With the wealth of classical music lovers all around the city, why Jordan Hall was not bursting with people Sunday afternoon when the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players took the stage remains a mystery. Less than half of the seats were filled for their program that included less familiar works by Mysliveček, Foote, Nathan, and Dvořák. How many of these names do you recognize? In addition to a musical exploration, those listeners present would find themselves before one of the premiere ensembles, may I venture to say, in the world.
That having been said, due to a sudden attack of a stomach bug right before the concert, there unfortunately can be no review of the Chamber Players’ performance of a piece I have never heard before, Quintet No. 2 in G Major for two oboes, two horns, and bassoon by Czech-born Josef Mysliveček. This barely known composer hailed from the musical world of Mozart’s day, which, we find out in Zoe Kemmerling’s informative program notes, was packed with talented composers jostling for fame and fortune.
While I was waiting at the door, a friendly NEC usher and student of oboist John Ferrillo offered an enthusiastic endorsement of his teacher’s playing while adding that it is no wonder Mysliveček is little heard as his quintet was not all that interesting.
The Nocturne and Scherzo for flute and string quartet of Salem-born Arthur Foote followed with an altogether brightening effect. Kemmerling writes “Bostonian Arthur Foote was a true Romantic: well-educated, well-traveled, an upholder and promulgator of the European tradition at the highest standard.” Upon hearing the first performance in 1919, one critic described Foote’s piece as “fresh and spontaneous, plentiful in melody and colored with beauty.”
Catching the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players nearly a century later, this reviewer would argue such a description of the Bostonian’s night music still holds true. As a matter of fact, I could not believe it was the same music I had heard previously delivered by other ensembles. Foote’s music, prolifically elevated as it was by Rowe, Lowe, Martinson, Ansell, and Eskin, might very well fit into the category of masterpiece. If that estimation is too much for some, certainly the performance was nothing less than masterful in every conceivable way—an elegant polish so naturally applied resulted in true sublimity, so awe-inspiringly beautiful as to seem almost heavenly.
BSO commission Why Old Places Matter (2014) by Eric Nathan (b. 1983) received its world premiere with Ferrillo, Sommerville, and guest pianist Randall Hodgkinson. Recent recipient of the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Nathan composed his highly attractive work for oboe, horn and piano structuring it in two movements. He writes, “The second movement returns to places encountered in the first movement, as we might in recalling a memory, trying to live in a space again and for longer.” For the first part, a silence-sound fast moving continuum, both punchy and pleasant, played out with coherence uncommon to compositions written these days. A kind of whole-tone background in Nathan’s canvas contributed to the many pleasing crunches and jangles from the piano. From the oboe, isolated sonic ribbons often in quick descent spiritedly played out against forceful sonic dashes, which were often emboldened by the horn.
Memories of the foregoing were frequently posed as overtones resonating from the piano’s strings, activated by the winds. The horn-centered slower second movement leaned more to a diatonic context. There was even a nostalgic passage with older-fashioned arpeggios suggesting some remembrances were beginning to actualize. Throughout, the piano and oboe acted as if memory was running short, only fragments stirring.
For the most part, Why Old Places Matter received a stunning premiere from Ferrillo, Sommerville and Hodgkinson who handled all sorts of challenges most of that of ensemble precision. Sommerville, though, uncharacteristically faltered quite a bit with the large skips and a number of buzzy tones that distracted from Nathan’s continuous horn melody.
The concluding work was Octet-Serenade for clarinet, bassoon, horn, two violins, viola, bass, and piano arranged by Nicholas Ingman from Antonín Dvořák’s Serenade in E for string orchestra, Opus 22. Yet another first time experience in this form for many concert-goers, it was a most welcome one. Contrasting with both Foote and Nathan, Dvořák’s encompassing earthiness refreshingly reinvigorated the late afternoon.
Speaking of color, as did the reviewer of the Foote, here, in this arrangement, the great entertainment of the day became watching, as well as hearing, what instrument would be playing next. To our right were Hudgins, Svoboda, and Sommerville, to our left, Lowe, Martinson, Ansell, Barker, and in the center, Hodgkinson. This day-glow iteration proved once again the preeminence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players—no mystery to that.