The Chamber Orchestra of Boston’s “Love Letters” aptly began with Medford-based composer Oliver Caplan’s piece of the same name last night at the First Church of Boston, where music director David Feltner brought together shorter works of canonic composers with some of lesser-known examples from performer-composers. Guest performers flutist Sarah Brady, clarinetist Aline Benoit, and harpist Ina Zdorovetchi joined a string quintet from the orchestra’s core—Charles Dimmick and Colleen Brannen on violin, Nathan Farny on viola, Rebecca Thornblade on cello, and Anthony D’Amico on bass—in the evening’s professions of love.
Howard Hanson’s Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, though generally calm, tender, and rife with color, sets up a powerhouse flute part, reflecting Hansen’s love for his beloved Margaret Elizabeth Nelson. This solo let Brady shine. The strength of her lower registers compounded a strong projection in the upper, completely balanced and powerful while maintaining a delicate air. It almost felt like a dance, effortless and controlled yet packed with lyricism and longing. Feltner kept everything easily under control, astute to Brady’s subtle shifts in tempo. Suffice to say, overall, Brady opened the concert on a strong footing.
The main event came early this time. Oliver Caplan’s wrote Love Letters for his wedding to his partner Chris; the two movements actually became the longest piece of the evening, strangely enough. The processional, Forever Began with Hello, focused on the strings throughout, giving Dimmick, careful and deliberate but never hesitant in his playing, a chance to mold and shape the melodic phrase that progressed around the rest of the ensemble. As a nice touch, Caplan pushed in a few dissonances in places where the harmony definitely needed some spice too, showing his modern considerations for the tonal idiom. Out of all the performers, Thornblade deserves special praise, hammering away at the restless and active cello part. She provided all the harmonic motion one could ask for, and Caplan definitely demanded technicality from the cello player. The only minor complaint this reviewer can levy is that the first texture disappeared as fast as it appeared. The second movement, The Tree with the Lights on It, which was the interlude of the ceremony, consequently gave the clarinet more to do; Benoit played wonderfully in this setting. Far staider than the processional, small surprising and unexpected, but entirely welcome, orchestraional and harmonic changes occurred throughout, holding interest in stasis. This work highlights something important: Caplan is a strong melodist, and any melody that he has the opportunity to shape will stick with the audience for a long time.
Zdorovetchi took center stage for Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, a strong and vibrant showpiece for the harp. Zdorovetchi took control of the ensemble; her strong musicianship and virtuosity led the audience on a hypnotic journey through the harp’s earth-shattering world. Displaying a presence this reviewer could not believe possible, she turned the harp into a true choir as opposed to one tutti voice. The colors she extracted from her instrument shimmered on top of the strings and drifted into our midst like a ventriloquist’s voice.
Adagio for Clarinet and Strings by German clarinet virtuoso Heinrich Baermann stuck out against the tenderness of Hanson, the melodies of Caplan, and the mind-bending colors of Ravel; Baermann’s strings and clarinet air, while a satisfying and interesting mash of early Romanticism with late Classicism, hardly went beyond that. Benoit played well in it, though, acting as a voice in the distance singing. Baermann’s Adagio showed off the lyrical quality of Beniot’s clarinet, but the praise stops there.
Gyorgy Ligeti’s Old Hungarian Ballroom Dances must have been tinged with biting criticism of Soviet Realism. Unlike a lot of other Ligeti compositions, this one tended to interrupt major sections of new material with older stuff, swinging back and forth with the grace of a limping ox. The sectional nature felt deliberate, parodying how the lesser Soviet composers transitioned between modernism and folk melodies in order to win Stalin’s praise. Feltner seemed aware of this fact, adding a pinch of tongue-in-cheek humor to his interpretation by cementing the rigid, ungraceful section changes. Ligeti created a wonderful folk-like sound from the pairing of violin and clarinet. Dimmick and Benoit unerringly locked in together with surprising ease and with balance.
“Touch her soft lips and part” from William Walton’s score to Henry V showed how well muted strings could blend together. Thanks to how Walton and his arranger Muir Mathieson set the voices, the string quintet became a pocket symphonic sound. Over as fast as it began, the work’s melodic motion evoked a film score as it turned a melody into the driving force of the movement and wrapped up as a lovely miniature. This miniature also showed how lyrical Feltner could be as a conductor, letting the ensemble do the work, guiding them along rather than controlling them.
Aria in Classic Style by world-renown harpist Marcel Grandjany once again brought Zdorovetchi into the soloist role. This time, however, the solo voice flowed as a constant stream on top of every texture. Zdorovetchi let her instrument ring out over the strings’ support. When Grandjany asked the harp produce only the countermelody, it covered the strings and held them back. It’s difficult for the performers to overcome this composed imbalance.
Composer-in-residence Robert Edward Smith orchestrated Sir Edward Elgar’s Salut d’amour. Expanding from the original violin part, Smith smartly parceled the main melody out to the flute as well, broadening the color palette. Dimmick and Brady shared the line akin to a pair of vocal soloists, bringing contrasting sounds to the same material. The rest of the ensemble accompanied attentively and delicately, providing a soft landing for the evening, after clocking in another short run time.
The Chamber Orchestra of Boston seems smart to be adding a few winds and other guests. Here’s hoping this style of programming continues to open up its particular sound world.