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Mendelssohn, Rakowski, Dvořák, and BCMS


Alyssa Wang, multi-talented conductor, violinist, and composer, featured as a guest artist on violin alongside regular members of the Boston Chamber Music Society at Jordan Hall last Sunday. Mendelssohn’s Piano Quartet in F minor began the show with Marcus Thompson on viola, Raman Ramakrishnan on cello, and Max Levinson on piano. The 14-year-old Mendelssohn’s quartet calls for a light, unified touch. Wang, through her perceptive and impeccable playing, idiomatically invigorated Mendelssohn’s intentions, yet her position as newcomer caused her soloistic sound to stick out. Thompson often elegantly initiated a phrase, only to have his shapely phrasing dropped when Wang picked up the melody. No doubt Wang gave a radiant account of her part, but the ensemble’s intentions occasionally split as Wang’s voice stepped over the rest.

While Levinson sounded impassioned and heart-wrenching at the keyboard, his heavy, tempestuous style conflicted with the composer’s playfulness. Often the piano felt alone in a separate stormy world, failing to mesh with the lightness of the strings. Having the piano lid at full rather than half stick also likely did not help with blending. For all his furor, it was no surprise that Levinson’s best moments in the Mendelssohn came in his solos, which beautifully brought out rich colors and lines through an attentiveness to the oft-neglected inner voice.

The multiple thought-provoking interpretations from individual players seemed to lack a shared interpretational intention.

For David Rakowski’s 2016 Quintet for Oboe and Strings, Entre Nous, Peggy Pearson on oboe and Jennifer Frautschi on second violin joined the ensemble. It opened in rhythmically split pizzicato string playing that gradually built to unison bowing before the oboe entered. The timbrally distinct oboe naturally stood out, often rhythmically dancing on-top of the texture the strings maintained, which created a rhythmic and timbral counterpoint. After establishing and reiterating a harmonically foreign texture, the first movement ended on a tonally ambiguous chord, thereby abruptly fizzling the textural spell.

The second movement began similarly to the first, with wailing violins gradually coalescing into a melodic line. For this movement the strings strove to be unnoticed and create a hypnotic texture that the oboe could sing on top of. The oboe’s lines spoke in technical simplicity and euphonious sentiment. As the composer noted that the movement is “designed to highlight oboist Peggy Pearson’s marvelous playing,” the performance held a sublime effectiveness. Pearson’s dulcet tones helped serve as guide to the foreign textural landscape that the strings created, fully ascending art to transformation as a separate musical world briefly became conjured in Jordan Hall.

David Rakowsky (file photo0

The final movement held a similar tone to the first two, but now in the guise of a scherzo. Pearson and second violinist Frautschi awed the most in this movement with their exact balance on unison exposed lines of high, melodic long-tones. The entire work ended much like the first movement, on an ambiguous chord suddenly ending the spell. The balance between the strings proved much better than in the Mendelssohn, as they maintained the hypnotic effect to support the oboe. Through their cohesion they never encroached on the oboe’s distinctive voice.

Levinson returned with Frautschi and Ramakrishman for Dvořák’s Piano Trio in F Minor. The late-Romantic drama of the Dvořák perfectly suited Levinson’s style; he evoked explosive transcendence amidst Dvořák’s discursive chromaticism. Frautschi sounded at home within the ensemble and helped foster a unified whole. Once again, the second movement showcased Levinson’s talent in bringing out the inner lines on the piano, now to greater effect as his style harmonized with the composer’s.

In the third movement, an impassioned cello solo from Ramakrishman stole the show. Levinson also stood out with a false conclusion leading into a raging piano cadenza. The last movement then fittingly allowed for a grand payoff of Levinson’s incendiary energy, with grandiose Romantic chords pounding the night into a finale.

The essential BCMS will bring Brahms, Schubert, and Berg to Sanders on March 12th.

Matthew Winkler is studying music and history at Tufts university. He is a composer and researcher who also plays jazz and classical trumpet. 

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