IN: Reviews

Concerns, Hoorays for Atrium Winds & Strings


by Vaclav Zeman
Bohuslav Martinů by Vaclav Zeman

Many at Sunday’s Atrium Winds and Strings performance for J.P Concerts must have been wondering what was going on, as things seemed not quite right with the sound. In addition, Atrium’s 70-minutes of an oboe quartet of Mozart and nonets by Martinů and Stanford might have left many asking, nonets by whom?

Eleven musicians in all, Atrium appeared and sounded somewhat inexperienced. Informal attire would not quite be an apt description as most seemed dressed more for a rehearsal than for a public performance. As to that question of what was going on with the sound, I would have to start with Atrium’s interaction with the highly resonant sanctuary of St. John’s Church, Jamaica Plain. The lower, louder, denser the music-making, the less discernable notes became. I am not sure that the musicians realized the magnitude of the problem with their playing vis-à-vis the acoustics of St. John’s when there are not a lot of warm bodies to absorb more of the  resonance.

In Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, K.370, Sachiko Murata’s solo playing was nicely tuned and highly accurate in execution. The church’s space allowed this woodwind to speak clearly, if a bit steely-edged, but the three strings, Wei-yu Chang, Trevor Andrews and Marc Pasciucco, too often just blurred together. Where the Adagio movement dragged, the Rondo (Allegro) found some lightness, at times with thoughtfully tapering phrases.

Reckoning that few in the audience would be all that familiar the Nonet for Wind Quintet, String Trio, and Double Bass by Bohuslav Martinů or its composer, it would have been helpful to supply listeners with some information, at least, say, that he is a Czech composer who lived from 1890 to 1959.

The nonets continued in Atrium’s lighthearted late afternoon program. Now, two hoorays are in order, one for programming the nonets so rarely played around Boston and another for the happy-go-lucky spirit of all three selections.

Atrium offered a good deal of straight-out playing of Martinů’s eclectic openness. Scott Chowning’s French horn and Thomas Weston’s clarinet expressed such affability as they weaved in and out of the composer’s melodic net. Michael Tabak would be the only Atrium member to communicate both through his flute and his very presence, both demonstrating a deeper passion and understanding of the music. Again, being the lightest of movements, the last, an Allegretto, received the best playing, the main theme, in particular, bounced around without too much interference from the church’s space.

Without taking a break or intermission, Atrium moved on to Serenade (Nonet) in F, Op. 95 for Wind Quartet, String Quartet, and Double Bass by Stanford, a work completely new to me, as I would imagine to most others as well. And that would be Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, an Irish composer (1852-1924).

Standford’s harmonic palette more resembles Mendelssohn, even Mozart, borrowing so well-behaved appoggiaturas and ever so polite cadences. The Irishman must have had his clock in mind writing this half-hour embrace of conservatism, which alternately bored and delighted. The string trills accompaniment in the concluding movement were as hushed as could be—they were the most striking sound of the afternoon—however, the solos above the gossamer sounds were again too big.

Charles Villiers Stanford
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford

Reconciling the space, instruments and compositions has to be reconsidered as do other aspects of presenting a concert. Along with concerns about informal dress and lack of program notes, comes Atrium’s reticence in communicating with its audience. When players returned to their stands and chairs after their final number, concert-goers thought that for some reason there might be an encore, another piece to be played, thus making for an awkward moment.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Dear David Patterson-

    Thank you for your discerning review! Being far away it was nice to read about the setting, the music, the problems, etc. — and our son, Scott. He sent a recording of the concert in which the acoustic problems that you mentioned were not particularly apparent. I just spoke to him and he said that the mics were positioned at the 1st row, which could explain it.

    I, too, studied with N. Boulanger from 1959-1961. I can’t remember if Messiaen was still teaching at that time at the conservatory. Boulez was very active with the Domaine musical, which was always a big event with lots of cat calls mixed with applause — a kind of aesthetic tension that no longer exists, alas.

    Anyway, I did not want to miss the opportunity to greet a colleague.

    -John Chowning

    Comment by JOHN CHOWNING — December 16, 2014 at 8:10 pm

  2. Dear Prof. Patterson,

    Thank you very much for attending our concert.

    Since the Martinu and (especially) the Stanford nonets are not often performed, we are posting the live recording of the December 14, 2014 concert of the Atrium Winds & Strings at for anyone who would like the opportunity to become acquainted with these pieces.

    – Michael Tabak (flutist of the Atrium Winds & Strings)

    Comment by Michael Tabak — December 17, 2014 at 3:51 pm

  3. Thanks to MT for putting up the link. All pleasant sounding if not super clean. We don’t have to worry about wardrobe problems in this version.

    Comment by denovo2 — December 19, 2014 at 11:55 pm

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