In the Mood Programmatically

Scott Wheeler at Rockport  in 2010 (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Last Sunday afternoon’s Boston Artists Ensemble concert of programmatic music at St. Paul’s Church Brookline provided sheer delight. Scott Wheeler’s new Songs Without Words for cello and piano shone between Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello and Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F Minor, and the three pieces related well, thematically, tonally, emotionally, and calling for similar technical virtuosity. An earlier performance took place Friday in Salem. St. Paul’s was packed, as reportedly, was Salem. Violinist Lucia Lin and cellist Jonathan Miller are members of the BSO, while pianist Diane Wash has a career as recitalist worldwide.

Wheeler noted that his studio at Yaddo, the artist colony in upstate New York where he wrote the piece, stands “in the woods by a stream.” Miller commissioned the piece, so Wheeler decided to evoke what he called the hallmark of Jonathan Miller’s playing, his cello’s singing tone as well as the surroundings of the studio. The first movement, “Among the Trees,” begins with a rush of notes, then a rocking passage that seemed to harken to Copland. But it was not long before the water motif entered, in a shimmering stream of a descending arpeggio from the piano. It sparkled. The second movement, “Forest at Night,” was dark and mysterious, with punctuating, playful syncopation from both piano and cello. In the impressive legato section that followed, the duo played a prowling motif that verged on instilling fear, or dread. In the third movement, the Barcarolle, the cello was more demonstrably singing, with fluttering from the piano. Then back to quiet poignancy, highlighted by a switch to a major key (the cello held a C sharp, as the piano moved from A-flat major to A-major), that seemed to open up the world.

Lucia Lin, the violinist, is an amazing musician. Her playing was superbly expressive throughout the concert. She and cellist Jonathan Miller often play together, which is obvious in the easy rapport between them. Their performance of the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello was beautifully balanced, both complementing each other in the back-and-forth exchange of thematic material, from pizzicatos, cello rumblings, riveting legato, fugue-like passages, and rustic, jaunty Kodaly-like dance themes.

The intensely emotional Dvořák trio shifts dramatically from tempestuous outbursts to quiet gentleness. The first movement also highlighted the symbiosis between Miller and Lin, as cello and piano passed the melody back and forth. In the second movement with its rustic peasant dance, Lin’s superbly expressive, sonorous playing stood out. After the riotous fff at the conclusion, the ensemble issues in a mournful third movement, with a dirge-like theme from the cello. The piano shone, under Walsh’s sensitive playing. The fourth movement opened with extended con brio entry, with its stomping octave-jumps, then periodically interspersed more gentle expansive passages, before closing with vigor.

Music lovers will have another chance to hear Wheeler’s Songs Without Words at a Mother’s Day concert on Sunday, May 13th at 3pm at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center. (Rockport Music had commissioned Scott Wheeler’s Granite Coast for the opening of the Center on June 10th, 2010.)

Bettina A. Norton, emerita editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

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  • I was unable to attend my subscription concert in Salem, so I'm looking forward to attending the not-quite-premiere of "Songs Without Words" in Rockport.