Something light, something new, something meaty: thus the Portland Chamber Music Festival concluded its 22nd season on Saturday in its usual format. Formulaic or not, with Artistic Director Jennifer Elowitch’s eclectic tastes and the variety of players in the PCMF roster, the mix makes for an entertaining and informative evening.
The something light was Beethoven’s Serenade for flute, violin and viola, op. 25, written around 1801, when he was completing such comparatively heavyweight items as the First Symphony, the op. 18 string quartets, the Spring Sonata and the Moonlight Sonata. The instrumentation is intriguing, calling to mind the duets for violin and viola by Haydn and Mozart, whose literal lack of gravitas owes to the absence of a true bass instrument. Also reminiscent of Mozart is its structure, with six movements (seven if you treat the slow introduction to the finale as a separate movement, as it sometimes is) involving an entrance, a minuet, two scherzos, a variations movement and a finale. The occasion of its writing isn’t fully known, but he gave it to a start-up publisher, Cappi, so it might have been done as a favor, or it might have been meant as entertainment for a specific or generic purpose. It’s the sort of thing one would love to hear at one’s neighborhood Heurige of an evening.
The performance, by Laura Gilbert, flute, Jesse Mills, violin, and Jonathan Bagg, viola, was appropriately frothy in the quick movements and stately in the slow variations one. In the second Mills and Bagg tossed fragmentary melodies back and forth, and the players’ take on the slow introduction to the finale was justifiably tongue-in-cheek, as Beethoven was winding up a big Mozart intro for a jocular ending. Gilbert was reliably perky and, as it happened, played the anchor role in terms of pitch. The strings, alas, had issues. Each kept in tune well enough with himself, but not always with the other, and we found Mills a bit sloppy in some of his phrasing. It turns out there may be a reason for this, as he performed in every piece on the program, and the others were by no means simple; when that happens, something often has to give, and we suspect it was Beethoven.
The first half ended with Lonesome Roads for piano trio by Dan Visconti (b. 1982), who is based in Chicago and apparently does a lot of driving through the Midwest. He spoke briefly, referring to to it as his “favorite mix tape,” with various genres contributing to the feel of the road and what whizzes by the windows. Its seven sections (he called them movements, but they’re really not well enough developed to warrant that term), he wrote, can be taken in any order. Thus, what describe here must be understood as referring only to this particular realization. The affect would be rather different if a different ordering had been employed. It began quietly and sparely, with the piano (Rieko Aizawa) providing what continuity there was, with the strings gradually coming in with harmonics and long tones without vibrato. Another section had the strings (Mills and Thomas Kraines, cello) working a rocking motif of major seconds that works its way into a kind of boogie; other sections invoked r&b, country, funk, a bit of stride, and so on, while invoking a range of properly up-to-date coloristic effects such as strumming the piano strings (and the strings’ strings), percussive effects (Aizawa whacking the piano with a pencil) and expressive harmonics and glisses. In the fifth or sixth section (we confess to losing track) the strings evoked bird calls with piercing harmonic glisses, reminding us of a line from Willa Cather’s O Pioneers in which an old farmer in Nebraska hears a sea gull overhead and says “He’s lost, fer sure!” The finale, which sounded to us like a rondo, had a hard-driving unison tune in the strings alternating with jazzy riffs and thrumming. The whole effect was quite pleasing, a full day’s journey after which even a Super 8 would be welcome.
The closer was something completely different, inasmuch as the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, could justly be said to lack a single joke in it. Dark and stormy, with moments of grandeur and pathos, it has remained one of Brahms’s most popular chamber works. Brahms had first written it as a string quintet (extra cello), then after Joseph Joachim’s protest that the music was too powerful for just strings, he made it a sonata for two pianos, which version endures as op. 34a, but finally settled on piano with strings, in which mode it is, not to put too fine a point on it, perfect. The Wikipedia article about it has a good formal analysis, so we won’t dwell on it here.
On Saturday, Aizawa, Mills and Elowitch, violins; Dov Scheindlin, viola; and Kraines proved solid, thoughtful and in places quite elegant (Aizawa in particular, though she could pack a wallop where necessary, especially in the very unfunny scherzo and in the finale). There were fine moments where the strings were especially sonorous, notably Kraines. Where we were seated, off to the left, with Mills’s back to us, kept us from experiencing the full balance of sound; but it’s not entirely a bad thing to be able to single out the lines of the second violin, viola and cello, which were beautifully carried by all concerned—Mills included, even at reduced volume. Some particular interpretive points of interest here were the deftly executed rubati at phrase endings in the scherzo, and the tragically weepy chromatic introduction to the finale. The final peroration brought everyone in the audience to his feet.