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BCMS’s Mostly “French Connection” at Fitzgerald Theater


Fitzgerald Theater
Fitzgerald Theater

Music of the big three turn-of-the- century French composers, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, along with an American in Paris seeking a teacher, constituted Boston Chamber Music Society’s Sunday afternoon concert, “The French Connection.” Aficionados of la musique française and fans of BCMS filled the Fitzgerald Theater at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and that made for a lot of folks, some 490.

The Fitzgerald Theater, originally designed by Argentinean architect Eduardo Fernando Catalano in 1979, was recently renovated. Its blue cushioned seats comfortable as they were in contrast to those straight-backed pews in Sanders Hall, were designed, however, more for high-schoolers than for adults. As must have been with most others, it was my first visit to this venue. With curtains all about the stage, there was some fear that a good deal of sound might be swallowed up, but that fortunately was not entirely the case.

In fact, Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120 by Gabriel Fauré that led off the concert could not have found a better home in which to be heard, at least from where we were sitting in row E center left. With the Fauré, BCMS took full advantage of the theater’s fairly dry acoustic by fostering a musical innocence that was amply warm and superbly intimate.

Violinist Jesse Mills, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and pianist Randall Hodgkinson were virtually hundred-percent together in refined rapture, not only of a polished sort but of a purified state as well. The trio absolutely made a French connection. Ramakrishnan commanded our attention, so in tune were he and his Neapolitan cello with the gentle, vernal inhalations such as in the opening melodic shard of the slow movement.

After a smashing four-handed La Mer by pianists Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson, this listener recalled from several seasons ago at MIT, expectations were running high for their performance of Ravel’s four-hand arrangement of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Unluckily, the performance by this usually superb duo came up short. That might have been due in part to the Steinway concert grand’s somewhat sharp-edged treble notes. Also, the sensuous near-tactile wrap-around feel of this music was lessened for some reason; perhaps it was the room, perhaps the performance. Not surprisingly, the two pianists delivered more than a few éclats, or bursts, of that French, spring-like enchantment.

There was eager anticipation as well for George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue arranged for piano four hands by Henry Levine. That memorable theme, that some say is what truly makes this a masterpiece, was freshly carved and piano-lush sounding. Lee and Hodgkinson spun this signature theme into American-styled celebration. Here, the pianists often synchronized downbeats with rapid head movements, and that, coupled with their music-making, made for edge-of-the-seat thrills. Even though they just missed coming squarely down together on the final chord, the infraction was so small that it added still more spice to their playing. The audience loved their Rhapsody and let them know it with both applause and some boisterous hooting—certainly in keeping with a piece that is often described as boisterous.

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor brought back Mills, Ramakrishnan, and Lee. This is where the piano’s extreme registers were exposed. The very low end of the Steinway piano provided by M. Steinert & Sons buzzed slightly but noticeably during the onset of the tone in the passacaille ground bass rather noisily offered by Lee. By contrast, Ramakrishnan’s restatement was ever so delicate like a feather gliding about.

Pantoum: assiz vif, the second movement, leapt off the stage glinting all the way. It danced; it reverberated, and stirred in wondrous delirium, the BCMS trio on a roll. The climax to the opening Modéré found the three bringing on that spine tingling we all love to feel.

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).

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  1. From Row E Center the instruments were all weak in their upper harmonics, owing surely to the heavy drapery surrounding them behind, on sides, and above.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 8, 2015 at 10:09 am

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