A rousing and diverse concert closed Boston Chamber Music Society’s successful 2013-2014 season on Sunday night at Sanders Theater. One of the busiest halls in the Boston area, it hosts a constant stream of choral, instrumental, and dramatic performances, but its special qualities of intimacy and clarity of sound were particularly suitable for this program featuring Mozart’s virtuosic Horn Quintet in E-flat Major, K. 407, Mendelssohn’s fieryPiano Sextet in D Major, op, 10, and Jean Françaix’s humorous Octet for Winds and Strings.
Founded in 1982, the Boston Chamber Music Society draws from a roster of nine professional member musicians including two pianists and seven string players; each concert also features guest artists, so the ensemble ranges in size from string duo to (tonight’s) octet. Artistic Director and leading violist Marcus Thompson, who runs the chamber music program at MIT and teaches viola at NEC, appeared in all three works and made his most notable contributions in the Mendelssohn. As a founding member of the ensemble, Thompson’s influence could be clearly heard throughout the program, which included two works featuring pairs of violas by Mozart and Mendelssohn. When partnered with violinist Harumi Rhodes, his expressive and dynamic style (especially when playing in the high tessitura of the instrument) brought the Piano Quintet’s many Allegro sections to life. As the longest-serving member of BCMS (joining in 1982), Thompson showed the most flexibility of style, and was featured in two works calling for a pair of violas (sometimes replacing the more typical second violin voicing).
Rhodes, who runs the string program at Syracuse and teaches at Juilliard, is a remarkable and vivacious presence on the stage. She led Mendelssohn’s early piano quintet with so much enthusiasm that the first movement was greeted with a loud murmur of approbation from the audience. Her incisive, aggressive style ensured that the work’s almost constant scherzando textures and quick shifts of mood were both heard and seen in the bodies of her colleagues. Pianist Randall Hodgkinson shone during the virtuosic passages that Mendelssohn wrote for himself, although he was placed directly behind the half-circle of strings. This both encouraged a remarkable rhythmic unity from the strings and emphasized the variety of ways that the piano as a solo instrument (especially in the chorale-like Adagio). The second movement contains some of Mendelssohn’s most forward-thinking harmonies, and as one audience member remarked, the virtuosic playing exhibited an “intensity that hurt my head.”
This season, BCMS welcomed two new members: Dmitri Murrath, violist at NEC and Longy, and New York cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, who was a founding member of the Daedelus Quartet (grand prize winners of the 2001 Banff International String Quartet competition). Both men played in every work on the program, and Ramakrishnan shone during the cello soli sections in Mendelssohn’s challenging Menuetto: Adagio.
Guest artists William Purvis (soloist for the Mozart Horn Quintet which opened the program), and Romie de Guise-Langois, clarinet (co-concertmistress for the Françaix Octet), were welcome additions to the program. The Horn Quintet by Mozart is one of six tour-de-force challenges the composer wrote for his longtime colleague Joseph Leutgeb. Purvis’s choice of a modern instrument provided clarity and a finely-wrought sense of intonation, although the work is so difficult, that it really should be called a horn concerto. Sanders was an ideal place to present this work, as Purvis’s mellow tone and frequent use of very quiet phrasing was not overpowered by the strings. Mozart’s writing for first violin is often several octaves above the rest of the texture, and Ida Levin’s delicate approach to the piece allowed the horn and sting trio (cello and two violas) to operate independently as a quartet accompaniment in a darker, much lower tessitura.
Although the dramatic highpoint of the concert was the Piano Sextet, which received a long standing ovation, the choice to end the concert (and the season) with a little-known charmer by modern French composer Jean Françaix left the audience in a buoyant mood.
Jean Françaix’s works are well known to woodwind players, and deserve more attention. His Octet combines some of the best aspects of neo-classicism with quick references to Viennese waltzes and the percussive flavor of French music hall. This work, composed for the Viennese Schubert Octet in 1972, demanded both wit and virtuosity from the players. To bring out the many small duets and trios, and to emphasize humorous contrasts, the strings and winds sat facing each other. The audience enjoyed the work, and were intrigued by layered articulations such as slow arco string melodies played over staccato woodwinds.
Ida Levin’s smooth, melodic first violin material often contrasted with Harumi Rhodes’ second violin pizzicati (and maybe even Bartok pizzicati) accents: Françaix is able evoke the sounds of a xylophone through these techniques. The work was characterized by shifts between very quiet, sweet sounds (such as the beautiful duet between the clarinet and bassoon, played with clarity and panache by guest artist Adrian Morejon) and sections that reminded me more of a soccer match, with the players leaping, swaying, and breathing together, especially on accented rests. Romie de Guise-Langlois’ sensuous clarinet playing provided nuance and flute-like contrast to many attractive, but manic, sections. As a local oboist in the audience said, after the breathless conclusion, “That was something special.”
Stephen Friedlaender, President of the BCMS Board of Directors, spoke about the upcoming season before the concert began: the organization will take a break from presenting summer concerts (due to funding issues), so eight subscription concerts will be split between two venues. Sunday evening performances in Sanders will continue in the Fall and Spring (three each, featuring a new BCMS commission from American composer Pierre Jalbert and Osvaldo Golijov’s contemporary clarinet quintet Dreams and Prayes of Isaac the Blind). Two additional matinees will be offered in the winter “to engage more directly with the audience” at the recently renovated Fitzgerald Theater at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. These will each feature four works: (“The French Connection on 1/25/15 and Mostly Mozart on 2/22/15). A notable experiment next Fall will be BCMS’s presentation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in a “integrated version” for piano and string trio (9/28/14).