Archives (2008-2010)

BOSTON WAGNER SOCIETY: "Exquisite Love Duets & Solos"
HESPERION XXI: “Jerusalem: The City of the Two Peaces”
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON: Beethoven, Schoenberg, Webern, Kirchner, Brahms
RADIUS ENSEMBLE: Poulenc, Ewazen, Brahms
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON: Fine, Larsen, Boulez, Sarasate, Brahms
THE EMERSON STRING QUARTET: Ives, Janácek, Shostakovich, Barber
FREISINGER CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: Music of Suk, Morrill, Britten, and Wiren
BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT. Music of Antheil, Varèse, and Harrison
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Mozart, Takemitsu, Debussy, and Messiaen
Portland Museum of Art (Portland, ME) Joyce Tenneson: Polaroid Portraits (July 11, 2009 - October 4, 2009) and For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron (July 4, 2009 - September 7, 2009) CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Schumann, Takemitsu, Pärt, Fauré, and Korde
CANTATA SINGERS. Works by Britten, Beethoven, and Finzi
BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA. Music of Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Ravel, Yi, De Falla, Weir, and Smetana
BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT (BMOP). Music by Matti Kovler, John Heiss, Peter Maxwell Davies, Kati Agócs, Michael Gandolfi, William Thomas McKinley
EMERSON STRING QUARTET. Music of Dvorák, Ravel, Webern
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL – Jordi Savall and Hespèriòn XXI, Music from the Time of Cervantes
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Debussy, Penderecki, Brahms
Boston Chamber Music Society: Beethoven Fest, Concert 3
MFA: El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Resign of Philip III
PRO ARTE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: Koulendros, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: Bartok, Piano Concerto No. 3; Schubert, Symphony in C, "The Great"
CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Brahms, Thomson, Mansurian, Liebermann, and Prokofiev


Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose.

May 28, 2010

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project commissions, performs and records music of the twentieth and twenty first centuries exclusively, allowing listeners to hear full-sized orchestral performances of modern compositions, previously performed more typically by small groups like the Kronos Quartet and the Chameleon Arts Ensemble.

Anthony De Ritis' Legerdemain was a wonderful beginning, full of synthesizers and multiple microphones placed in different sections of the orchestra. Percussion joined to somewhat creepy strings developed an angst-ridden, very blue twilight followed by a woodwind battle and rising emotional crescendo which somehow reminded me of Britten's altered state in "Death in Venice". The piece moved forward, suggesting a stand-off between two unknown players, using excellent haunting horns and robust orchestral fullness.

Steven Stucky's American Muse for Baritone and Orchestra came next, based on four poems of John Berryman, E.E. Cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman. The well known baritone soloist, Sanford Sylvan, joined the BMOP for this piece and it was rewarding. Mr. Sylvan's voice was resonant, lyrical, well articulated with a rare high range tremulo. A spidery climb of violins supported the Berryman text, followed by vibraphone and frenzied strings with wild intermezzi for the Cummings' poem, seeming almost jazzy at times and the most imaginative rendition of Cummings I have ever heard. The Ammons' poem had bell-like vibes, spinning tonal colors into a watercolor. The Whitman poem was orchestral and dynamic.

Leon Kirchner's Orchestra Piece began with turbulent percussion, then slowed around a horn pivot. Shifting between an inner storm and plaintive horns, the music moved like a den of leaves or perhaps goblins freed from their box. There was the sense of an ancient world struggling to push into the modern on horse hooves.

The young composer Kati Agócs' Requiem Fragments introduced a lyrical violin followed by a sweep of strings and spectral dissonance. A humming core continued with rattling and shaking percussion. There were interesting underlayers of classicism along with expressionistic fragmentation. The piece could have used more of a central dialectic but held interest throughout.

Last up was Martin Boykan's Symphony for Baritone and Orchestra starting out with nice harp playing and then Bartok-like restlessness. The principal violinist's playing was strong at this point. Mr. Sylvan returned as soloist in the third movement and his voice again was lyrical, caressing the poetic texts, both pensive and aspiring.

This was a wonderful evening of music. Based on the individual performances, I think we can continue to expect very high level work from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project who support important composers such as Andy Vores, Scott Wheeler, John Harbison and Tod Machover. Dynamic, engaging, exciting and challenging -- the kind of performance Boston deserves and needs.

Carolyn Gregory

BOSTON WAGNER SOCIETY: "Exquisite Love Duets & Solos”

Alan Schneider, Heldentenor; Andrea Matthews, soprano; Joanna Porackova, soprano; Rachel Selan, soprano.

May 21, 2010

In Exquisite Love Duets & Solos, the Boston Wagner Society tackled a difficult program of Wagner excerpts. Accompanied by the redoubtable pianist Jeffrey Brody, they managed to pull it off with spirit and passion. Rienzi, Wagner’s third opera. However, it was his first successful one and many thought it owed much of its musical atmosphere to Wagner’s mentor, Giacomo Meyerbeer. In fact, wags joked that, with its traces of the bel canto style, Rienzi was “Meyerbeer's most successful work.” However, the BWS performance of “Rienzi’s Prayer” showed Wagner’s style beginning to take a new path, away from the melodic swoop of bel canto and into the individualized surge of the through-composed. Tenor Alan Schneider handled this soliloquy-like piece with restraint and razor-edged diction. According to BWS president Dalia Geffen: "Schneider is a Wagnerian Heldentenor of the old mold, utterly heroic in voice and poise, and with a beautiful timbre to boot."

The core of the evening was four pieces from Lohengrin, Wagner’s last traditional opera before he started forging music dramas like the Ring Cycle. Soprano Andrea Matthews sang “Elsa’s Dream,” one of Wagner’s most lovely arias, with sweet passion and longing. She rendered the song-like piece with the skill that comes from long experience. She provided a gracious stage presence and warmly generous singing. Brody’s piano improvisations stood in for the interchanges between king, chorus, and the villainous Telramund. Matthews’ contrast in the repeated line—“He will be my champion”—determined, then tender, was striking. The oft-performed "Bridal Chamber" duet between Lohengrin and Elsa went well. Like Wagner’s other two rescued-women operas—Die Walküre and Siegfried, there are moments of sheer over-the-cliff lyricism. But unlike (for example) Die Walküre’s love scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde, the "Bridal Chamber" duet is fraught with dramatic tension between lovers, as Elsa manipulates to discover Lohengrin’s name. Matthews delivered her staccato lines during the conflict’s peak like brads from a nail gun. Each one struck Schneider’s Lohengrin dead on and he responded with manly timing. Lohengrin’s song “In Fernam Land” is a poignant and complex aria. Schneider began it as an assertive declaration, with conventionally balanced lines. Then he carried it into a freer, more rhapsodic zone, as the piano evoked the transcendent realm of his origin. “In far off land, to mortal feet forbidden, there is a castle, Monsalvat by name.” In the final piece, “Mein Lieber Schwan,” Lohengrin’s farewell to the impulsive Elsa, Schneider conveyed a heady sweetness of tone. He sang with near-perfect poise and legato.

Soprano Joanna Porackova performed “Ewig war ich” from Siegfried intriguingly. Revolving around Brunnhilde’s hesitations to yield to Siegfried’s love, it is one of the most beauteous scenes in the opera. Porackova definitely emoted! Throughout the excerpt, she gradually built striking contrasts, showing not just Brunnhilde, but any young passionate woman in conflict with her emotions.

The excerpt from Tristan und Isolde, the "Love Duet and Brangane’s Watch," comes at a crucial moment in the opera. Tristan und Isolde, under influence of the metaphorical “magical potion” of love intoxication, declare their love for one another and are so immersed in the moment they fail to see the approach of King Mark and his minions. Schneider convinced the audience as the callow Tristan, eyes clouded by a comely princess. Soprano Rachel Selan did a work-womanlike job on the understated role of Brangäne. Once again, Porackova transfixed the scene with longing, but this time she was more carnal in her approach. Her shocking high notes, intensely rendered fortissimos, and robust legatos imbued the listeners with palpable eroticism. Her voice was both highly trained and volatile. There was no telling in what manner she’d approach a tricky passage, except that it would be extraordinary. How I’d love to see her act in a fully stage version!

The work of pianist Jeffrey Brody is worth noting. Wagner obviously never transcribed his work for piano, so what does it mean when someone plays a “piano reduction?” Franz Liszt composed transcriptions of music from Tristan und Isolde (most notably the "Liebestod"), Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, and the Ring operas, but that included everything, the singing as well as the orchestral parts. So just where did the event’s piano accompaniment music come from? I asked Brody, and got this intriguing reply:

As for reductions, I essentially make up my own as I go along, varying at times from what is on the page. The Lohengrin duet reduction was by Theodore Uhlig (Peters Volksbühne Edition) and the Tristan was by Richard Kleinmichael. The Siegfried was Karl Klindworth. But I always take freely and modify accordingly to circumstances, need, and level of keyboard difficulty. Thus, in all of these there is some my own, so it’s never the same way twice, particularly the Tristan. The more intense the performance from the singers the more I add and embellish. Sometimes the thicker and more detailed reductions can be more of a hindrance to the singers, so I leave out things.

Speaking of leaving out things, I overheard a few concert goers complaining about the lack of text reproduction in the program notes, since the BWS has provided such text before. In their place were detailed scene exegeses from the academician Gina Canepa and soprano and voice teacher emerita Joy McIntyre. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. At a performance of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner allegedly said to fellow platonist Mathilde Wesendonck: “Don’t worry about the words. They’re not important. Listen to the music!” And Canepa’s explanations were sufficient in most cases. Who needs to read every line of “Rienzi’s Prayer?” On the other hand, neophyte Wagnerians feel more secure reading along as a piece is being performed. There’s no easy solution for this, but most likely the lack didn’t mar this memorable evening in any significant way.

Peter Bates

Hesperion XXI: “Jerusalem: The City of the Two Peaces.” At Sanders Theatre. Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival.

Hespèrion XXI, Capella Reial de Catalunya ensembles, and the Palestinian Sufi troupe Al-Darwish.

May 5, 2010

Any time composer/violist/conductor, Jordi Savall, comes to town with his world class ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, is a noteworthy event. Over a period of  more than thirty years, Mr. Savall has recorded nearly 200 CDs and restored interest in ancient, Medieval, and Baroque music. His work has won many awards such as the Orphée d'Or de l'Académie du disque lyrique, the Prix Caecilia and the 2010 Midem Classical Award, given by Belgium, Germany, and Spain. He and his partner, Montserrat Figueras, have combined their talents to draw a fine set of soloists to their ventures, relying on original sources whenever possible.  Mr. Savall's score accompanied the major French movie, Tous les Matins du Monde  and I have had the good fortune to hear him on three previous engagements in Boston. I came to this performance with a fairly well-informed point of view as a fan over the past twenty years.  The concert proved to be a giant undertaking with strengths and some weaknesses.

A general criticism must include the point that the concert, consisting of seven sections and at three hours, was too long. I felt that about one half hour could have been pared from the music without ill consequences. Alternatively, the concert might have been performed over two evenings, split in half.

