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Luminous Recompositions with Fermata


Yip Wai Chow (Sam Brewer photo)

Aurora: Recomposed, a vivacious presentation of two “recompositions” at the First Parish Dorchester, closed Fermata Chamber Soloist’s fifth season, featuring violinist Yip Wai Chow for Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi — The Four Seasons alongside the expert string soloists in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Fermata displayed precise musicality, lively passion, and expert coordination.

Fermata spotlighted Max Richter’s 2012 recast of Vivaldi’s music in contemporary flair. Artistic director Thomas Cooper described the re-composition as a mix of multiple genres including minimalism, techno, and even pop, and he introduced Yip Wai Chou as the violin soloist, a founding member of Fermata.

Richter augmented the original’s strings and harpsichord with a harpist. The orchestra started to tune, but gradually the sounds of tuning seamlessly transitioned into the shifting patterns and sounds of Spring. Drawing his bow, Chow entered as bright sunlight, briskly chirping, shining over a bed of steady chords in the lower strings. The action slowed in the middle movement. Soulful yet not overdramatic, Chow produced a clear tone without overuse of vibrato. A slow urgency unfolded over streams of dancing rhythms, an ebb and flow stretching out immensely over time. The last movement alternated between a high, jig-like figure and more subdued, long tones. Though not all of the high notes sang out securely, a fervent energy generally prevailed. Fermata created a trance of surging energies, blooming into moments made more important by its awareness of their impermanence. Fleeting as an April blossom, the colors of spring were fleeting but explosive in time and memory.

Summer emerged with the languor of solstice-kissed heat, which transitioned into a faster, pop-like groove. Chow presided as a lone voice in a storm of strings, persevering in strength within the shifting and singing harmonies. A set of somber harmonies suddenly interrupted the flow, underpinned by a classic (well, Baroque) lament bass. In Chow’s voice one found a sorrow and loss; lead cellist Alex Fowler added grieving echoes in a dolorous duet, the two calling plaintively to each other. Richter transformed the final tempest with added accents and dynamic swells. Fermata rocked through the circle of fifths with driving ardor. Though the tempo felt just a bit labored, Chow and Fermata portrayed the thunder and torrents of summer with gusto.

Richter’s Autumn danced with rhythmic irregularities, skipping beats while preserving Vivaldi’s genial crispness. Fermata’s musicians leaned into these playful quirks of time, while also providing interjections of melancholy signs of cold creeping upon us, winds continuing to flow and breathe. In the following movement, Chow delivered a genuine expression of grief, aided by suspensions well-emphasized by the violas. The violins layered in high dissonant drones, a stinging reminder of a pain not yet forgotten, a wound yet to be healed. Amidst a chorale of strings, some slow arpeggios in the harpsichord foreshadowed the darkening months. Though the instrument was a bit out of tune with the orchestra (or was the orchestra out of tune with the harpsichord?), Esther Ning Yau’s subtly expressive timing and touch elevated these simple figures. Finally, in the closing movement, Fermata filled the hall with an electric hope, yet it faded quickly as it came, a burst of light in the dark.

Ponticello shivers introduced Winter. Chow tackled the virtuosic solo’s unforgiving and uncompromising arpeggios and runs gracefully. A fury of fiery cold ensued, intensified by 7/16 bars added to throw off the rhythmic pulse. Then, as if the shimmering fabrics of the titular aurora, a blanket of high harmonics materialized, under which Chow presented a stirring soliloquy. A revelation, widening eyes, an opening heart under a kaleidoscope sky, fizzling out gradually into a quiet tremble. The third and final movement began with falling notes, grounding our ears, as Chow iced the air with a fluttering figure. Again a gorgeous sense of urgency arose, and now an awareness of finality, flurries floating faintly westward, falling across the tightly united ensemble before fading into pristine nothingness.

Having only heard the first movement of Winter through the lovely Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table,” it was a real treat to hear the entirety of Richter’s Four Seasons for the first time. Chow’s music came across with freshness and inspiration, combining real pathos and technical excellence with respect and restraint fitting for a Baroque and neo-Baroque aesthetic. Exemplary as an ensemble, Fermata also understood when to act in support to Chow and when to stand out as individuals.

After a small break, Fermata primed the audience for Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis by presenting the Renaissance composition Vaughan Williams quoted: Thomas Tallis’s Why Fum’th in Sight, a setting of a metered version of the Second Psalm. A choir delivered this stately chorale with holy polyphony marked by ambiguity between major and minor. Sometimes ensemble did not line up consonants, and the ending felt abrupt, but the choir portrayed the sacred, pious atmosphere, and we benefited from hearing the source of Vaughan Williams’s composition.

Fermata brought the grand opening chords of the Fantasia into the church in full, resonant glory, carrying out Vaughan Williams’s rich sonorities with vivacity and warmth. Fermata’s ensemble playing in this piece truly impressed, especially given the setup: an orchestra in the front and an orchestra in the balcony behind the audience. Even without a conductor, Fermata performed with sturdy coordination, with visible communication among musicians not only close to each other, but also across the distanced groups. Musician owned their individual artistries as pieces in the polyphonic puzzle.

Vaughan Williams’s composition allowed for wonderful moments of spatial and contrapuntal delight. The antiphonal call-and-responses between the front and back orchestras sounded with heaven-facing piety. The Fantasia features a quartet of solo parts, in the classic string quartet arrangement, the soloists also lead their respective sections. Violist Samuel Zacharia began his solo passage first, flowing smoothly with warm devotion. Cooper’s violin strains followed, ethereal yet substantial, living in faith and hope. Fowler’s cello underlined the ensemble, deep and full-bodied, and violinist Sophia Szokolay joined with supportive strength, fitting flawlessly into the quartet. Even as three sub-groups, Fermata portrayed Vaughan Williams’s rivers of kind beauty as a united front, emanating a divine reverence.

A glorious buildup grew into an all-encompassing climax, brimming with light in the First Parish, urged on by Cooper’s steady and strong leadership. This glowing spirit descended into a nocturnal hum, painted poignantly by Fermata’s coordinated, honest blend. The final G major chord reverberated, golden, living, before gradually receding in physical presence ― but not in memory.

The musicians’ solid rhythmic and expressive coordination resulted in artistic faithfulness and commitment to Vaughan Williams’s celestial visions, letting us take away a positive augury for Fermata’s future efforts. The next season promises pieces by Sibelius and Glass for violin and string orchestra, Dvořák’s American Quintet, Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, and Debussy’s Violin Sonata. Looking forward!

Julian Gau is a Boston-based conductor, currently pursuing a master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the Boston Conservatory. He serves as founder and conductor of the Horizon Ensemble, and resident conductor of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. He holds degrees in music and mathematics from Brown University.

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