NEC’s First Monday at Jordan Hall featured an out-of-the-box program with music by Josquin Des Prez, Debussy, and Shostakovich and performers the likes of Laura Lee, Paula Robison, Dimitri Murrath, Jessica Zhou, Ian Howell, Laurence Lesser, and Russell Sherman.
President Emeritus Laurence Lesser seemed to want to fill up some space in the short but exceptional concert with introductory remarks ranging from the entertaining and informative to questionable odds and ends. It was particularly interesting to find Lesser raising questions about the concert-goers dress as opposed to how the performers suit up for First Monday evenings. “Tuxes and tails are not required,” he said, adding, “I am not wearing a tie tonight because Russell Sherman isn’t wearing a tie tonight.” Did we, though, need to go over the birthplace of Des Prez, was it France, Belgium?
Four madrigals by the late Renaissance master set the program in motion on a lustrous note. Tu solus qui facis mirabilia (You alone can do wonders), the longest of these four madrigals espoused a sacred tone. Splendidly delivered homophonies by the finely synced quartet of voices eventually led to alternating duets that in turn would return to fully polyphonic rapture. Josquin’s textures became illuminated via pristine parlance of the four. They transformed Latin into rounded resonances with fluctuating overtones that colored the changing vowels. Scaramella zipped along in triple meter with the timbre of the quartet shifting to a hard- edge boldness suitable for the fellow heading off to war with lance and buckler.
Similar to Tu solus, Mille regretz (A thousand regrets), spoke directly to the heart. With all four voices finely fading at the close to the words of “my days will soon dwindle away,” I felt my own heart sinking. Then back to that silly kind of music of the time, El grillo. The cricket’s song pleasantly pattered along. The perfectly attuned madrigalists were: soprano Jacquelyn Stucker, countertenor Ian Howell, tenor Charles Blandy, and baritone Michael Meraw. Please, more of the sacred and love songs, what pick-me-ups!
Josquin led perfectly to Debussy, his Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp. As Lesser reminded us in his pre-concert talk, Debussy puzzled over his creation, “should we cry, should we laugh.” This was helpful. Flutist Paula Robison, violist Dimitri Murrath, and harpist Jessica Zhou stole the show, if not our soul. It was as if all those crying and laughing moments were an echo of times long past, of the very fondest of memories. This was serious playfulness beyond words, a most engaging musical reality, one that had me succumbing to each and every achievement.
Their performance of the Sonata might possibly be recounted in the very way the trio returned onstage to another revering round of applause. They took their bow arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder. A pure ensemble eloquence spoken everywhere, Robison’s flute could have been a reed singing by the lakeside, Murrath’s viola an ancestral voice, and Zhou’s harp the rays hued as in the light from rising and setting suns. If these three have as yet to record so penetrating an insight into remarkable realms of remembrances, they certainly should do so. It does not get any better than this.
Dimitri Shostakovich’s World War II Trio for Piano and Strings no. 2 in E minor, op 67 saw NEC majors cellist Lesser and pianist Russell Sherman joined by violinist Yura Lee, an alum who continues to establish her presence in the world of symphonic and chamber performance. Surprisingly, their playing has to take back seat to the Des Prez and especially the Debussy performance.
Lee’s outward, virtuosic brightness over the violin’s four strings just did not mesh with Lesser’s folk-like take with nasal inclinations. With Sherman’s tendency to move in his own direction, this trio’s sense of imitative and contrapuntal interplay often missed conflating. The opening cello harmonics sounded untuned. The imbalances of instrumental personalities of violin and cello really showed up in the second movement where the two carry on a dialogue of sorts. Here, Sherman appropriately held stoic ground with the half dozen iterations of the chaconne styled piano part.
The two faster movements fared much better. Toward the Trio’s final destination, Lee, Lesser, and Sherman combined for an overwhelming display of brute force and power filling Jordan Hall–the striking moment of the half-hour work. And that would lead the large turnout to standing, yelling out hoots of praise, or just applauding.
Surely, it was also worth the evening just to see Sherman take the stage, though slowly moving and with cane in hand.