Despite that, it was a splendid evening. We were rewarded with the return of Montserrat Figueras after a lengthy absence and her haunting solo voice accompanied by a harp/zither predecessor (sithara) was wonderful. Other noteworthy soloists were the Israeli singer, Lior Elmalich, Palestinian singer, Wahab Badarne, Iraqi oud player, Omar Bashir, and a set of spectacular shofar players and lutenists.
The concert opened with high drama as the "Fanfare of Jericho" suggested a prophecy of Apocalypse, shofars playing in the balcony. Long horns unfurled on stage, and Montserrat Figueras sang with the voice of a third century B.C. E. Sibyl. The desire for peace was the theme here with a small male chorus singing, showing an early link to Gregorian chant. Strong percussion work followed wherein the dream occurred of a time after eclipse and the bleeding stones vanish. A subsequent section drew from tenth century B.C. E. Jewish tradition, including lovely vocal work and a joyous dance for liberation. The Crusades' huge prejudice again the Turks was clearly expressed as spoken by Pope Urban. An early bagpipe-like instrument accompanied Mr. Savall's viol with horns and percussion, becoming a song for salvation and battle cry anthem simultaneously. Though the ensemble included 41 musicians, the effect here was orchestral and hypnotic. One of the high points of the evening followed with flutes that suggested soaring birds.

Next, the Arabic view of Jerusalem returned. A soloist sang from the balcony, sounding very similar to the historical Jewish cantor. A magical dance began with a dervish dancer, twirling in an all white costume, reverential, suggesting ascension to heaven. Horns, viols, tambourines, drums and flutes wove a tapestry of minor and major notes, almost resembling classical Indian music. "Suleiman's Dream," a spoken word piece, came next, followed by the return of the long horns with percussion, steeling up the courage of warriors entering their march into battle and likely death.

At this point, I felt the concert lost some momentum, veering ahead to the Holocaust and the present with Jerusalem as the city of refuge and exile. In both final sections, the musical intention was to draw together all the lamentations and praise, whether Islamic, Jewish or Christian, showing how all the castles crumble into dust, no matter their ideology. Nonetheless, it was a memorable evening. The operatic scope reminded me of the Greek composer, Mikis Theodorakis, and his masterpiece, Canto General.

Carolyn Gregory

Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston: Beethoven, Schoenberg, Webern, Kirchner, Brahms

Deborah Boldin, flute; Vivian Chang-Freiheit, piano; Gloria Chien, piano; Nancy Dimock, oboe; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Sabrina Learman, soprano; Kelli O'Connor, clarinet; Margaret Phillips, bassoon; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; Steven Sherts, French horn; Scott Woolweaver, viola.

March 27, 2010

Last Saturday’s Chameleon Ensemble concert opened with Beethoven. But for listeners for whom Beethoven means the “heroic” composer of the odd-numbered symphonies and the late string quartets, the Quintet for Piano & Winds (Op. 16) must have come as a bit of a shock. It is a pleasant shock admittedly, to hear such a light and airy piece from the master of stormy sentiments. True, the term “early Beethoven” covers considerable ground. The horn’s opening Grave seems to take a while to build up dramatic speed, but soon it does, just before Beethoven infuses the piece with some humor. As pointed out in Gabriel Langfur’s excellent notes, the piano functions more in opposition to the wind players than it does in Mozart’s wind quintet in the same key. Perhaps in his wind quintet, Mozart is more comfortable in his skin, but Beethoven is just starting to raise the hair on ours.

We then proceed from Beethoven’s youth to Brahms’ maturity and the difference is striking. The mature Sonata for Viola and Piano was transcribed from his Sonata for Clarinet. As violist Scott Woolweaver says, “There are just some things a viola can do that a clarinet can’t.” One of these is open the piece with a gentle lyrical theme, which balances well with the fiery amabile piano. The two players performed with precise pacing, dramatic rests and well-executed tempo changes. At times, Vivian Chang-Freiheit’s playing could have used a more subtle touch. (What a shame these thick-toned Steinways and Baldwins are used in so much 19th century chamber music, instead of lighter chamber pianos, like the Streichers and Bösendorfers of Brahms’ time.) In this work, there are far fewer melodic explosions like in the violin sonatas or piano quartets, but the work still quite attractive.

The centrepiece of the evening was Anton Webern’s reduction of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Opus 9. No one was deceived by the first placid bar of this piece. It soon erupted into waves of 19th century melody crashing against a shore of 20th century complexity. The themes aren’t exactly atonal--the fourth-chords are resolved tonally—yet throughout the piece Schoneberg rejects tonality as a unifying principle. Even though the themes are related by common intervals, Schoenberg makes the audience feel the tug of the new in this constant eruption of fresh contrasts. You just never know what is going to happen next. As part of Webern’s reduction, he inserts a piano, played almost transparently by Gloria Chien. The other players emerge at times in stark relief, if only for a few seconds. Deborah Boldin’s flute suddenly cries out as if astonished. Kellie O’Connor’s clarinet and Joanna Kurkowicz’s violin also make vivid statements in the piece, and recede quickly.

The final two pieces, Webern’s Vier Lieder and Leon Kirchner’s Piano Trio II, while quite different, are both stunningly modern. The Chameleons have done a mitzvah in introducing the audience to the lieder-writing side of Webern: this must be news to those who see him as just a miniaturist. Soprano Sabrina Learman does a splendid job on the songs, imparting characteristic touches like vibrato in “The Mysterious Flute” and that sumptuous high note at the end of “The Day Has Passed.” Gloria Chien’s piano work is exemplary, witty without being intrusive, able to rein in that Steinway. Hopefully this performance will inspire listeners to obtain the complete works of Webern, which, incidentally, fit on 3 CDs.

Leon Kirschner’s Piano Trio II is such a striking piece. It seems like a ballet of daring instrumentation, abrupt and moody. An adagio section tries to be contemplative and succeeds for a short while until it’s interrupted by a sudden snarling on Kurkowicz’s and Popper-Keiser’s redoubtable strings. What can you expect from such a composer? Kirschner has always seemed to me like a Bartokian figure, minus the perverse folk music insertions. Once more the trio tries for placidity, but edginess is deeply engrained in its nature. It ends as it began, a cacking, high-register, anxious, and thoroughly engaging work.

Peter Bates

Radius Ensemble: Poulenc, Ewazen, Brahms

Dina Vainshtein, piano; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; Sarah Brady, flute; Sarah Darling, viola; Eran Egozy, clarinet; Anne Howarth, horn; Jae Young Cosmos Lee, violin; Jennifer Montbach, oboe; Gregory Newton, bassoon.

March 13, 2010

The Radius Ensemble performed an eclectic blend of jaunty modern works with an orthodox rendition of one of the great pieces of nineteenth century chamber literature. Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 2 in A doesn’t’ open with the tempestuous emotions of his Opus 60 quartet, but it’s still a great piece. It opens in a relaxed mood, with a gently swaying first theme that the Radius Ensemble captured well. Pianist Dina Vainshtein played the rapid, yet slightly muted arpeggios, and master cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer helped guide the first movement to a serene close. The finale was played energetically as the players tackled the metrically complex theme, which was played in tandem with the more traditional accompaniment. A nice job of navigating through difficult terrain!

Francis Poulenc’s  Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon (Op. 32) was a rare treat. It’s a light, airy, and often humorous piece, played with consummate skill by clarinettist Eran Egozy and bassoonist Gregory Newton. Its contrasting fast-slow-fast sections hearken back to Baroque sonatas, yet its jagged melodic contours reveals the composer’s admiration for Stravinsky. “My four favourite composers, my only masters, are Bach, Mozart, Satie and Stravinsky,” Poulenc once said. In composing the piece, he wanted to hone his compositional and contrapuntal skills, but he ended up producing a deceptively simple work that, for its seven minute length, tests the most virtuosic woodwind musicians.

The newest piece on the program, Roaring Fork by Eric Ewazen, is an odd woodwind quintet. There are traces of Aaron Copland in its broad, sweeping panoramic themes. It is, above all, a programmatic piece about the Colorado River. It’s not particularly ruminative or soul searching, but it's rather pleasant nonetheless. Movement II, for example, is bucolic with some exuberant moments. A close listen induces thoughts of dawn and placidly flowing water. Movement III is the most programmatic and the players effectively convey a feeling of climbing--actually trudging-- through the western landscape. Some instruments engage in imitation (or call and answer), like cries across a distant gulch. There are few strong melodic centers to this piece, despite some poignant two-bar melodies. Ewazen is clearly a composer to watch as he develops further. We look forward to more such adventurous programs by the Radius Ensemble.

Peter Bates

Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Boston: Fine, Larsen, Boulez, Sarasate, Brahms

Deborah Boldin, flute; Nancy Dimock, oboe; Gary Gorczyca, clarinet; Whitacre Hill, French horn; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Sabrina Learman, soprano; Spencer Myer, piano; Margaret Phillips, bassoon; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; Aaron Trant, vibraphone; Katherine Winterstein, violin; Scott Woolweaver, viola.

February 7, 2010

Another palpable hit by the Chameleon Ensemble. The group played a group of twentieth century pieces, and, true to its programming style, one nineteenth century one. They jumped right into bracing unfamiliar waters with Irving Fine’s impish Partita for Wind Quintet. Although atonal, it is only slightly dissonant, the music often drawing itself around the dominant horn (played expertly by Whitacre Hill); for example, a strongly expressed five-note melody in II initiated intriguing variations. A placid interlude proved too short to contain the bustling energy, so it gave way to a rollicking gigue. There were many startling effects packed into its fifteen minutes: octave-spanning chords, humorous figures, and high register declarations.

Libby Larsen is perhaps one of the finest writers of vocal music today. Her Try me good king: last words of the wives of Henry VIII is a charmer with an original premise. Five of the king’s six wives imparted intriguing words when confronting death. (Unfortunately, the final wife, who survived the king by a year, is not included.) The music effectively assigns moods to the five pieces. For example, the song of to-be-beheaded Ann Boleyn is so angry and frantic it reddened soprano Sabrina Learman’s cheeks. Learman’s rendition of Catherine of Aragon’s words was a bit heavy on the vibrato, but perhaps she wanted to convey the fear under the Catherine’s respectful veneer.

Dérive 1 by Pierre Boulez initially opened as a piece of bad boy serialism, but then took on the structure of the wide rippling tone clusters, sometimes with increasing volume and urgency. The piece is apparently bipolar, because its sudden moments of calm (although not of reflection) were suddenly punctured by rapid piano arpeggios (as played by the talented Spencer Meyer). The piece’s coda didn’t end with a mere dramatic crash, but a bizarre quiver.

Joanna Kurkowicz tackled Pablo de Sarasate 's redoubtable Concert Fantasies on Carmen with stalwart vigor, valiantly negotiating the slippery slope of its tricky opening. Later, her playing sped past spindly trees of demi-semiquavers and leapt over the legato ditches in her path. Her “Aragonaise” was tuneful and athletic, the “Habanera” entrancing and varied, the “Tralalala interlude” a welcome respite (but no less virtuosic), the “Seguidilla” oh so familiar, and the “Gypsy Dance” a motley robe of dazzlement. The audience was appropriately breathless.

Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F-minor, completed eight years before the composer’s Symphony No. 1, provides the melodic sweep of a symphony. Brahms originally wrote the work for two pianos, but recast it at the behest of Clara Schumann. Conductor Hermann Levi said of it, "The Quintet is beautiful beyond words, You have turned a monotonous work for two pianos into a thing of great beauty, a masterpiece of chamber music." From the tempestuous mood of the opening to the buoyant Gypsy flavour of its finale, this performance of the quintet maintained its tragic tone to the end. In the hands of the Chameleons, the repeats seemed to come on with added intensity each time. The quintet’s summoning to creative force is as mighty as any anthem, yet its Andante is as lyrical as a Schubert song. The Scherzo is positively electrifying, with its welter of themes that differ so markedly from each other. It was a fitting ending to a rollicking afternoon.

Peter Bates

The Emerson String Quartet: Ives, Janácek, Shostakovich, Barber

Presented by The Celebrity Series.

December 4, 2009

Once again, the Emerson String Quartet performed a memorable concert and this time with an odd program, consisting of one warhorse, a puzzle, and two masterpieces. First, the masterpieces. Leos Janácek composed his String Quartet No. 1 when he was sixty-nine. It was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella, “The Kreuzter Sonata”, named after Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 dedicated to the French violinist, Rudolph Kreutzer. It a dark one, with themes of regret, treachery, adultery (imagined or otherwise), and danger. Its rapid opening contrasts with slow lines. That’s because the composer varies Beethoven’s speedy four-note motif with two central repeated notes. The quote appears early; in fact, you can hear it in both the first and third movements. Then he quotes Beethoven’s second theme in his (Janáček's) third movement, but with a twist: he shifts it from a major to a minor key. Interruptions abound, like the lovely third movement canon struck down twice by the viola and the second violin. What’s that all about? It has to be the husband in conflict with his wife and her lover, no? The entire piece, as performed by this excellent quartet, is fierce, harsh, restless, intense, and sullen. Quite a contrast from the far sweeter String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Pages.”

The other twentieth century masterpiece is Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9. This second version of the quartet--the first Shostakovich burned in a stove—opens with intense clarity of statement. The Emerson String Quartet plays with conviction, giving free rein to the outbursts of quirky passion. A brief scherzo gives way to an outpouring of grief, with deep undercurrents of tension. Notable was the slow delicate manner in which the first violinist, Philip Setzer, led into the arch dance-like melody. The quartettists effortlessly glided from one difficult sequence to the next, until violist Lawrence Dutton broke a string. Predictable, really. I’m surprised more strings didn’t break. Like Janácek, Shostakovich liked interrupting poignant pianissimo sections with bursts of fury, in one case a barbed pizzicato. The piece concluded with brash contrasts in dynamics you could not ignore, like a garish expressionist painting by Otto Dix or George Grosz. David Finckel’s cello produced a keening urgency with its chordal pizzicato strumming, much like what occurs in the Emerson’s performance of the String Quartet No. 8.

Admittedly an odd programmatic choice, the Emerson’s performed well on Charles Ives’String Quartet No. 1. It’s possible that they chose it to show what potential the young Ives had, or for his borderline wry twisting of two Salvation Army hymns, or perhaps for the challenge they met by stretching its dynamics and tempo. We’ll never know. It was a nice academic exercise, but I would have preferred the more challenging String Quartet No. 2, which Ives said was “one of the best things I have, but the old ladies (male and female) don't like it anywhere at all. It makes them mad..."

Most mystifying on the program was Samuel Barber’s "Adagio for String Quartet." So many have heard this warhorse that it’s a mystery why nobody plays the whole quartet, Aren’t you, dear reader, even interested to know what it sounds like played all the way through? I would have sacrificed hearing the Ives for a rendition of the entire Barber String Quartet. If you feel the same way, send the Emersons a note, via IMG Artists. Maybe you’ll convince them to alter their program.

For an encore, the group played a tender movement from Antonín Dvorák’s Cypresses for String Quartet. You may not agree with the program, but you can’t dispute the fact that the Emerson String Quartet succeeded in charming and thrilling the audience.

Peter Bates

Boston Philharmonic: All Wagner Program

Conducted by Benjamin Zander. Linda Watson, soprano.

November 22, 2009

If you had to pick an evening’s program of Richard Wagner's music, consisting of an equal mix of vocal and orchestral extracts, you couldn’t do much better than what Benjamin Zander accomplished with the Boston Philharmonic on the weekend of November 22. “I’ve never conducted Wagner before,” he admitted. “No symphonies!” (Actually this is technically untrue. Wagner wrote the callow Symphony in C major in 1832, when he was 19.) He deftly avoided the Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre, although he did indulge us with one warhorse: The Overture to Die Meistersinger. Unlike most overtures, this one was written before the opera and was publicly performed in Leipzig on 2 November 1862, conducted by Wagner. The crowd loved it and requested that it be performed a second time. (Why does that never happen today?). Critics hated its welter of scurrying themes and rapid shifts in tone. A writer from The Signal said “Chaos! A tohu wabohu and nothing more!” It became so popular, a bar of it appeared in Todd Browning’s film Dracula (1931). Zander conducted the work with zest, as if it were a work by Beethoven or Mahler and it worked. His spirited Bernsteinian style produced a straightforward and faithful reading.

What to perform next? Lohengrin? Der fliegende Holländer? No, something much weightier. The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde. As far as this opera is concerned, you either love it or hate it. Indifference is impossible. As sung by soprano Linda Watson, this “bleeding chunk” of ultimate longing is ineffably sad. The Liebestod should be completely consistent to the Prelude’s opening Tristan chord: music of pure irresolution. There is so much resistance in the Liebestod, as the melody rises and falls. At first, the melody entered softly but urgently, like a lover to the bed. As the Philharmonic played it, the tremolo strings added a sense of expectation and drama. What will happen next?

Struggle. Intense struggle throughout. As Isolde thought she heard melodies from Tristan, the violins began a chromatic melody—a slow upward climb in tight half-steps, struggling to reach something but never did, because again and again it fell back, only to climb higher. As it did, the chromatic line was dissonant with Isolde’s melody. Yet in Wagner, these dissonances try to resolve, and as they do, they tug at the melody. Throughout the whole piece, there was an aura of unrelenting progress. As Zander performed it, it was thrilling and satisfying, a perfect place to break for intermission.

Zander made another excellent programming decision. Rather than play excerpts from Die Walküre, the public’s favourite in the Ring tetralogy, he chose extracts from the concluding opera in the cycle, Die Götterdämmerung. He began with the Dawn sequence from the opera’s Prologue. As in most of the Ring Cycle, leitmotifs abounded, seeped into each other, and even entwined in counterpoint. The Love Motif segued into the Brünnhilde motif, spun out a beautiful fantasy, then broad daylight burst through. The Hero motif followed it, forte. As Zander performed this extract, it became exemplary programmatic music.

For Siegfried's Rhine Journey different motives occurred. For example, as Siegfried vanished from sight the Adventure Motif blended into the Brünnhilde motif. Alas, it was not possible to hear Siegfried’s subtle horn call in the distance, as the horns were right there on stage. We then heard the swelling Love Motif, and the confident scoffing of the strings when the Death Motif suddenly reared its gnarly head. As Wagner varied the Horn Call on strings, a tremendous feeling of bravado flooded the hall. It tried to sound confident, with the majestic rising Rhine Motif, but then the Lovelessness Motive intruded, preparing the audience for the tragedy in store. Love was still laboring under a horrible curse. The Rhinemaidens’ lament played exuberantly before a shadow fell across the music, and it descended into a dispiriting minor key.

It was clear Zander understood the Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March extracts quite well. Those duplet Death Chords! Here's a conductor who's not afraid of a bit of fortissimo. And he understood the cruel irony of Wagner’s insertion of the poignant Awakening Music (which opens the opera) as Siegfried breathed his last. Siegfried’s Funeral March boasts so many motifs it’s practically a greatest hits compilation. It began with the Suffering Motif from Die Walküre, then low strings bowed a marcato accent interrupted by more death chords. Then multiple motifs appeared and blended together. Wagner even threw in the Sword Motif from Siegfried's forging scene.

The climax of the opera is the Immolation scene and singer Watson performed it well. She even did some acting, always difficult in a concert aria performance. Brünnhilde praised Siegfried, accompanied by the Love Motif, then the 4-note Nothung Motif, which always sounds to me like the opening figures from the Scherzo movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Then we heard that magnificent rising Judgment motif. The subsequent music for this scene combined other major leitmotifs from the previous operas (including those for the Magic Fire, the Valkyries' Ride, Seigfried as Hero, the Rhine Maidens' song, Valhalla, and the Twilight of the Gods). But a beauteous theme heard only once before (in Die Walküre), “Redemption through Love,” guided us toward the end. What an evening! I hope it’s the beginning of more performances of Wagnerian music by this orchestra.

Peter Bates

BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT. Big Bang: Music of Antheil, Varèse, and Harrison

Conducted by Gil Rose. Featuring Providence Singers and Andrew Clark.

November 13, 2009

This performance earns a near perfect score for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) It’s not often that we hear George Antheil’s notorious Ballet Mécanique, partly because it is scored for sixteen synchronized player pianos. Back when Antheil wrote it, there was no way these speedy automatons could be synchronized; but now, in the electronic age, they can be. And they were. While this performance featured only eight player pianos, they effectively produced the intense sound Antheil could only dream about. For those who’ve never seen them before in concert, it is a sight to behold these daffy instruments advancing the music with bold raucous energy. The pace of the piece starts fast and the dynamic is stuck at loud, but the tone is only slightly cacophonous. None of this ever lets up. A boisterous siren interrupts at unexpected moments and sometimes sounds off for a shrill thirty seconds. Long before Béla Viktor János Bartók exploited the percussive power of the piano, there was George Antheil. Just to underscore his point about pianos, there are two standard ones, adding to the din. Towards the end, an alarm clock and an airplane engine (prerecorded, unfortunately) sounded off. I was surprised that the airplane propeller was so underwhelming; I suspect the sight of a real one in on stage would have significantly added to its effect. Oddly, for a controversial piece, the rhythm in Ballet Mécanique is actually quite measured and logical. The xylophone and piano melodies are satisfying and even resolve in a well-behaved fashion. Still, they do remind me of galloping horses. Late in the piece there is a synchronized sequence between player piano and percussion that commands attention; it is so well performed that one wonders why Antheil didn’t write more pieces like this. His later work took a conservative turn (although his Second Piano Concerto is a marvellous piece that should be in the repertoire). There is a hilarious sputtering finale between alarm clock, player pianos, and airplane with fitful starts and stops. Then the piece has several false endings. Then it suddenly ends with a two second tutti.

