The Boston Chamber Music Society returned to Sanders Theater on Sunday night with a concert of classics that encouraged its listeners to reserve their tickets early for its next performance. Artistic Director and charter member Marcus Thompson greeted the audience with humor before announcing some of the season’s upcoming highlights. These include the Boston premiere of a John Harbison sonata for viola and piano as well as the world premiere of a Joan Tower composition which the Society commissioned.
With all the freshness of a bursting grape violinist Alexi Kenney, cellist Edward Arron, and pianist Max Levinson rolled the opening chords of Haydn’s Piano Trio in C Major Hob XV: 27. This freshness ran throughout the night as the true spirit of chamber music collaboration overflowed from the stage. Initially, none of the members of the trio claimed the spotlight as they amiably traded phrase fragments. Eventually, the brilliance of the piano became the main attraction of the movement as Levinson glided through running triplets and octaves. The group clearly embraced Haydn’s sense of humor and gleefully made no effort to soften the movement’s interjecting grace note motifs. Whether intentionally or not, the attention Levinson brought to these grace notes in the dominant harmony preparation of the (false) recap, delivered Haydn’s two-note, half-step motif as a cheeky motivic development of the grace notes heard throughout.
In the second movement, one first began to understand the keen elegance of Kenney’s musicianship. Where some would treat the genre of piano trio as an instrumentation for three soloists, Kenney discerningly chose his moments to fulfill the roles of accompanist, singer, and poet. Arron brought his own charm to the movement as his cello lines were imbued with a warm grandfatherly nobility. In the numerous cadential extensions at the end of the movement, the strings searched for non-vibrato and other varied sounds to find nuances within the movement’s pleasant expression.
The trio sprang into the final movement with the familiar energetic message of so many classical period finales: “It’s over after this one!” Each player displayed such facile brilliance however, that one hardly wished the movement to end. Kenney’s sonic palette had shone in the previous two movements but here he truly impressed as he joined Levinson in zipping through some rapid figuration. As the movement skipped at breakneck speed to its close, the trio quarreled, sang, mocked each other, and embraced. Indeed, after such an invigorating performance, we felt sad to bid farewell to Haydn.
The Shostakovich G Minor Piano Quintet Op. 57 shifted the style dramatically. It opens in a texture evoking nothing less than two dueling antiphonal orchestras. Shostakovich’s juxtaposition of the piano and the string quartet is severe and to my ear, Levinson’s slightly relaxed opening missed an opportunity to defy the impending arrival of the quartet. Violist Dimitri Murrath made his first appearance of the night with a beautifully wooded tone in his opening solo. When the piano’s strong bass reentered later in the movement, Levinson provided the necessary defiance to oppose the quadrupled barreled unison melody of the quartet.
The beginning of any fugue is a moment of reverent anticipation but as Kenney played it, the opening of the second movement took on a poetic dimension as if this music were coming from a lonesome harmonica drifting in from the dark Fens. Arron and second violinist Yura Lee provided a variety of sonic support as their blend could produce searing fortes and such colored softer dynamics as one would expect from a Janacek or Ravel quartet. Levinson showed an ingenious ability to calibrate exactly how his sound should blend into the group texture. Any pianist familiar with piano quintets understands the trickiness of this feat. After the movement’s climax, Kenney’s silver tone quelled the fugue into a weary retreat. With the first silence since the first movement began, bleakness made the hall feel covered in ash.
After composing themselves, the musicians slammed the door open to some fantastic masked ball with Quasimodo, Scarbo, and Pan all in attendance. Shostakovich is a composer of extremes, and if the opening feels is, the third movement produces utter delirium. The quintet played as if they were a bullet of pure energy and the movement ended in the same wild breath with which it had begun. Shostakovich clearly meant this dance to begin unapologetically since the dance of the fifth movement is prepared with a soft piano introduction. In certain moments, Levinson showed an accommodating quality that, while it appeared as elegant and thoughtful in the Haydn, could be a bit out of place in the Shostakovich. Veiled and well blended, the five concluded with the eeriness of ghosts left to sweep the stage after a grand drama.
It took a moment, then, to adjust to the delightful opening of Mozart’s C Major Viola Quintet K. 515, in which Marcus Thompson joined on second viola. What is the nature of the violin’s opening gesture in this famous piece? Is it a question? Is it a brief remark to some passerby on the street? Lee made it an aspirational request for the rest of the ensemble to join the fun. Strangely, some somewhat timid moments from Lee ensued, but when the group repeated the exposition, she fell more naturally into her role as the leader. Arron proved the cello rudder throughout the development and as the recap arrived, brought a more biting quality to his rising arpeggiated figures. The many rapid character changes capped off in a prince and the pauper moment toward the end when the cello and violin played each other’s earlier lines.
Throughout the remainder of the Mozart, a stylistic conundrum perplexed me. Opera offers room for the beauty of the composer’s music as well as the diva’s self expression. Musicians who are not singers don’t always allow themselves such latitude. What then does one do in interpreting purely instrumental music of a composer so fundamentally rooted in the stage? This group unambiguously leaned toward the aesthetic of the stage as countless characters flitted through the work with the excitement of Cost fan tutte. That approach requires nothing less than excellence from the performers, and this is precisely what the audience received.
By this point, Lee was fully enjoying herself. She and Kenney, her long-time collaborator, exchanged grinning looks as they added layer after layer of nuance and charm. The joy of the final movement recalled the Haydn and how well Levinson’s passagework would fit into this movement. The concert ended with numerous well-deserved call backs as this was music making of the highest caliber. BCMS confidently embarked on a new season that promises to continue a tradition of fresh, exciting, and generous music making.
Pierre-Nicolas B. Colombat is a pianist, writer, and concert organizer. Having studied at BU and NEC, he endeavors to connect local musicians through concerts, essays, a podcast, and founding the Boston Community Studio Class.