in: Reviews

October 5, 2015

Heiss Premiere at Winsor Opener


JOhn Heiss (file photo)

John Heiss (file photo)

With offerings ranging from the Classical to the contemporary, including the world premiere of eight brief movements from John Heiss (WMCS aims to present a world premiere at each concert.), the Winsor Music Chamber Series launched its 2015-2016 season Sunday evening at St. Paul’s Church, Brookline. (The mostly subscription audience filled the space.

The polished players—professional and progressing—in this Young Artist Concert seemed as comfortable with the Luigi Boccherini Quintet in D Minor Op. 25 No. 31 as with the partly atonal Heiss Microcosms that unfolded in new and fresh directions.

Peggy Pearson, virtuoso oboist and Winsor Music founder nine years ago, took lead roles in both compositions and made the most of her sensitive tone and fluid phrasing. (Winsor Music has grown steadily in popularity, now operating along four lines: development of new works for oboe, a chamber music series, chamber music performance in retirement communities and schools, and the Bach Institute in collaboration with Emmanuel Music and Oberlin College.) The Heiss selection was in fact a reworking of a version premiered in June that Pearson liked so much that she announced she wanted to play it, recalling after the concert that she had said to the composer, “I’d like you to write me into that piece.” The new version features impressive oboe passages.

Heiss injected his sense of play into the music, beginning with a 30-second movement, then a 40-second movement, gradually lengthening to about three minutes. Ideas popped up and vanished, moods came and went, and percussive effects were added by handclaps and drumming on the cello and viola. Unexpected stops and starts delighted the audience. The composer’s writing slipped into the atonal and back to tonal, always layered with mostly pleasant harmonies. One of the players praised the “purity and crystalline quality” of the music. Explaining his brevity, Heiss said he tried to make each phrase perfect, “not wasting a note”. The players never lost sight of the overall piece, giving it coherence and meaning. Mitsuru led on violin, with Gabriela Diaz (viola), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), and Lawrence Wolfe (bass) in addition to Pearson. Heiss has taught composition at New England Conservatory for 49 years; this quintet is his 53rd completed work. The string quartet version will be performed at Jordan Hall October 20.

Following intermission came “Jewel Hill: A Song for the Spirit”, composed by Megan Henderson, who introduced it with a short explanation. Henderson, who performs as pianist and singer in Schola Cantorum, invited the audience to join in a singalong, reading from a one-page score distributed at entry. The notation was in shape note, an old technique for facilitating community singing. I sighed as I realized we were being asked to engage in some group thing, unrehearsed and no doubt painful.

But the ensuing performance produced a spontaneous and beautiful full-chorus effect. Onstage were Henderson and three other singers (soprano Peggy Murray, alto Henderson, tenor Lysander Jaffee, and bass Bret Silverman) plus the strings from the earlier program. The audience, familiar with Pearson’s productions, gamely sang along, in tune, and somehow it all hung together.

The program closed with a vigorous reading of the Schumann Piano Trio No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 80, one of three by him. It begins with the marking Sehr lebhaft (Very lively), and the cellist (Popper-Keizer) and violinist (Diaz) were appropriately energetic in extended parallel passages. The piano alternately leads and accompanies, emerging dominant in subsequent movements; it was played by the much-decorated Eliko Akahori, a popular Boston-area recitalist and chamber player.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who has written on music for the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

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