With Edgar Varèse’s Ionization, what first grabs the ear is the siren. Then the accompanying percussion. The work features the expansion and variation of rhythmic cells. The title refers to the ionization of molecules, for Varèse claimed, "I was not influenced by composers as much as by natural objects and physical phenomena." So many types of percussion are involved here: those whose pitch is indefinite and hard to measure, like the bass drum, snare drum, wood blocks, and cymbals; those of palpable musical pitch like the piano and chimes; and finally, those of shifting pitch, like the sirens and the roars of some redoubtable beast(s) in the background. How it must have shocked the Rudy Vallées and Bing Crosby’s of 1931, if they’d ever stooped to listen to music outside the band wagon. But they can’t be blamed for its lack of acceptance back then. It’s still contemporary today. As long as there are clanging buzzing, screeching, and siren-blasting sounds filling city life like smoke, wind and dust, there’ll be Edgar Varèse’s Ionization.

I’ll have to stand outside the crowd here and proclaim that Lou Harrison’s perfectly likeable and often charming Coro Sutra didn’t really belong on this program. Chalk it up to a slight miscalculation in program selection. About the only thing it had in common with Antheil and Varèse was its collection of bizarre instruments like gamelans and sawed-off oxygen tanks; however, these instruments were played so gently they were overshadowed by the hundred choristers singing Harrison’s conservative amalgam of medieval polyphony and oriental vocal music. It’s actually more of a late twentieth century Buddhist countercultural event than a wow-inducing piece of 1930’s arcana. It contrasted rather jarringly with the two truly groundbreaking works. Of course it was nice to hear it, and it was performed quite splendidly by Andrew Clark’s Providence Singers. But it belonged on a different venue, perhaps on a different plane altogether.

Martin Chuzzlewit

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Mozart, Takemitsu, Debussy, and Messiaen

Personnel: Deborah Boldin, flute, Gloria Chien, piano, Gary Gorczyca , clarinet, Gabriela Diaz, violin, Kristopher Tong, violin, Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, Anna Reinersman, harp , Scott Woolweaver, viola

October 4, 2009

"Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension." So said composer Olivier Messiaen, years after the 1941 premier of Quatuor pour la fin du temps at the Stalag VIII-A POW camp. This “rapt attention” could have occurred because of the dire circumstances surrounding the work. But it is also a masterpiece, one that Messiaen never quite approached again (although he came close in 1948 with his Turangalîla-Symphonie). Hearing this music today, we are still rapt.

The "end of time" in the title is not purely an allusion to the Apocalypse, the work's religious subject, but also refers to the way in which Messiaen, through rhythm and harmony, used time completely differently from most music of his day. Take the clarinet solo in III (“Abyss of the birds”). Like birdsongs, its tempo changes are both abrupt and dazzling. Clarinetist Gary Gorczyca never stumbled through these tricky tonal navigations. The weary figures at the opening were perfectly balanced by the joyous trills that erupted, playful in their varying dynamic range. Or the opening itself, an essay on the erratic beauty of birdsongs, which the Stalag prisoners probably heard from their cells. There is also Messiaen’s unusual scoring for the piano. In V, a mini-cello sonata, the piano accompanies a doleful cello by obsessively repeating chords. In VI, the final movement, there is another mini-sonata, this time with the piano and the violin. The piano contributes hypnotic duplets while the violin sings rhapsodic laments, concluding the piece through a solemn meditative figure in a exquisite diminuendo. Hats off to violinist Gabriela Diaz and pianist Gloria Chien.

Who doesn’t know the tale of W.A. Mozart’s friendship with Michael Haydn, brother of Franz Josef? According to the story Mozart, in an act of charity, helped the ailing Haydn by contributing the fifth and sixth violin-viola duos for the tyrannical Archbiship Colloredo. As charming as this story is, it may not be true (see K423 and K424 The Haydn Duos: Fact or Legend??). Nevertheless, both Mozart works are charming, particularly this one, the Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, K 423. Not just a pleasing exercise in counterpoint, the work is an early attempt to cut a larger share of the musical pie for an accompanying viola (although the violin still maintains thematic dominance). There is a puckish lively first theme, then a charming Adagio, sweeter by far than any music in Hadyn’s four duos. Violinist Kristopher Tong and violist Scott Woolweaver play the Adagio a bit slowly, but their interpretation is effective. In the final Allegro, Tong handles the sudden accented triplets with zest. The piece is not just an amusing bagatelle, but one of wit and invention.

Debussy’s Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano is an odd work, even for the time (1915). It resolutely refuses to grab a theme and run with it. For example, the “Pierrot” Serenade never quite does so; its music is a cluster of glorious meanderings, like the feverish musings of a madman. Only in III, the finale, are there luminescent beams of melody. They are like the light that bursts through while a misty window is being cleaned. Both Gloria Chien and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer do justice to this compelling and puzzling work.

By contrast, Toru Takemitsu's And then I knew 'twas wind for flute, viola & harp, while an atonal work, is never a disconcerting one. It is dream-like and episodic, with an unimpeded flow of sound and silence. It’s difficult to feel bar lines, pulse, or beat because the time signatures and tempos are always changing. The main musical idea is stated by the viola at the beginning. It is a rising figure that comes from Debussy's Sonata No. 2 for flute, viola, and harp. As the work matures, a seven-note figure emerges, producing a lyrical effect. Unusual musical ideas emerge: Deborah Bolden’s flute plays slow sensuous scalar runs, punctuated by forte trills; Ann Reinersman’s harp creates unconventional sounds, such as a whining glissando. Also, she may softly play a chord that includes notes that the flute and viola are playing loudly. When they suddenly stop, the harp keeps vibrating in the background. That’s what compelling musical performance is about: revealing new and often strange experiences to the audience.

Peter Bates

Joyce Tenneson: Polaroid Portraits (July 11, 2009 - October 4, 2009) and Julia Margaret Cameron: For My Best Beloved Sister Mia: An Album of Photographs (July 4, 2009 - September 7, 2009)

While these two exhibits are mounted in different locations at the Portland Museum of Art, and hang for different intervals, they should be seen in succession. Separated by 100 years, Joyce Tenneson and Julia Margaret Cameron have many similarities. Both photographers often took fuzzy, soft focus portraits, both employed religious symbolism and fashioned allegories from their photographs. And both heralded the accomplishments of famous people.

Many photo historians believe that Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879) was not only a product of Victorianism, but also one of its proponents. Her dreamy poses of women span the thematic pallet from nurturers ("Detail from Summer Days" and "Madonna and Child") to lofty pensive beings (most of the portraits of her niece, Julia Jackson). However, Cameron portrayed men quite differently. They are highly expressive. The poet Audrey de Vere, for example, is remarkable for the way he places his hands in front of his face, conveying world weariness. This pose couldn't have been an accident, because in 1865 sitters had to hold still for at least four minutes because of the slowness of the wet plate process. "Alfred Tennyson (1865)," the famous "Dirty Monk" portrait, shows the poet clutching a book and looking actively pensive, as if trying to polish off a troublesome stanza.

Much has been written about Cameron's "soft focus" style. While some of it may have been intentional, it is not consistent. The same series of portraits may contain one blurry portrait and several sharper images. It's hard to believe she intentionally fuzzed up some shots, like the ones of the intensely staring William Holman Hunt? Why would she do that to a male portrait? Certainly, she did not cultivate soft focus in the same way the Pictorialists did at the turn of the century. Frequently, some parts of her pictures are in focus while others aren't, which suggests motion blur, a common enough occurrence with such long exposures.

Joyce Tenneson's allegories are more mysterious than Cameron's. What is that child doing with the severed hand from a marble statue in "Deanna and Stone Hand"? Why is Natasha Richardson adopting a defensive lurking pose, and wearing angel wings twenty years before her death? In "Suzanne with Snake," why is the young woman holding a gilded ornamental snake? (Couldn't she have found an earthier symbol, like a blunt piece of driftwood?) These 20x24 inch large format Polaroid portraits may be similar to ones taken by Elsa Dorfman and William Eggleston in their dependence on studio space. But through their aura of mystery, the resemblance ends. She is a formalist supreme, intent in creating compelling and puzzling images, frequently ones without a sense of irony or meaning beyond striking feats of composition. Her portraits of celebrities like Ben Kingsley and Jessica Tandy are riveting and poignant. And, as critic Vicki Goldberg pointed out, there could be hidden meanings to those featuring props. "Suzanne and Mirror" depicts a closed-eyed woman with an object containing her image, yet the image has its eyes open. Could the picture be about the different faces a person presents to the world? Perhaps. But we'll never know.

Peter Bates

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Schumann, Takemitsu, Pärt, Fauré, and Korde

Personnel: Deborah Boldin, flute, Vivian Chang-Freiheit, piano, Gloria Chien, piano, Aditya Kalyanpur, tabla, Elizabeth Keusch, soprano, Joanna Kurkowicz, violin, William Manley, percussion, Kelli O'Connor, clarinet, Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello, Anna Reinersman, harp, Scott Woolweaver, viola

May17, 2009

The Chameleon Arts Ensemble concluded their season with an original work, along with a mixture of 19th through 21st century pieces, some familiar, others not so much. Through Deborah Boldin's imaginative programming, the audience was treated to a new work by Shirish Korde, a modernistic work by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, a placid meditative work by Estonian Arvo Pärt, and two conventional 19th century works by Robert Schumann and Gabriel Fauré.

First, the original work. Called Zhikr: Songs of Longing, Shirish Korde's vocal chamber work is an exciting blend of styles involving a diverse mixture of instruments: two types of percussion (vibraphone and tabla), flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp. Beginning with an alap, an unmetered opening section to an Indian composition, the piece soon breaks into a lyrical vocalise by soprano Elizabeth Keusch. This alap has a probing, exploratory feel at first, and establishes a languid mood. The work then bursts into a jarring serialist section called "Heaven and Hell." Keusch sings the high notes with particular emphasis and force, and the musicians convey considerable distress. I felt that the composer should have developed this section a bit more, perhaps lengthened it, and imparted more variety to the jarring texture. The third section features an interplay between percussionists in the introduction, leading into the song, which is sung in a more traditional Indian style. Sometimes the instrumentalists follow the singer in predictable paths, other types they depart in surprising ways. The final section, "Ecstasy," is the most successful. It is also the most accessible, with its clear rhythm and the singer accompanying the strings and woodwinds with impressive exactitude. It is almost "jazzy" in a world music sort of way. Aditya Kalyanmpur wraps it up with a stirring tabla solo.

Robert Schumann's Fantasiestücke may have been originally composed for piano and clarinet, but his alternate version with cello and piano is performed here with daunting passion and skill. Cellist Rafael-Popper-Keiser fully explored this quirky work, aided by the firm workmanship of pianist Vivian Chang-Freiheit. The piece opens sensuously, almost seductively. The cello exerts fine control over the piece's shifting dynamics. In the second section there is much lightness of touch as the piece conveys a scherzo-like mood. The final section opens with well-timed force, featuring a prominent figure repeated several times and a striking set of triplets.

Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel is a simple piece, one with reverential, religious undertones. In recent years, religious pieces have largely fallen into two categories: reverential like those of Pärt and Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, and hysterical like those of the French Olivier Messiaen and the Polish Krzysztof Penderecki. Pärt work has also been called "meditative" and I suppose it is that too. Both Kelli O'Connor (clarinet) and Vivian Chang-Freiheit (piano) do a splendid job on this challenging piece and keeping it fresh.

By contrast, Toru Takemitsu's Rain Spell for flute, clarinet, piano, vibraphone & harp is challenging in a different way. It is vivid, energetic, dissonant, and modernistic. By invoking the rain in its title, this work becomes a programmatic piece featuring tone clusters plinking like rain on metal roofs in the Japanese countryside. The harp and vibraphone abandon their traditional "pretty music" roles by producing staccato outbursts when least expected. Deborah Bolden plays an intriguing flute sequence punctuated by these two instruments. It is primarily a fascinating abstract piece of brief statements and even briefer ensemble moments.

Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet in g minor at first seems to owe much to piano quartets by Johannes Brahms (particular Piano Quartet No. 2), if not in melodic style, certainly in levels of intensity. It opens with a waterfall of late romanticism, then alternates storm and calm like an affaire de coeur. Very early it reveals its nostalgic side--it is about childhood, after all, with its tribulations and confoundments. Movement II opens with a jumpy staccato mood, with notable speedy arpeggios on the piano against the masculine intensity of the strings. The adagio is a placid interlude played with shifting dynamics. To fully understand it, you must read Verlaine's poem "Il pleure dans mon Coeur." Brusque, confident, and heavily accented is the best way to describe the final movement. While not as memorable as Brahms' piano quartet, the themes of this work are introduced and diverted from just as deftly.

Peter Bates

CANTATA SINGERS. Works by Britten, Beethoven, and Finzi. Karyl Ryczek (soprano), Lynn Torgove (mezzo-soprano), Dana Whiteside (baritone), and Stephen Williams (tenor). Conducted by David Hoose.

March 23, 2009

The program booklet for the Cantata Singers’ 2008-2009 Benjamin Britten season opens with a quote from Mr. Britten: “It is the composer’s duty, as a member of society, to speak to or for his fellow human beings.” Beethoven’s Mass in C, opus 86 opened the concert. Historically, the Mass in C has been overshadowed by the more apocalyptic Missa Solemnis and is rarely performed these days. The composition burst open with its Kyrie, offering drama and splendid solo performances, particularly by mezzo-soprano, Lynn Torgove, and baritone, Dana Whiteside, whose voices were perfectly suited to the Mass and added deep feeling and range. Ms. Torgove’s solo was enunciated by the rich woodwind ensemble playing. Conductor, David Hoose, vigorously led the piece from Kyrie to Gloria and on. The complex choral work included some excellent percussion playing. The Sanctus was dignified and interwoven with well modulated singing all around. The Agnus Dei included wonderful woodwinds, followed by a cascade of descending voices, moving finally in the Dona nobis pacem which was full-hearted. The horns in the final movement were quite effective.

Britten’s Orchestral Suite from Death in Venice, opus 88c (arranged by Steuart Bedford) began with subtle percussion, dissonant and multi-layered strings. The harp acted as a herald. The horns and fluttering woodwinds offered lovely clarity of tone. We are invited into another world that is dream-like and full of vibraphone, swirling horns and airy harp, deep with illusion and surprise. At times, the horns swaggered, at others, the whole orchestra slid on the edge of abyss, though never falling in. The French horn playing was brilliant and memorable in this piece. Muted trumpets picked up from the horn’s lament. Funereal chords allow a flute to fly through till the whole piece throbbed with jazzy strands, classical diction, becoming both tone poem and huge (like a Mahler symphony, especially in depth of feeling probed). This orchestral performance was thoroughly inspired and enjoyable.

Gerald Finzi's Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice included a mixed chorus and small orchestra. It was inspired by great past composers (J.S. Bach and Ralph Vaughan Williams). The emotional resonance in his composition, however, remains contemporary. In a lifetime scarred by early deaths (his father and three brothers, along with his own fragile health), Finzi’s music shines with acceptance of the double legacy from World War II and from his own early mortality. Lamenting strings were joined by harp and muted trombones. Finzi’s song of sacrifice developed with noteworthy singing, particularly in the soprano section, English horns and excellent percussive playing throughout. This was a fine conclusion to a well planned, musically rich and well executed musical program.  

Carolyn Gregory

BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL. Mozart Violin Sonatas. Kristian Bezuidenhout, piano; Petra Müllejan, violin.

March 21, 2009

 It seems so logical, yet it is so rarely done. Perform Mozart violin sonatas with a fortepiano, an instrument he would have composed with and played. Last Saturday's performance featured three of these sonatas, plus a set of variations not often heard. It proved a winning formula. Pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout is a skilled and imaginative player on this instrument, which is modelled after a typical 1785 Viennese fortepiano. I don't believe Petra Müllejan's violin was similarly fashioned, but it didn't matter. The results were stunning and the concert ended all too soon.

The Sonata in C (K. 296) was an excellent choice to start, because of its vivace opening. It hooked the audience from the first bar and never let go. The cantabile style of the Andante was sweetly affecting, with its deliciously prolonged rests like slow caresses. By the time of the Rondeau, I was completely won over to the fortepiano approach. Its delicate plinking seemed preferable to the inevitable reverberations of a modern Steinway.

The justly famous "One-hour" Sonata in G major (K. 379), which Mozart half-composed and half-memorized for its first performance, has a peripatetic opening that seems like a discourse on harmony. But by the time we hear the Andantino, we were treated to a host of marvellous effects by the musicians. There was Bezuidenhout's cayenne pinch of rubato and Müllejan's spirited sforzandos of near martial ferocity. There was a dollop of florid ornamentation (but not much!) and pizzicatos that melted on the soundstage like dark chocolate truffles. If only the "One-hour" moniker referred to its length!

Six Variations in G minor on the song "Au bord d'une Fontaine" (by the castrato Antoine Albanèse) was an unexpected treat. I hadn't heard it for a long time, but it was like I was hearing it for the first time. So clever are these variations that there was no telling what was about to happen next,. Sometimes it was the violin melody that varied, while the piano responded in imitation. One variation was even in a heroic style, played fortissimo. Another was softly nostalgic. At the end, it seemed as though Mozart, in devising these musical morsels, was in competition with no one but himself.

The final piece, the Sonata in B flat Major (K 454) started off largo, but a haltingly restrained one, which soon erupted into a feisty allegro. At one point, the two instruments were perfectly synchronized without seeming the least bit mechanical. The Andante was probing and gentle, with more notable pauses to savor the music, like filo dough dissolving on the tongue. In the Allegro, the fortepiano gave its impression of raindrops on a wooden roof. It was amazing that Bezuidenhout managed so well without a page turner. Was one not available, or does he prefer it that way? The evening ended with an encore of the adagio of that most Mozartean sonata, Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 in F major ("Spring"). Ah, the gentle rustlings, the wind dying down . . . .

Peter Bates

BOSTON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA. Music of Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski. Conducted by Benjamin Zander

February 22, 2009

Last Sunday, the Boston Philharmonic presented two notable works by composers who were in their forties at the time of creation. What a difference! One work had the air of excitement and newness swirling about it. It was continuously exciting, creative even. The other, a famous crowd-pleaser, astounded the audience at key moments. At other times, it creaked and showed its conservative late-romantic roots.

It has been said that you can hear tympanis much more clearly in concert than on a disc. I'd been sceptical of this for years, but when I heard Benjamin Zander's performance of Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, I became a believer. That tympani shook the hall for the opening sequence, and from that point on, the piece never flagged. It is a naturally exuberant work, and does tickle the senses, much like Serge Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 ("Classical"). The horns in II sound out with urgent drama, and the pizzicato sequence on the double-basses stuns. Yet only in III do we hear the truly complex side of this work. The Passacaglia simmers slowly for the first few minutes, then erupts with sudden shards of dissonance. Music flies out at the audience, like 3-D effects at an IMAX theatre. And as did Haydn before him, Lutoslawski doesn't let anyone nap. "Allegro giusto" is the understated term for what's going on in front of the audience. Even the slowly decomposing theme at the halfway mark, like a false coda, snatches attention so the listener doesn't miss the excitement to come. After this work, Lutoslawski wrote three equally exciting symphonies. Let's hope Maestro Zander chooses one of them for a future performance.

Readers may remember Serge Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 as the one "played" by Geoffrey Rush in his performance of mentally unbalanced pianist David Helfgott in Shine. The versatile Venezuelan-American pianist Gabriela Montero did a competent job on this most difficult and quirky concerto. At its most spectacular, the piece is a blend of sensitive musings and ladyfinger explosions. The pianistic outbursts are like movie music played when two estranged lovers suddenly rush into each other's arms. Her handling of the solos, while not stellar, impressed the audience for the most part. As an encore she played the beloved Chopin Prelude #15. While the opening lacked emotional fragility, she turned in a fairly-balanced interpretation. Throughout both of these performances, she looked a bit frazzled, admitting that she'd played the "Rach Three" many times in the past month. She even conveyed a trace of weariness when Zander asked her to do an improvisation, a feat for which is famous (and with which she has recorded two CDs). Here's how it goes: She takes requests from the audience for melodies on which she can then improvise. This time she rejected Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehaving" in favor of Louis Armstrong's "La Cucaracha." (I would have chosen the former.) While she took a few minutes to get into the groove, the resulting improvisation was impressive to the point of dazzling.

This Boston Philharmonic concert was indeed a roller-coaster ride of themes and fascinating diversions. 

Peter Bates

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Ravel, Yi, De Falla, Weir, and Smetana.

February 15, 2009

Maurice Ravel liked breaking the rules, if it meant seizing the audience's attention. Perhaps that is why he opens his rhapsody Tzigane unconventionally, with a violin solo. Violinist Joanna Kurkowitz has to put herself in a zone of intense focus for this one. When she does, this most riveting virtuosic piece proceeds with stunning pace and technique, reminiscent of pieces by Niccolò Paganini, Pablo de Sarasate, and even Bela Bartok. Yet it is filled with Ravelian violin technique, like the sudden bursts of pizzacatos, rapid accelerandos, and high register work he used in his String Quartet twenty years previous. The gypsy influence (without authentic gypsy tunes) is so obvious you can practically envision dancers whirling in colourful skirts. This is a true show piece and Kurkowitz and pianist Gloria Chen handle it with skill and creativity. A pity the Chameleons didn't use a luthéal, the prepared piano the piece was originally written for. I've heard they're hard to get.

As pleasantly quirky as this piece is, nothing could have prepared you for Qi, by Chinese composer Chen Yi. In keeping with the folk theme of the concert, the piece has elements of Chinese folk music, as well as instruments like the Chinese Opera gong. Sometimes the instruments sound extracted from nature. At one point in the composition, the instruments sound like agitated flocks of large birds. Cellist Rafael Popper-Kaiser opens this densely modernistic work with sumptuous mysterious tones. Flutist Deborah Boldin plays with sharp accents and rapid glissandos, handling the difficult passages with requisite skill. Percussionist Aaron Trant handles the unusual Chinese and African instruments to startling effect.

