The Boston Chamber Music Society’s foray in to “virtual concerts” leaves me in a conundrum. “BCMS@Home” was… premiered? released? on Sunday night. One of three such events in the ensembles fall “season,” it consists of pre-recorded streams. For $15, one can obtain 14 days of access to a recently produced 73-minute video and about an hour of archival audio from 2017 and 2019.
The primary responsibility of a critic who attends live concerts is to bear witness. The time spent turning one’s impressions into a block of text is justified by the belief that you are performing a service: providing a report for those that weren’t there; acting as sounding board for those who were; and recording an event in a career for the performers. Today, I am confronted with a product much like all other internet content, and I hesitate to simply provide a buyer’s guide. For $15, the truly curious can probably spend their money and take their chances without needing me to tell them to.
One tries to meet the object of criticism on its own grounds. BCMS apparently intends for this “virtual event” to bring a familiar and comforting BCMS experience to those who have been missing it. If I have that right, I can tell you with confidence that it succeeds in that effort. Thirty minutes of the video are dedicated to interviews conducted by BCMS Artistic Director Marcus Thompson with the two BCMS members who play in the videos: violist Dimitri Murrath, who recorded a performance of George Enescu’s Concertstuck in Seoul with pianist Hyeyeon Park; and violinist Yura Lee, who recorded Beethoven’s Violin Sonata Op. 96 in Portland, Oregon with pianist Julio Elizade. The interviews are lightweight: chatty and inessential. While the music is touched on, the emphasis is on the everyday lives of the performers. One learns how Murrath has been quarantining in Asia the last few months. Lee speaks of the stress of living through the wildfires in the west, and tells us the name of her new dog. Thompson discloses where he’s been walking these days. More seriously, all the musicians speak emotionally of their deep desire to connect once again in a concert hall, with the audience and with each other.
The repertoire also provided comfort: the Enescu is the closest thing to a novelty. He wrote it in his 20s as a competition piece for students at the Paris Conservatoire. Murrath says that unlike many such examples it doesn’t just “check the boxes.” Perhaps not: it is work of graceful but modest melodic invention with some fuzzy exoticism. Nevertheless, only its original purpose explains the obligatory outbursts of technique that are abruptly tear into the fabric of the work. Murrath handles them with ease. Its eight or nine minutes pass pleasantly by with just enough brightwork to reassure you that you’re seeing and hearing a true professional musician.
Lee’s Beethoven is a calm and reasonable one. Compared to its predecessors, Op. 96 has a superficially smoother surface, and this performance polishes and buffs that surface to a gorgeous finish. But aren’t there dark clouds in the first movement; could some dramatic sense be made of the brutally foreshortened scherzo; and isn’t there some humor in the variations at the end?
Once the video ends, one is left with a screen with a little underlined link at the bottom saying “BCMS@Home Fall 2020 Ep. 1” – from there you move to the “audio only” portion of your event, a private Soundcloud channel containing Mozart: the K. 493 Piano Quartet from 2017 and K. 515 String Quartet put down in 2019.
I imagine anyone who has read this far already knows what they think of this. If you love the BCMS, want to support them, and only ask for a representative sample of their work in return for your $15, please go to their ticketing site and stop reading now…
…because I can’t help finding this disappointing. The BCMS is not renowned for making risky choices in repertoire or interpretation, often choosing to value beauty over inquiry. Maybe it is unfair to have hoped for more interesting pieces or more challenging readings. But in a crowded marketplace of recordings, who would want to spend $15 for temporary access to this good but unremarkable collection of the familiar? Perhaps it would be someone who wants to feel what Yura Lee felt when listening to herself perform on the Mozart presented here. She described it as “living vicariously through [herself].” That must be the feeling that the BCMS hopes to engender by providing more than half of the music on the program through old performances (I am not willing to do detailed reviews of concerts from the past. The curious might see if there are any reviews written at the time out there, perhaps by people more sympathetic than I to the BCMS aesthetic). At a time when we all miss live performance, I can understand how a BCMS regular might be attracted to the possibility of listening to a familiar concert from the past. I can certainly imagine being willing to spend money to live vicariously through myself. The BCMS isn’t the place I would go to do that, but perhaps there are enough people who would, to make this effort a success.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.