IN: Reviews

On the Edges of Principal Chairs


James Sommerville seemed pleased. (Robert Torres photo)

What blissful, Vienna-centered divertissements Boston Symphony Chamber Players dispensed at Jordan Hall yesterday afternoon, during which time we compared the 16-year-old Mahler with the 19-year-old Schubert, saluted a fleet-of-foot 94-year-old whose work sounded the youngest of all, and imagined a monkey and organ grinder.

At the age of 19 in 1816, Schubert penned one of the dozen or so inspired works for string trio. Haldan Martinson, violin; Steven Ansell, viola; and Blaise Déjardin, cello gave the single movement in B-flat major D. 471 a caressing embrace of both classical restraint and bursting intensity, imbibing and sharing the architectural perfection. Schubert’s bittersweet nostalgia, already fully formed, must have given the players a delightful chance to unwind after Mahler 6th the night before.

“World War II neatly bifurcated the arc of composer Hans Gál’s life: born near Vienna, he left Austria in 1938 at age 4 and, from 1939, lived the final 48 years of his life in Edinburgh,” Robert Kirzinger wrote. “His music was comparatively conservative and abidingly tonal, more akin to the late- Romantic style of Hugo Wolf, Zemlinsky and early Schoenberg than to the chromatically saturated works of his older contemporaries Berg and Webern.” We found his Serenade for clarinet, violin and cello op. 95 to be immensely agreeable. The four mood movements, Cantabile, Burletta, Intermezzo, and Giocoso shared and developed melodic ideas within a somewhat Schumannesque arc—puckish, songful, deep in turn. We sometimes thought of a comic Pierrot and other times of the dying Petrushka. William Hudgins’s clarinet sang long, lyric lines, but also channeled sly mockery. Hudgins shared the spotlight with Haldan Martinson, who was intoning with more juiciness than in the more restrained Schubert. Gal gave the cello a somewhat subordinate role, but cellist Blaise Déjardin, as always, found an emotional line to share. Gál’s Serenade left us with a knowing wink and a sigh.

Yehudi Wyner’s Into the evening air for wind quintet, one of four short works commissioned for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ 50th-Anniversary Season and premiered by the ensemble on February 9, 2014, in Jordan Hall, represented the single detour from Vienna centricity…though it carried a whiff of a distant Darmstadt warmed by temperate airs. Wyner wrote in 2014:

Into the evening air was evoked by an elegiac late poem by Wallace Stevens, an expression of tentative directness and elusive simplicity. Yet despite the elements of abstraction that infiltrate the poem, the overall atmosphere is loving and profoundly consoling. The final lines project a feeling of fulfilled resolution, a sense of ultimate tranquility. I wrote this little wind quintet with no knowledge of the poem. I labored to find an apt title. All manner of references to “5” were explored and rejected. And then for reasons unknown, my wife Susan Davenny Wyner suggested this poem of Wallace Stevens, fashioned in the twilight of his life. Something essential in the progression of the poem resonated with the trajectory of the quintet, especially as it seeks a conclusion of quiet affirmation rather than a resigned sense of loss. The poem, entitled “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” begins with the phrase, “Light the first light of evening…” and ends with these words: ‘Out of this same light, out of the central mind, We make a dwelling in the evening air/ In which being there together is enough.’

Piquant pointillism intensified into agitation, with some keening, almost Hebraic urgency. More contrapuntal than chordal generally, the five lines showed tremendous independence and effective characterization. That said, James Sommerville, found his own signature dark and deep place within some pungent, distant chromaticism, reminding me of his interpretation of the Britten Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. A flutter-tongue moment seemed to open the door for a quiet summons to Elijah. We are still waiting.

It’s hardly news that the 16-year-old Gustav Mahler would be no match for the 20ish Schubert. When I asked a certain composer in the crowd if the single completed movement of Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor (I Nicht zu schnell) had been published, he opined that “…it shouldn’t have been. He had a couple of nice ideas but didn’t know what to do with them, and the piano writing had no sonority or savor.” Yet, the players, with pianist David Deveau joining, gave a very warm traversal with juicy slides and plenty of dramatic advocacy for Mahler’s adolescent hormones. If the performance seemed to overwhelm its materials, details, such as Deveau’s brilliant scales in octaves (after we got tired of his repeated chords) and Martinson’s short but spiritually huge cadenza rewarded us. A big ritard and diminuendo, two short chords, and it vanished.

Yehudi Wyner thanks players (Robert Torres photo)

So here’s a buried lede. I got to see and sometimes hear my harmonium join the big folks on the Jordan Hall stage. The chamber arrangements prepared for the so-called Schoenberg Verein often included the harmonium as ensemble glue or to cover absent wind parts. In the best such arrangements, such as for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, or his Songs of a Wayfarer, that instrument becomes almost essential. And yet, it is a retiring domestic wheezebox which rarely attracts much attention to itself. I joked with the contingent during rehearsals that I could bring my monkey and turn a crank, but Vytas Baksys did get enough sound out of the instrument if one listened carefully to Webern’s arrangement of Strauss’s Schatzwalzer op. 418. The players, having unburdened themselves of any restraint, shoveled on the Schlagg, aiming for and achieving the proper Viennese tricks of timing. The big accelerando at the end would have required some smelling salts from the old nobles at the balls.

Perhaps because he had a real flute and oboe at his disposal instead of the pale imitation from the harmonium, Schoenberg found more color and life in his transcription of the Kaiserwalzer op. 437; this was much more than a knockoff for a benefit. He added enough layers and colors to keep us interested until the next item on our dance card. The players, unabashedly fruity-frothy, leaned forward and gave edge-of seats accounts which piled on the fun. What an era…but we know how it ended.

And apropos of endings of eras, BSO CP clarinetist William Hudgins told a shocked audience that James Sommerville had just appeared in their midst for the last time. An emotional ovation ensued. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from management about Jamie’s sad, impending retirement from the BSO.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer


Haldan Martinson, violin        Elizabeth Rowe, flute

Steven Ansell, viola                 John Ferrillo, oboe

Blaise Déjardin, cello               William R. Hudgins, clarinet

Edwin Barker, double bass      Richard Svoboda, bassoon

James Sommerville, horn

with BSO members Elita Kang, violin Elizabeth Klein, flute
and with
David Deveau, piano
Vytas Baksys, harmonium






3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The BSO posted an audition notice for Principal Horn some months back, so Jamie Sommerville’s impending retirement is not a total surprise. Applications were due at the end of vJuly, and auditions are this week.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — October 24, 2022 at 6:13 pm

  2. Who are the BSO concertmaster finalists?

    Comment by Michael Blim — October 29, 2022 at 10:38 am

  3. Has there been any notice from the BSO regarding Sommerville’s retirement? Usually principal players retire at the end of a season, yes? Is JS ill? Is there friction between JS and the Music Director? Does anyone know? Does anyone know what’s next on JS’s agenda? Mr. Sommerville may have a few peers among principal horn players, but no superiors.

    Comment by Daniel Farber — November 11, 2022 at 5:20 pm

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