Manual de Falla's Siete Canciones Populares Españolas are deceptively simple at first. But in the hands of soprano Sabrina Learman, they become intriguing Spanish folk songs with dipping melodies, dramatic textures, and gently doleful themes. There is a lullaby of such intricacy that I can't picture anyone falling asleep to it. And there's the final song, Polo, a hissing,anguished, Flamenco-inspired piece that left the audience speechless. I half-expected dancers to emerge from the wings, arms flailing and brows knitted.

What makes Judith Weir's work deserve its title: Airs from Another Planet: Traditional Music from Outer Space? Perhaps the way its melody, for all its unorthodox structure, ultimately--and logically--swings. Or the sudden screech-to-a-halt pauses between movements. How about the loopy low-register/high-register dialog in II? Or the short tone-clusters (not at all atonal) in III? Let's not forget its amusing packages of dense musical statement sprinkled throughout. What to make of it? Perhaps Ms. Weir's note may help: This is the music of the Scottish colonisers, several generations later, marooned on a lonely and distant planet; the ancient forms of their national music almost completely lost in translation, with only the smallest vestiges of the national style remaining. I for one would like to hear it again. Alas, we who were so captivated by this bizarre piano woodwind sextet, will have a difficult time obtaining it. I have been able to find only this expensive import. There is a paradox in hearing new music. Before a group like the Chameleons plays it, you may never have heard it before. But then, you may never hear it again.

The Chameleons always play an eighteenth or nineteenth century work in their concerts. Bed?ich Smetana's Piano Trio in G Minor (1857), a work that also opens with a violin solo, features elements of Czech national music. Yet Smetana, a proud man, doesn't quote folk tunes in this piece. He infuses this work with poignant melodies that assume Brahmsian proportions. His lines are clear and highly defined, never muddy or effusive. He ends I with a sudden passionate outburst. Then II opens lightfootedly, Gloria Chen's piano is at one moment skippingly playful, then plaintive! We then hear the heavy trudge of life's woes, to which Smetana was no stranger. Most notable is the deftly humorous ending, with its final whimsical piano statement.

Cutting edge music performed by consummate professionals. You don't need more than this.

Peter Bates

BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL PERFORMS VIVALDI. Venice Baroque Orchestra. Conducted by Giuliano Carmignola.

January 17, 2009

Antonio Vivaldi, the most prolific Italian Baroque composer, was also a priest. Born in the Republic of Venice, Vivaldi was Master of Violin at the Devout Hospital of Mercy in Venice and he composed many operas and concerti for the orphans in the Devout Hospital of Mercy, later holding positions in Mantua and Rome. Vivaldi's large output of 500 concerti, 46 operas, 73 sonatas, and sacred music remains consistently innovative and exuberant, bringing brightness to the formal musical schemata. During his life, his work was popular to the masses and helped the Baroque style move forward into the Classical period.

The Venice Baroque Orchestra, founded in 1997 by Baroque scholar and harpsichordist, Andrea Marcon, is a well-recognized European ensemble dedicated to performances on period instruments. The group has performed in North America, Europe, South America and Japan. They have previously performed Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, compositions of Handel, Monteverdi, and Vivaldi in venues ranging from Amsterdam's Concertgebouw to Tokyo and have made numerous recordings.

The Concerto in D major included energetic and full playing by the small orchestra. Lute work was lustrous and subtle as performed by Ivano Zanengh. In the Concerto in G major or "alla rustica", the strings were joined by airy harpsichord and lute. All the instrumentalists were highly attentive to each other, creating a good orchestral balance. The third concerto (B minor for strings and continuo) developed with a swooping waterfall of notes. Precision and poignancy appeared in equal measure. The Sinfonia in G major began with plucked strings joined by the lute. It was exuberant and elegant, infused with Italian warmth and was deeply appreciated by the audience.

The well-known solo violinist, Giuliano Carmignola, joined the orchestra for the final four concerti on the program. Early winner of the famous Paganini Competition in Genoa, Mr. Carmignola is equally virtuosic on modern and Baroque violins. He has previously performed under Claudio Abbado. His solo work clearly stood out throughout the second half of this concert.

In the Concerto in E minor, Mr. Carmignola's violin caressed the notes. His playing added much fire and verve to the orchestra, soaring particularly in the higher range of his instrument. The Concerto in B flat major included disciplined effulgence. The solo part brought to mind a bright-voiced songbird flying carefully inside the architecture of the orchestra, always stately but never overwhelming the other players. The Concerto in D major included a musical theme and variations during which the soloist sometimes physically turned and played toward the harpsichord and sometimes grew more inner focused. The Concerto in C major was slightly more complex, beginning with robustness, then becoming moody. Darkly textured cello and bass were noteworthy here. The allegro movement was lighter, perhaps acknowledging an answer to some earlier prayer.

This majestic, invigorating concert concluded with three encores, including a masterful performance of Vivaldi's "Winter" from The Four Seasons. A striking, diverse program including lots of virtuosity and great acoustics in Emmanuel Church.

Carolyn Gregory

BOSTON MODERN ORCHESTRA PROJECT (BMOP). Music by Matti Kovler, John Heiss, Peter Maxwell Davies, Kati Agócs, Michael Gandolfi, William Thomas McKinley. Conducted by Gil Rose.

January 17, 2009

At least once a year, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) performs-and sometimes premiers-works by local composers. This year conductor Gil Rose and the orchestra did an impressive job on six new works, several of which must have been challenging to perform. Although it's difficult to characterize music I've heard only once and have little chance of hearing again, I'll give it a shot.

Matti Kovler's A Jew Among the Indians is set to a dense, highly stylized poem by Jerome Rothenberg. Part of the poet's" ethnopoetics," series, the poem "Cokboy" features a Jew set in the middle of the American west, speaking of his bewilderment, ethnic spelling included. Says Rothenberg: "[I wanted] to construct an ancestral poetry of my own - in a world of Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen." With his lapses into incomprehensibility, the character in this poem seems to fits into the first category. As recited by the composer, the piece is only occasionally comprehensible, as in phrase like "could be it's trouble." The music, however, operates differently. At times it sounds Mahlerian, other times it rises dissonantly as Kovler's narration becomes faster and more frenetic. In one passage you get a feeling of the vastness of the open plains, as wind instruments play whooshingly. Quite effective.

John Heiss' Inventions, Contours, and Colors is a well-played chamber work that uses tone clustering and atonal structure to create a mood that evokes Eliot Carter's enfant terrible works from the fifties. While seemingly random and aleatory, this piece is actually highly structured and dense. The college teacher in the composer comes clearly through in this rather academic work. Among the musicians, Rafael Popper-Keizer on cello is most notable, lending a deft hand to more anxious passages.

Peter Maxwell Davies' Strathclyde Concerto No. 7, For Double bass and Orchestra, is an impressive virtuoso piece. Other composers have written concertos for this instrument: notably, Serge Koussevitsky, Eduard Tubin, Hans Werner Henze, and John Harbison. However, none have used such unusual musical devices. The piece starts portentously, tenuously. The double bass growls from the depths. Deceptively off-key horns sound in the distance. Tthroughout, there is no clear sense of development, but that's not the defining aspect of this piece. The double bass seems independent of the orchestra. Exquisitely played by Karl Doty, the instrument goes its merry way through several cadenzas. At one point, only strings accompanying him, in pianissimo tremolo. I wish I could hear it again, but it hasn't been released on disc. Yet.

Kati Agócs' religious work, By the Streams of Babylon, is a brief cantata constructed for Psalm 136. The use of two sopranos is unusual, as is the interplay between percussion and strings. The unison singing of Agócs and Lisa Bielawa could have been tighter, and executed with more imaginative articulation. But as a whole, this is an effective piece with a firm sense of timing.

Michael Gandolfi's From the Institutes of Groove is a lighter work consisting of two parts: "Too Jazz for Rock" has a Leonard Bernsteinian swing to it, a little old-fashioned but it really smokes. "Rising on the Wing (Perpetuum Mobile)" has a more complex structure. Some of the repeated background motives sound like late Philip Glass. Trombonist Angel Subero is featured and shows fine command of his instrument. I was especially struck by his humorous use of the mute in two passages. From the Institutes of Groove is so energetic if you listen closely, you can hear traces of Salsa.

Thomas McKinley employs a unique approach in Recollections (Book 1) . He writes short pieces about his friends/acquaintances and assigns their names (last names included). One piece is a spirited percussion work with three different types of percussion (such as marimba); another features a blowsy big-band sound with sudden brass accents. One has atonal passages with unusually high brass accents. There is a clearly defined individuality to each pastiche, and a host of musical elements come into play. One is a highly dramatic string piece with rising and falling dynamics, another has such a unique background ostinato that it defines the piece more than the central theme. I wonder if the recipients of these musical photographs are pleased, amused, or offended by their portraits. No matter! Sometimes any reaction to modern music these days is a badge worth wearing. I look forward to more performances like this from BMOP.

Peter Bates

EMERSON STRING QUARTET. Music of Dvorák, Ravel, Webern, sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Personnel: Eugene Drucker, violin; Philip Setzer, violin; Lawrence Dutton, viola; David Finckel, cello

December 6, 2008

Sometimes the playing choices a quartet makes determines the quality of an evening’s listening as much as the skill of their playing. This was apparent in last Friday’s performance by the Emerson String Quartet, one the best string quartets in the world. The evening began with a rousing and poignant rendition of Antonin Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 10, (“Slavonic”). Excellent choice. While not as a perennial favourite like the composer’s String Quartet No. 12, (“American”), No. 10 has many notable melodies. The first theme, for example, has a beguiling figure at the end of several bars, reminiscent of a Czech dance. The Emersons played it with considerable aplomb and filled the hall with rhythmical intensity. They glided effortlessly from a warm sunny theme to a more sombre second theme. The Dumka astounded the audience with its fine slide down the cliff of fortissimo. As far as the finale went, I have heard others play this section slower, but after hearing the Emersons do it, I now know that the others were wrong. The movement needs to be both fiery and airy and that’s what we got. 

The composer’s String Quartet No. 14 was not such a good choice. By nature, it is somewhat less appealing than the 10th, but it does have that sly subtle introduction with a tasty sforzando. A keen sense of rhythm was captured in II, whose noble and determined mood is as Schubertian as that composer’s Cello Quintet. Not too much brooding occurred in III, and IV was attractive with tasty dialog between violins and the viola. However, apart from the furious conclusion, the piece is just not up to #10 in musical ideas. The Emersons did field its limitations well, however. 

