The audience at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival has a warm spot in its heart for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. This was evident on Saturday from the full house and the immediate and rapturous response at the end of a program that was professionally executed, occasionally surprising, and sometimes strange.
The Players opened the evening with the premiere of a wind quintet, “Into the Evening Air”, by Yehudi Wyner. Professor emeritus of music at Brandeis University, Wyner has built an impressive list of credentials and accomplishments over his long career, culminating in a 2006 Pulitzer (for his Piano Concerto ‘Chiavi in Mano’) and his appointment as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2008. ‘Chiavi in Mano’ was commissioned by the BSO, and they again approached him for this more intimate piece. Although the piece’s title is a paraphrase of the final lines of Wallace Stevens’s fine late poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” Wyner says he was not aware of the poem while composing. The only elements the two works share is a sense of twilight. Driven by contrast and juxtaposition, the individual episodes struggled to coalesce, and it was difficult to find a point of view or dramatic line in the music. Afforded only a single hearing, one is reduced to mere description of the events: passages of diffuse melancholy interspersed with episodes of fitful agitation, mechanical ostinatos quickly breaking down into irregular groupings, melodic lines whose great leaps blunted their tendency to sing. The handling of the five different instruments was masterful to the point of obscuring their quirks, with the exception of the horn, which often made rough pronouncements in its lowest register. A brief moment of flutter-tonguing in the upper winds suggested a sudden change of focus, but soon the movement ended on a questioning figure. It was presented with the polish and professionalism one would expect from the five principal winds of the BSO (Elizabeth Rowe, flute; John Ferrillo, oboe; William Hudgins, clarinet; Richard Svoboda, bassoon; James Somerville, horn), but the playing was too often bland and polite.
“Bland” and “polite” did not apply to the performance of Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Rowe’s tone was rich and colorful; Jessica Zhou on harp provided beautifully well-calibrated backgrounds, Debussy’s harp-writing acting both a foundation and a colorful wash that establishes the context in which the other instruments work and play. However, Steven Ansells’ viola was a wild card that could both surprise and frustrate. The Shalin Liu Performance Center has a tendency to dry out the sound of strings, especially when the upstage glass wall is not screened. Ansell was on the right of the audience, with his instrument facing upstage to that wall; perhaps that explains how his tone that was both a bit fuzzy and more than a little astringent. This felt disruptive in the first movement, where the viola provides critical structure through double-stops. Here they felt “off”, not quite in tune, or somehow with unbalanced overtones. And yet, there were several beautiful moments of arrival that landed softly and perfectly. The second movement was sphinx-like and opaque, the flute and viola speaking alone and together, often saying the same things but with quite different meanings; and again, the final note, a unison C, arrived with a sense of inevitability and balance. And then Ansell began the third movement with a sudden outburst of energy, pizzicatos played angrily, dancing lines attacked, the music filled with an unrelenting, aggressive liveliness. It was an exciting if idiosyncratic performance, with an air of unplanned improvisation.
The second half was given over to Schubert’s Octet, D. 803, from 1824. One of the works that helped Schubert work towards his ninth symphony, it is a huge, overstuffed catalog, six movements of ideas and invention. Schubert was experimenting with duration and architecture, and with the precise use of repetition to build large structures. It lacks the inevitability of his greatest large pieces from the end of his career, and at an hour it can overstay its welcome. But it is filled with good nature, and what it may lack in inevitability it makes up for with a friendly intimacy. It is exactly the sort of piece that needs an Chamber Players to realize: too small to fit on an orchestral program, too large for an ensemble with fewer resources, and needing high-quality playing to realize adequately. The ensemble was made up of Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson on violin, Sato Knudsen on cello, Edwin Barker on double bass, with Ansell, Hudgins, Svoboda and Somerville returning to complete the group. It was a pleasant and comfortable performance of moderation and balance: they moved fluently from emotion to emotion, sometimes making great leaps so effortlessly that one only noticed in retrospect how the dramatically the mood had changed. By the middle of the piece the players were smiling and laughing to one another. Lowe and Hudgins made the most of the call and response given to them as the lead players of their sections; the clarinet was especially limber and nimble on this evening, and when the strings played together they were able to warm up the hall more than usual. Ansell’s viola was markedly warmer and more sociable. The low strings made an admirably threatening rumble when necessary. By about halfway through one’s critical faculties quieted in the face of so much amiability. Perhaps not every variation in the fourth movement was absolutely necessary, but who would choose which one to discard? Perhaps the odd contrasts in the finale didn’t quite make sense, but the music soothed and entertained. You might even find yourself whistling a tune or two as you left the hall. It was not a performance that demanded much of the audience, but it had its pleasures, and the audience responded gratefully, coming to its feet almost immediately.