The Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert on Sunday afternoon was a somewhat unusual affair in that the usual orientation of programming was reversed: just one 19th-century piece (and an uncommon one at that), one 20th-century classic, and two, count ‘em, two 21st-century works, including a premiere.
The opener was Samuel Barber’s ever-popular Summer Music, op. 31, for wind quintet, whose wistful music paralleled the wistfulness, or was it cheek, of programming it in the bleak midwinter. Its breathtaking security in herding the timbral cats of the woodwind family plus French horn into a mellifluous sonic unit belies the fact that it was his one and only composition for winds; the man was nothing if not a quick study. While the BSCP ensemble, comprising flute Elizabeth Rowe, oboe John Ferrillo, clarinet William Hudgins, horn Richard Sebring, and bassoon Richard Svoboda, offered no new insights into this masterpiece (for our money it surpasses even the Nielsen Quintet as the finest work of the genre), the sumptuous tone from everyone (special nod to Ferrillo), the perfect balance of sonorities, dynamic brilliance (hat tip to Sebring), and one noticeably perfect rallentando, made it a thoroughly satisfying performance.
The first half closed with the premiere of Five Reflections on Water by Russo-British composer Elena Langer (b. 1974). It was commissioned by BSCP with funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council (crotchety aside: can’t the BSO afford to fund its own commissions, without taking taxpayer money that could go to smaller ensembles?). Langer’s intention, after discarding an earlier idea for five “songs without words,” was to create an atmospheric and pictorial sequence inspired by aquatic venues in which she swam following her successful treatment for cancer. Interestingly, the title of the set, perhaps toying with Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, came after the composition was finished. She has called on the full resources of BSCP, with the winds named above joined by a string quartet comprising Haldan Martinson and Alexander Velinzon, violins, Steven Ansell, viola, Blaise Déjardin, cello, plus Edwin Barker, bass. For a new piece with this chamber-stretching roll call a conductor was deemed expedient, and the BSO’s associate conductor Ken-David Masur filled that role admirably, with a fluidity of gesture that complemented the musical ones.
The first movement was a surprisingly brief prelude that was largely static but which bounced alternatingly jagged and mellifluous melodic ideas on a surface of sliding string figurations. This proceeded, attacca, to a classically riverine flowing section that sometimes suggested Smetana, but which in any event had its own brilliance—excellent use of the bass’s depth to counterbalance the fleet surface. The third movement was, for some reason, a quirky waltz (have we moved down the Danube to Vienna?) full of fractured melodic snippets and hesitations. The composer calls the fourth movement “jolly and dancey,” but it seemed to us more purposive and driven, with sharp staccatos punctuating a moving line that comes to an abrupt end. The finale, which gets no description other than a metronome marking, is placid with chirping piccolo and arpeggiated clarinet cuckoos, before a return to the sliding strings of the opening. These five scenes are charming watercolors rather than strongly daubed oils; there are no titanic forces, but a series of reveries. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and the performance seemed fully engaged and communicative. The audience responded warmly to the ensemble and the composer.
This was the first time we have heard a professional performance of Rossini’s Duetto in D for cello and bass, which opened the second half. Unlike most of his other abstract music, this number was written, in 1824, while the composer was in the thick of his operatic output. It was commissioned by English businessman, politician and amateur cellist David Salomons for a party at which Rossini would be the guest of honor. Because the Salomons family kept the manuscript as an heirloom until 1968, it is perhaps less well known than Rossini’s post-operatic “sins of old age;” another factor is the need for a virtuoso bassist, which Edwin Barker most certainly is, and he and Déjardin brilliantly executed the rapid-fire passagework of the Duetto’s outer movements and the tender lyricism of its slow movement. Not only that, these performers gave the entire work not only flash and polish, but genuine depth.
As pleasant a surprise as the Rossini was, the best surprise of the afternoon was the performance of Michael Gandolfi’s 2005 septet (for the Beethoven Septet ensemble of clarinet, horn, bassoon, string trio and bass) Plain Song, Fantastic Dances. This was commissioned by Boston’s St. Botolph Club for BSCP to commemorate the former’s 125th anniversary. Gandolfi, chair of New England Conservatory’s composition department, is well known for incorporating a variety of exogenous interests into his compositional process, including scientific concepts and historical ones. He mined the latter for Plain Song, taking as his inspiration the 7th century missionary for whom the club, the street along which NEC backs, and the Lincolnshire town of Boston (Bot’s Town)—and hence our own fair city—are named. The first movement, entitled St. Botolph’s Fantasia, is grounded on a Gregorian plainsong and a French Gothic organum based on it, though the tune seems not to have any direct association with St. Botolph. After a brief introduction, the tune is fairly clearly stated in the clarinet, then tossed about, developing in a contrapuntal variational manner. It sounds like updated Vaughan Williams through a Stravinskyan lens, and is quite brilliant. Instead of a slow movement, there follows “Tango Blue,” which is more blue (notes, that is) than tango, but is immensely witty; the ensemble sound in this movement was superb, not that it was lacking anywhere else. The finale, called “Quick Step,” is also a bit puzzling because it spends a lot of its highly contrapuntal time in a jig-like 6/8, before ultimately returning to the plainsong opening. The description here is somewhat abbreviated because BSCP recorded it in 2011, and you can hear it here.
It seemed clear that BSCP has made this piece its own (though anyone curious to hear another take can check out Chamber Orchestra of Boston’s upcoming performance on March 9). They’ve played it a few times since its premiere, and will be taking it to Europe this May. It is, to our ears, an attractive, solidly constructed, sonically compelling piece worth a place in the standard repertoire for this instrumental configuration, which in truth is not very large: after the Beethoven, there are major contributions by Franz Berwald and Max Bruch, and maybe a dozen more.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.