The evening’s highlight was a tossup between Ravel’s Quartet and Webern’s Six Bagatelles. On one hand, the Ravel’s quartet is a stunner. It was obviously composed by a young man convinced this was going to be his only quartet, so he’d better pour everything into it: entertaining pizzacattos, thundering fortissimos, and those wondrous soaring legatos, like condors descending on a tropical bay. He even included a short second movement, Assez vif, that passed more quickly than a string of bon mots. And in the Emersons’ hands, its ending was boisterous, dramatic, even a little ill-behaved, with so many tutti flourishes that I wondered if gentle melodies were ever going to break through. They did. On the other hand, there was Webern’s tantalizing brevity in Six Bagatelles. It does no good to analyse them here, except to remark that they are witty, even satiric. The Emerson’s underlined the composer’s successful attempts to parody the high dramatics of late Romantic chamber literature with musical jibes and snippets. So yes, I liked the urbanity of both of these works. I also appreciated the Emerson String Quartet for once again giving us an entertaining show, bereft of soul pummelling, no doubt to distract us from our uncertain times.

Peter Bates

BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL – Jordi Savall and Hespèriòn XXI, Music from the Time of Cervantes

October 25, 2008

My first exposure to world class viola da gambist, Jordi Savall, occurred when I attended the film, “Tous les Matins du Monde (1991) which won a César soundtrack award. At a later time when I had a chance to hear Mr. Savall and Hespèriòn in Boston, I jumped at the chance on two occasions in the 1990s. Consequently, I brought high anticipation to this third live concert experience.

The Boston Early Music Festival is an international leader in the world of early music, now in its twenty eighth year. The BEMF is recognized in England and on the European continent as a major early music proponent through its annual concert series which has recorded three Baroque operas in the past several years, the most recent of which was Lully’s Psyché in 2007.

Hespèriòn XXI, directed by Jordi Savall, included eight performers who played soprano, tenor and bass viola da gamba, violone, double harp, lute, theorbo, guitar and percussion. The compositions included both Renaissance and Baroque works ranging from the well known Elizabethan English composer, John Dowland, to anonymous works and German composers. Much of the two halves of the concert included dance music but the range of moods for the different sets varied widely from the subdued and melancholy English dance to the joyous, effusive Mediterranean countries.

Beginning with “Danse del Rinascimento Veneziano”, the ensemble developed the pavane to saltarello movements as if they have been playing together since the beginning of time and only needed some force to prop open their music box! Tambourine, drum, gamba and double harp performed with lilting uplift to the dances whose intricate interwoven rhythms seemed deceptively simple on the surface. Perfect musical tension was established here.

John Dowland’s “Lacrimae Pavan” was textured with tears and infused with a magnificent double harp overlayer by Arianna Savall. Fine guitar work came through clearly. Gibbons’ “In Nomine à 4” was less embroidered and developed some rich lower register tonal color. Slightly exotic use of the sticks and drum transpired in the “Schottische Tanz”. “Danzas y Variaciones del Siglo de Oro” began with courtly dignity, slanted rhythm and some virtuoso gamba playing by Jordi Savall.  Rhythms were complex and oddly made me think of the modern ensemble, Kronos Quartet, who previously have explored African folk music. The “Canarios” variations were simple and delightful, like an extended nursery rhyme in song. The audience was transported backward from the twenty-first century to a calmer, less interrupted world.

Hespèriòn XXI played with the dynamics of a small orchestra. Particularly noteworthy were the vigorous guitar playing by Xavier Diaz-Latorre, the wonderful soprano gamba work by Jordi Savall and Carol Lewis, and the imaginative, sensitive percussion work of Pedro Estevan. “Pavane du Mariage du Roy Louis XIII” was a jewel. “Ludi Musici from Germany” (composed by Samuel Scheidt in the early seventeenth century) was gorgeous, suggesting burgundy shadows of melancholy and included imitation between gambas that finally burst into a joyful chorus in “Galliard Battaglia XXI”.

The concert ended with a selection of Baroque pieces from several European countries. Again, a range of moods came through here with great appeal. The audience was rewarded with rich color, profound melancholy strands, and slight irreverence on occasion. Guitar and percussion were bright in these dances. At the end, the audience exploded in applause and cheers, followed by two encores that again showcased Hespèriòn XXI’s balance between precision and joie de vivre. This was a memorable night of music.

Carolyn Gregory

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Debussy, Penderecki, Brahms

Personnel: Deborah Boldin, flute; Gloria Chien, piano; Gary Gorczyca , clarinet; Eli Epstein, French horn; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; Anna Reinersman, harp; Scott Woolweaver, viola

October 4, 2008

Last Saturday's performance of Boston’s Chameleon Ensemble (the season opening) once again revealed the sheer virtuosity and flexibility of the group. Their first p;iece, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, shows they can handle a quirky piece and put their own stamp on it. Composed in 1915, the piece seemed rather morose for Debussy. He wrote to a friend, "I am writing down all the music that passes through my head like a madman, and rather sadly."After hearing this strange, ethereal sonata performed the following year, he stated, "It is the music of a Debussy I no longer know. It is frightfully mournful, and I don't know whether one should laugh or cry--perhaps both?" The sonata's contrasting instrumental sonorities--plucked harp, bowed string instrument, and woodwind—highlight its various motifs rather sharply. Violist Scott Woolweaver and flutist Deborah Boldin skilfully emphasize the fluid and almost improvisational moods, particularly at the beginning. While there are six melodic ideas, they seem to be fragmentary motives rather than fully developed themes. Mix into that frequent tempo changes and you have a series of episodes, surely not the “development” that Debussy always dreaded. Harpist Anna Reinersman provides tasty harp effects in the second movement: such generous pizzicatos and glissandos! The finale opens dramatically, then, due to its free structure, projects a subdued mood.

The evening’s centrepiece was Penderecki’s spiky Sextet. Everything about this piece, from its threatening martial opening to its sardonic woodwind comments, bespeak a thoroughly modern sensibility without a trace of sentimentality. The ensemble expertly performed the composer’s bursts of sudden agitation. (Some would say anger.) Sometimes Penderecki’s music resembles the ravings of a gifted child prone to outbursts. The musicians play so well together, passing themes back and forth, that no one shines out or overshadows another. Tender melodies creep in, only to surrender to chaotic bars (like Gary Gorczyca’s high pitched clarinet figures). The Allegro Moderato passed quickly like a story by Jorge Borges. By the time it ended, audience members may have found themselves pondering, “what on earth just happened?” The Larghetto provides some calm, with its brief horn and string themes, but still musical lightning strikes with manic intensity. There are semi-conscious layers of dread in this music, like when you wake at 4 AM and find yourself fretting about the economy. A wonderful touch on strings is the quote of Beethoven’s famous “Es muß sein!” motif from String Quartet No. 16 (Op. 135). Genius, sheer genius. And well played!

Brahm’s cheery Piano Trio No. 1 (1889 version) provided a welcome balance to this repast of substantial themes. The three musicians played this music, famous for its Schubertian pathos, at a brisk and affecting pace. Joanna Kurkowicz played with passionate intensity, cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer with utter commitment, and pianist Gloria Chien with a fine sense of rhythm. In this piece Brahms shows he can not only fashion lovely melodies but also provide excellent musical connective tissue. The Scherzo is perfectly timed, with its impish piano runs. The poignant second theme features a subtle interweaving of piano and violin. There is wondrous invention in the Adagio too, like the way it slowly dissolves like a kiss after lovemaking. Finally, the Allegro, with its leaping, light-on-feet opening and its entrancing piano themes. I am glad I attended.

Peter Bates

Boston Chamber Music Society: Beethoven Fest, Concert 3

August 16, 2008

A Saturday evening in summer, listening to Beethoven chamber music. More than relaxing. Stimulating. About the only thing that could sweeten this experience would be a soft cat in your lap and a plate of sliced mango. The August 16 performance of the Boston Chamber Music Society was indeed tasty, with complex flavours augmented by heat swept with cool breezes. The first piece, the famous “Moonlight” Sonata, Opus 27, No. 2, plunged the audience into a receptive mood very early. It is, after all, the dreamy Adagio that everyone remembers. However, pianists really show their chops in the final movement. Pianist Derek Han did a splendid job with the tasty monothematic Adagio, playing it with measured care and respect. In the Allegretto he showed that he could handle Beethoven’s contrasting dynamics better than most. His take on the Presto was a bit faster than I would have liked, but perhaps this walk in the moonlight was visited by a turbulent electrical storm. He did remarkably well without a page turner!

Han also played the D-major cello sonata crisply (although not as briskly), accompanied by Ronald Thomas on cello. Both musicians played the extended intro well and deftly handled the puckish starts and stops. The second movement engulfed listeners in a transcendent tenderness that was nearly elegiac. The cello was most intriguing in its exchanges with the piano, and of course those loping duplets. It had a haunting close, calm yet not undisturbing. The Allegro’s impassioned dialog soon broke into a complex fugue of mercurial moods, turning more dazzling near the close. Here is a sonata that invites repeated listening, even analysis!

The Piano Trio in E-flat Major (Opus 70, No. 2) has been overshadowed by the two named piano trios: the Piano Trio in D Major (The Ghost) and the later Piano Trio in B-flat Major (Opus 97, Archduke). Too bad, for this one is a marvellous piece from Beethoven’s middle period, composed shortly after his Symphony No. 6 (Pastorale). It is most notable for its second movement, which is in double variation form. What initially sounds like playful Mozartean variations changes into clusters of surprising effects--snatches of Slavic tunes, moments of sheer perversity (like the coda). The Allegretto introduces a tuneful theme of Haydenesque proportions, then another, expounded in dialog between strings and piano. In the Finale, we hear dulcet tones from violinist Sheryl Staples, who is a solid craftsperson rather than a show-off virtuoso. The piece ends with an all-enveloping, soaring confident melody. This proved to be a summer’s eve well spent.

Peter Bates

El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Resign of Philip III

Until July 27.

June 15, 2008

There is much to enjoy at the MFA’s current exhibit, El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Resign of Philip III. The first is that the famous El Greco painting St. James (used to promote the show) is unfinished. I’ve always maintained that there are details that viewers miss in reproductions—you must see the original. St. James’ left hand lacks detail, as does the staff he’s holding. Painted in the artist’s last year, the incomplete hand is disturbing, like the ending of Bach’s last work, The Art of the Fugue (which hauntingly trails off into posterity). Few art patrons realize how closely some of El Greco’s paintings resemble later paintings in style, even those of the 19th Century. View of Toledo may throb with manneristic color contrast and saturation, but it is also almost expressionistic. Of course El Greco took liberties with the actual layout of Toledo at the time, but who cares? Vision of St. John shows the eponymous saint holding up his arms, much like the doomed partisan in Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Note the contrast between El Greco’s paintings of royalty contrasted with his paintings of members of Spain’s burgeoning middle class. Jaun Bautista Maino, possibly the royal censor, is painted with astonishing psychological insight, his eyes looking suspiciously leftwards.

