closed the piece with exciting brio and visible pleasure on the faces of the players.