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Strings and Oboe Abloom in Newburyport


Sunday was a day to drive beyond the burbs, indeed, all the way to Newburyport, where multitudes strolled about the sunny downtown waterfront. The concert I went to hear was at the old, reassuring, New Englandy First Religious Society, Unitarian Universalist, a prismatic space handsomely lighted by windows on two stories and three sides, the afternoon sun pouring in past the steeple optimistically wrapped in scaffolding. The Apple Hill String Quartet (violinists Elise Kuder and Colleen Jennings, violist Mike Kelley, cellist Rupert Thompson), with oboist Peggy Pearson, met for the Jean C. Wilson concert series. (The presentation by Apple Hill Concerts will be repeated at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline at 7pm on Sunday April 26th.)

It was good to hear Haydn’s Symphony 97 (1792) in a quintet arrangement attributed to J.P. Salomon, the composer’s London producer, with oboe substituting for the flute of the original. It was plainly not an orchestral version, but nothing of musical substance was wanting. This is certainly one of Haydn’s best symphonies, though less well-known than others of the period. The first movement begins with a slow 3/4 introduction pulsing like Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet, followed by a bright Vivace with some charming and startling modulations. The slow movement, in variation form, has an expressive theme much like a slow aria; the expansive minuet is not quite ready to be a scherzo but has bigger-than-danceable outlines; and the Presto finale, in Hungarian style, is rather like an Austrian Galopp. All of this is entrancing music. A friend says he likes to start every day by listening to a Haydn symphony, and it’s easy to understand why.

Hearing the premiere of James Primosch’s new Quartet for Oboe and String Trio was especially compelling. The composer wasn’t present, but his note suggests that he had Pearson’s renowned oboe style as an inspiration for not only Baroque sound but Baroque form. The work, in five movements, shows a spectrum of harmonic imagination ranging from well-defined triadic tonality to dense and complex chromatic blocks. The Moderato first movement has the character of a slow introduction in D minor, followed by an Allegro con fuoco in fast triplets but metrically organized into perceptible dancelike phrases, mostly atonal and punctuated by heavy chromatic chords; because of their continuity, the two movements seemed like one. A slow passacaglia forms the geographical center; its ostinato theme, short and mostly elusive, is passed around in different transpositions that emerge prominently from time to time. It ends with a mysterious high-register chord in string harmonics, the theme plucked in the cello.

First Religious Society, Newburyport
First Religious Society, Newburyport

The fourth and fifth movements also form a close continuity, a part three. The opening texture features high-register parallel fifths, oboe above and violin below, in a sound that reminded me of the parallel-oboes beginning of Ravel’s l’Enfant et les sortilèges. There was even more Ravel-like harmony with well-outlined seventh chords alternating with those mournful motivic fifths, which even reappear at the end of the work, this time with the oboe below and the violin above. In between come a brisk finale with a declamatory song for the oboe, rich and strong without strain, and a fast succession of repeated chords alternating rhythmically with jazzy bursts—remembering the Hungarian Haydn which we had just heard, I thought this finale was like a csárdás with bebop chords underneath. In all, there was a great deal of togetherness in the quartet that wasn’t upset by the seemingly eclectic association of triadic harmony and chromatic crunch. This new work is more than just an interesting piece that I would happily hear again; it’s a worthy and needed addition to a repertory that can’t be very large.

After intermission the audience, led by soprano Katie Hoyer, sang the latest in a series of annual hymns commissioned by Winsor Music, Eric Nathan’s “Hope is the thing with feathers,” on Emily Dickinson’s text. This was followed by a warm, joyful performance of Brahms’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51 No. 2. Whereas I often feel that Brahms’s chamber music for strings is texturally overpowering, this one was pellucid, and lovingly melodic in every line.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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