Summer people in the Monadnock Hills of New Hampshire were a not terribly polyglot collection of Cambridge intellectuals, painters, and first families when James and Jocelyn Bolle declared them musically underserved, 50 years ago. The remedial enterprise, Monadnock Music, has provided plentiful servings of classical musics ever since. A nostalgic 50th-anniversary reunion concert Saturday night at a lovely country church in the hamlet of Nelson brought to local devotees, and a few interlopers from Boston, 10 appetizers from 14 players of vintages ancient and recent.
Variety has been the byword of the festival enterprise, according to birthday boy James Bolle (b. 1931). Spit polish has generally not been mandatory in these informal, indeed sometimes ad hoc summer performances. In early years players camped out for a couple of months in the High Mowing School dorms, camaraderie being rampant during the period of the 20 to 30 mostly free concerts in churches and meetinghouses. Some major musical characters also came through with memorable shows over the years at the Peterborough Town House, so we expected to find some of that excitement reprised Saturday night at the full-to-bursting 19th-century worship space.
Well, a variety show it certainly was. Did we really drive all the way up from Boston to hear the Lawrence Welk favorite and Bolle’s candidate for a Monadnock theme song, “Whispering Hope”? We were certainly unprepared for “Wobbling and Bellowing Hope”. Apparently the sole reprise from opening night, 50 years ago in this space, it was execrable.
Little-better were the three overblown and underprepared Liebeslieder Wälzer which closed the celebration. This writer would much rather have watched videos of celebrated returnees Mary Burgess, D’Anna Fortunato, and James Maddelena in their compelling primes. Tenor Gregory Mercer alone projected a satisfying tone. Pianist Lois Shapiro accompanied with her trademark brightness, alacrity, and subtle shading, but she was in her own world.
Her take on Beethoven’s Sonata No. 3 for Piano with the Accompaniment of the Violoncello found her again in fine form on the barely adequate instrument. I had to keep reminding myself of the sonata’s piano-centricity, because cellist Fred Raimi’s strain was alarming, to put it charitably, in this unfortunately unequal contest.
Mozart’s Oboe Quartet opened the festivities with charm and bloom in the flattering acoustic, as oboist Willa Henigman’s songful pungency compensated for inadequacies in the ensemble. Jumping back 100 years for a set by Joseph de Boismortier (1689-1755), Marc Schachman, Baroque oboe, and Linda Quan, Baroque violin, delivered the five well-conversed duets from Suite No. 5. We enjoyed the colors of the early double-reed and took pleasure in Schachman’s recollections of the indulgences he begged from the Monadnock audience hearing him trying to find his way on a recalcitrant instrument 30 years ago. No indulgence was begged or required Saturday.
A third oboist, Basil Reeve, arrived for Bolle’s 8 Pieces for oboe and violin. Violinist Gerald Itzkoff, who played reliably two other times on the program, joined in the volatile instrumental arguments to which we were the amused bystanders.
Also quite diverting was double-bass Robert Black’s embrace (literally) of Stuart Smith’s Solo Work with Nonsense Text. The composer calls for pettings, tappings, bumpings, huggings, and jabberwocky, in all of which the performer reveled. Smiles abounded. Black opened his set with Elliott Carter’s pithy Figment III for double bass (2007).
Darius Milhaud’s Les rêves de Jacob, Dance Suite for oboe, violin, viola, cello and double-bass (1949), closed the first half in Bolle’s tribute to his teacher. The title reaches for a profundity not present in either the work or the performance. One might have expected something like postwar anxiety from the emigré composer, but neither the spirit of the Lord nor indeed any abstract emotion whatever was sensible in this guileless yet cleverly constructed work. Again there were problems in the lower strings.
Two successive events revealed consecutively the perils and pleasures of summer festival programming. Sunday found us in Harrisville, a poignantly beautiful early mill town. The local meetinghouse, another handsome and resonant sanctuary, would have witnessed the return of former frequent visitors the New Zealand String Quartet, had fate, in the person of an intractable immigration official, not refused to permit two members to work. In this touring disaster, Monadnock Music improvised to excellent effect. Knowing that the standards for string quartet execution and interpretation would not be met with the substitution of two strangers and one rehearsal, artistic director Gill Rose suggested dropping the quartet program, and asked three eminent locals to join the two properly admitted Zealanders for a pair of powerhouse quintets.
Mozart’s Quintet No. 4 in G Minor (1787) thus crackled with five pros practically winging it. A second or third rehearsal might actually have made it less exciting. New Zealand violinist Helene Pohl led this most eloquent chamber outpouring, and with her collegial partners old and new rejoiced in the warmth of the occasion and the immersiveness of the space. All standing except for cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, they played with infectious sway, strong accents, vivid underlinings. While the first Adagio was a bit dry-eyed, the vibratoless moments brought harmonic pungency to the five independent lines. Pohl sang a poignant aria with near-Romantic torment to begin the last movement, but in its bipolarity the Adagio allegro ends in a romp. The players managed the mood swings with exuberance and clarity if not the well-aged nuance developed in partnerships of long standing.
I have never heard a bad performance of Brahms’s String Quintet No. 2, Op. 111 (just over a full century later, 1890). It has such richness and inevitability, such orchestral fullness and emotional outpouring: there is just no gainsaying it. This marbled roast beef arrived with a goodly topping of Oberskren (horseradish suffused whipped cream), as the players delivered urgent pleadings and romantic releases aplenty in sonic sumptuousness. I nod especially to violist Peter Sulski’s effusions. The second movement’s sotto voce portamentos seared. When she wasn’t looking for cues, first violinst played with eyes closed.
Altogether the five (including violinist Douglas Beilman and violist Dimitar Petkov) maintained a strong common pulse without hiccup. The final Hungarian dance ecstatically apotheosized this chamber music outing, reminding us of the ample pleasures we have come to expect in this Gil Roseate era.
The gang of five plus the two New Zealand fellow travelers barred from working encored with a happy birthday to James Bolle. Fifty more years, saluted all! And here’s his Welkian theme song.