Like certain pieces of music one learns about in school, the Boston Artists Ensemble, a chamber music group with a long history, may be more heard of than heard, but that could be because its primary performance venue in Salem is a bit off the beaten track, and when in past years BAE chose to perform closer to Boston, in Newton. That too was a bit out of the way. Now, though, this 33-year-old group has set up its parallel season at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline, a somewhat more accessible site to the Boston concertgoer. If the programming for its Sunday outing indicates the ensemble’s predilections, more downtowners will be eager to seek it out in the leafy corner of Brookline.
Comprising violins Bayla Keyes and Lucia Lin, viola Lila Brown, and founder and artistic director Jonathan Miller on the cello, the string quartet drawn from BAE’s roster offered up a sampler of some of the best quartet music ever produced south of the Rio Grande.
The opener was one of the sadly best-kept secrets of 20th century music, the Quartet No. 5 of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Far and away Brazil’s greatest classical composer, Villa-Lobos produced 17 string quartets—each a gem. Nearly everyone now knows the 15 Shostakovich quartets (or at least knows about them), and complete sets of them have been recorded by numerous of the top quartets, but the Villa-Lobos quartets go begging for performance and recording. Only one complete set exists on CD, by the superb Cuarteto Latinoamericano. This needs to be rectified, and more live performances by more non-specialist groups like BAE would go a long way to alert the average listener to their wonderful qualities.
Coming a good 14 years after its predecessor, the Fifth Quartet (1931) makes a good introduction to the full set. Together with the Sixth, written later in the decade, it is the most demotic, drawing extensively from Brazilian folk and popular sources. The BAE rendering disclosed few flaws. The players brought a stately Bachianism to the opening movement, but were eager to put their shoulders into the saucy rhythms of the rest, with a good dynamic sense in the soft closing of the second movement. The lyrical middle section of the third movement brought out heartfelt warmth of sonority. The weaker spots fell in the quartet’s “sound effects” features, of which Villa-Lobos was quite fond throughout his quartets as, indeed, in all his music. In particular, there were harmonics and glisses in the first movement that didn’t quite gel, but in the finale, where the two violins imitate flutes or pan pipes, the effect was wonderful. The finale was, indeed, the best played overall—vigorous, earthy, rough-hewn.
It appears to be a tradition of BAE programs (maybe only of the first concert of the season, where it makes the most sense) that they invite the audience to guess a “mystery” piece. The winner (ballots are collected at intermission) gets a free pair of tickets for a future performance. This time the correct answer was Turina’s Bullfighter’s Prayer, perhaps a slightly incongruous Latin European work on a Latin American program. The foursome executed with affecting lushness and sincerity. As a point of information, nobody correctly guessed the piece, but a few consolation prizes were handed out for imaginative answers.
The Quartet No. 1 of Alberto Ginastera was the imaginative closer. Dating from about 20 years after the Villa-Lobos, it stands between his early “objective nationalist” compositions, for example the lavish Estancia ballet, and the “subjective nationalist” period that saw such masterpieces as the Variaciones concertantes. Needless to say, all this was before his eventual conversion to the atonal internationalist school. In his first quartet, Ginastera was still heavily indebted to indigenous Argentinian sounds and gestures, but he was also expanding his harmonic palette to assimilate a sharper modernist edge, often with a Bartókian sensibility. It all works wonderfully well in this piece, with its first movement offering gaucho swagger, the second a whirlwind of special effects (this time very effectively performed) including sul ponticello, sul tasto, saltando, col legno, you name it. The third is a night scene clearly out of the Hungarian’s playbook, but with distinctive Ginastera touches like the quartal harmony he used so effectively in the Variaciones; special kudos on the performances of Lin and Miller, gossamer and soulful respectively. The finale is rousing and galumphing, with some very hard edges indeed. A pizzicato section went very well, with no slack in the textural roughness.