To wrap up the three-day Chopin Symposium at Rivers School Conservatory in Weston each year, Robert Poli puts on an exact musical reenactment or speculative alternative. This year’s was set in Chopin’s small salon in 1846, just as he was finishing the Cello Sonata and Polonaise-Fantaisie. Sunday evening’s event was the last of a long weekend, yet Poli, mastermind of all, who had played several times on Saturday, seemed ready once again to perform with his usual élan and elegance.
To begin a perfect summer night, Poli simply sat down at the piano and mesmerized us with one of the Nocturnes and the well-known Barcarolle. In addition to Chopin’s music, cello, voice, and two-hand compositions of composers he admired were included, yielding some interesting connections. Poli has been researching and playing Chopin’s piano music for years, and his philosophy on tempi, dynamics, phrasing, pedaling, and interpretation are often unusual, the slow tempi especially something to reckon with. Poli’s elegance and alertness to dynamics continued in two selections of Mozart, the Adagio from the Sonata in B-flat Major for four hands, K.358, and the Adagio-Allegro from Sonata in F Major for four-hands, K.497, neither heard often. They were given beautifully nuanced performances by Poli and Gila Goldstein, an artist and BU faculty member I definitely want to hear again.
The peaceful mood changed completely when one of Boston’s more admired sopranos, Barbara Quintiliani, sang the dramatic final scene from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Quintiliani has a CV any singer would envy: tons of important competition first prizes, and rave reviews virtually every time she sings. Her website proclaims she is “the Verdi soprano the world has been waiting for” and she lives, and loves, to sing opera. (Her struggle to keep singing at a high level despite illnesses has been well-documented in a video.) Sunday night, however, she was in strange voice. Poli accompanied her with tremendous sensitivity, but she did not adjust her hall-filling-over-a-big-orchestra voice to an intimate venue, and her coloratura was uneven and not always in tune. After intermission, she sang four arias: “Sediziose voci,” the famous “Casta diva,” “Dormono entrambi,” and “Temeri figli” from Bellini’s Norma.
Her speaking was another matter. Few performers can explicate with the right mix of coherence, charm, intelligence and humor. And we do not need the singer to relate the intricate and bizarre plots of operas before we hear her arias, especially when the program is already an overgenerous two hours and 40 minutes. Cozying up with the audience, especially employing self-depreciating or opera-belittling humor, gets old fast. Program notes, please come back.
Boston Symphony cellist Mickey Katz, who also has won his share of awards, contributed many memorable moments of beauty in the highly virtuosic Allegro moderato (with Poli) of Chopin’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 65, and in the Nocturne in E Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 14 no. 1, by Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884). His third piece, Etude no. 8 in D Major for Solo Cello by Jean-Louis Duport (1749-1819), was most impressive, sounding like a duet for cello and bass.
Poli put together his own suite of Chopin Étude, Mazurka and Fantaisie à la Polonaise, whose most moving part was the Op. 25 no. 7 “Cello” Étude. Composed days after Bellini died, it was for this listener the most soulful moment in a long and memorable evening. Hats off once again to Roberto Poli, not only for his playing but also for all he does every year to put together these extraordinary and enjoyable Chopin symposia.