Paintings of saints abound in this exhibit, and vary in quality from the stock to the well-crafted. Velázquez’s picture Mary in The Immaculate Conception shows her with the somber and plain face of a peasant girl, looking downward rather than heavenward. El Greco’s St. Francis Venerating the Crucifix is one of my personal favorites, partly because he props the crucifix on a skull. While this strange juxtaposition is understandable from a Renaissance obsession-with-death perspective, it is still a striking image. Other religious images are somewhat less creative, although the two takes on Christ at Calvary (by Corducho and Cajés) are notable. One with a halo looks transfixed, the other appears down to earth, more like a prisoner.

The MFA’s last component of the exhibit is a selection of subjects less heroic than kings and saints: the bodegón. These still lives and views of working people providing a fitting end to the exhibit. One Velázquez’s picture ends the exhibit, Old Woman Cooking Eggs. It features great detail in the two figures’ faces, shadows falling on them from above like those of contemporaneous Dutch master paintings. Taken for what it is—a sampling of the masters and their less adventurous contemporaries—this is a fine exhibit.

I was surprised by the lack of any artistic documentation of the most infamous institution of the era: the Spanish Inquisition. There is certainly much to choose from. Apart from Goya, the auto de fe frequently was taken to the canvas by painters: one of the better known examples is Auto de Fe in the Plaza Mayor, Madrid by Francesco Rizzi. He provided a chilling glimpse into the darkness of the era. Perhaps a copy of that painting affixed to a caption would have provided jolts to any viewers who nourished sentimental views of the Spanish Renaissance.

Peter Bates

PRO ARTE CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: Koulendros, Saint-Saëns, Mendelssohn

Conducted by Kevin Rhodes. Sara Davis Buechner, piano.

May 18, 2008

Last Sunday’s performance of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra produced not one but three surprises. The first was the “aperitif” before the concert, two short pieces by orchestral members Steven Laven (cello) and Jodi Hagen (violin). They did admirable work with Zoltan Kodaly’s delightful Duo for Violin and Cello, a cantible piece with nostalgic melodies punctuated now and then with pizzicato. The second work was Snake River Stomp, a charming light piece Laven wrote on commission for the Jackson Hole, Wyoming graduating class. Aaron Copland would be proud.

The second surprise was the “encore performance of a world premiere,” Mnemes ke Choroi by Christos Koulendros. This piece, with its free structure, folk recollections, and multiple themes, is in fantasia form. Koulendros was not afraid to infuse the work with a bit of dissonance, particularly during the tutti intervals. While the piece skirts the edge of the unconventional, its themes are pleasantly expressed, exuberant even. I found the prominent use of the tympani refreshing, especially since it is traditionally used a background coloration instrument.

The third surprise was Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2, an Atomic Fireball of a piece. From the zinger opening to the frenetic Vivace conclusion, this was clearly pianist Sara Davis Buechner’s shining moment. She leapt and swayed and bobbed through this concerto as if riding a bucking bronco. Although not a particularly profound piece, with not a whit of romantic melancholia, Piano Concerto No. 2 is an entertaining romp tailor-made for the virtuoso. The standing ovation for Buechner was well-earned.

The concluding piece, Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 (“Scottish”) was a workman-like rendition of the famous romantic work. Guest conductor Kevin Rhodes made the hymn-like opening of the adagio suggest denseness and darkness, conveying a distinctly northern mood. (Mendelssohn always maintained that he hated bagpipes and Scottish folk music, yet is that a Highland reel at the heart of the Scherzo?) The Adagio may be the emotional core of the symphony. Rhodes effectively conveyed the wondrous melodic sweep to contrast with the march-like theme. Seamlessly, it lead into the energetic “guerriero” final movement, which featured a pianissimo that developed into a rousing theme. Mendelssohn wanted to suggest a men’s chorus, and that came across beautifully.

Peter Bates

BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: Bartok, Piano Concerto No. 3; Schubert, Symphony in C, "The Great"

Conducted by Bernard Haitink. András Schiff, piano.

March 29, 2008

Last Saturday’s performance of two late works by major composers was thoughtfully done. Both Franz Schubert and Bela Bartók have later works attributed to them, but not ones of such stature. Bartók’s Viola Concerto was even more unfinished than the Piano Concerto No. 3, whose final 17 bars are by Tibor Serly. And Schubert wrote well into his last year: the Great C Major Symphony is his last completed symphony, unperformed during his lifetime but most likely finished three years earlier.

Conductor Bernard Haitink did a solid workman-like job conducting the Bartók piece. From its justly famous opening figure (repeated throughout the movement, in 19th century style) to its lively interludes expressed in contrapuntal fashion, the piece swayed and soared. Much is made of the name of the second movement, “Adagio religioso,” as if Bartók had abandoned the atheism of his earlier years and would soon undergo a deathbed conversion. But those who dwell on its moments of calm ignore its inherent drama. They should listen closely to the impish strains poking through the texture half of the way through. Increasing agitation in the horns and woodwinds indicates that not all is well, as the delusive calm is punctured, then reasserted. Pianist András Schiff expresses an ominous mood as the piano commands the final bars of the movement. In the Allegro Vivace Schiff really shines, as the momentum increases to a frenetic pace, only to lessen for brief intervals. Gentle breezes of nostalgia can be felt as Bartók reminisces about his native Hungary. As the piano ripples through the finale, we hear Serly’s influence on those final 17 bars, and Haitink’s trumpets fill the air with firm decisive strength.

What can be said about Franz Schubert’s Symphony in C, “The Great?” Considered Schubert’s finest symphony, it has a grandeur reminiscent of Beethoven, but with greater emphasis on melody. Most notable is Schubert’s increased reliance on his brass section, particularly the trombones. Haitink had no inhibitions about giving the trombones free reign and aggressive dynamics, particularly in the final movement. Schubert’s deft introduction of ancillary themes, used as connective tissue, is evident in the latter part of this symphony. Melodic seeds are planted and minutes later, they sprout into imposing structures, like deciduous trees. Schubert is in complete control, and the impetus of development is well-sustained. As if riding an Arabic stallion, Haitink controlled of the dynamics and timbre of the piece. His subtle workings infused new life into a piece that many consider a warhorse.

Peter Bates

ALVIN AILEY AMERICAN DANCE THEATER. Performing Night Creature, Reflections in D, Saddle Up!, and Revelations. Presented by the Celebrity Series.

February 10, 2008

Here are the pieces performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater:

Night Creature (1974). Choreography by Alvin Ailey, music by Duke Ellington (“Night Creature”), lighting by Chenault Spence, performed by the company.
In Night Creature the dancers swung their bodies to a lush samba. There were hip swiveling swaggers, and waltzes, and unpredictable eruptions of free movement. The locations went from dance clubs to dance class in this showy burst of virtuosity, which played to audience acclaim. One woman danced a sumptuous solo, in marked contrast to what would follow as the last piece of the afternoon. Dancers entered behind her, reflecting her in glorious unison, facing outward, giving all they had. In the words of the Duke, himself: “Night creatures, unlike stars, do not come OUT at night – they come ON . . . .”

Reflections in D (1962). Choreography by Alvin Ailey, restaged by Judith Jamison, music by Duke Ellington (“Reflections in D”), lighting by Nicola Cernovitch, performed by Amos J. Machanic Jr.
Reflections in D was originally choreographed by Alvin Ailey as his own show piece. This three-minute number was meant as a transition, allowing the dancers to change costumes between dances. But on Sunday night Amos J. Machanic Jr. plunged inside this music and writhed and leaped onstage like a pursued wildcat. This brief but riveting performance to the music of Duke Ellington showed how Machanic has tapped the well of greatness, making the difficult look easy. I found myself watching his curving arms as much as his feet.

Saddle Up! (2007): Choreography by Frederick Earl Mosley, Music Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, Lighting by Al Crawford.
This new, charming, and unabashedly hokey piece is a series of short sketches that display almost every Wild West cliché you’ve ever seen in all your decades of movie viewing. Zach Law Ingram, the “sheriff,” begins alone onstage, wielding a toy hobbyhorse: the wild frontier made accessible to the children in the audience. In succeeding scenes, he “fought” a saloon hooligan over the attentions of Alicia J. Graf, who meekly watched this unusual male pas de deux. She then danced a lamentation for Mr. Ingram, wielding the Stetson he'd left behind. She exited the stage with his hat perched on her head. In the finale, she and the other dancers got into a rousing Hoedown as they congregated in chorus line formation at the front of the stage. The music consisted of intriguing selections from Yo-Yo Ma's "Appalachian Journey" CD. There was lots flouncing about, skirt rustling, and horsy dust-pawing that are legal tender in the cowpoke realm. Several times, notably in duets, Mosley infused the composition with much polish. All the Ailey dancers jangled their spurs and slapped their thighs, as their clowning and dancing became polished to a high gloss. It’s a light family piece and, unlike the real west, nobody got hurt.

Revelations (1960): Choreography by Alvin Ailey, music, traditional, décor and costumes by Ves Harper, costumes for "Rocka My Soul" redesigned by Barbara Forbes, lighting by Nicola Cernovitch, performed by the company.
The last piece was Revelations. Are you surprised? Ailey’s 1960 masterpiece (made even more famous by Max Waldman’s photograph of Judith Jamison) has become, perhaps justly, the calling card of the troupe. It’s right up there with Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake as a defining dance moment. When that blue material started billowing in imitation of flowing water, the audience billowed right along with it. As always, the company gave the requested encore. This was such an obvious crowd pleaser to the gospel aficionados and church goers in the audience. They almost jumped up on the stage with the dancers, wagging their bodies and flooding the troupe in a storm of applause. Alas the evening ended without a single glance at Linda Celeste Sims, that sensuous dancer in the advertising photos.

Peter Bates

CHAMELEON ARTS ENSEMBLE OF BOSTON. Music of Brahms, Thomson, Mansurian, Liebermann, and Prokofiev.

Personnel: Deborah Boldin, flute; Gloria Chien, piano; Anna Reinersman, harp; Sabrina Learman, soprano; William Manley, percussion; Joanna Kurkowicz, violin; Rafael Popper-Keizer, cello; Scott Woolweaver, viola.

February 2, 2008

Once again the Chameleons have produced a chamber concert worthy of their name. As is their tradition, there was a mixture of traditional and new pieces. This time there were unique and unusual interpretations of those traditional pieces. The beginning composition was Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor. Well played by cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer and pianist Gloria Chien, this beloved nineteenth century work begins in low rumbling contemplation, then quickly shifts to impassioned declaration. The charming second theme reveals a touch of sunlight, shifts back into overcast mood, then yields to a forceful recapitulation of the first theme. Popper-Keizer chooses to hold back the reins of intensity in this movement: while other cellists like Pablo Casals tend to speed through this hallowed hall, he prefers to explore its interior first. The second movement, with its staccato opening theme, is dance-like, even scherzo-like. But it is only in the third movement that the galloping truly begins. There is fine interplay between the two musicians, tossing repeats back and forth like bonbons. The accelerandos are forceful and confident, at once beguiling and aggressive, leading to an orgasmic finale.

Despite its title, the rarely performed Virgil Thomson piece, Five Phrases from Song of Solomon, is not a sacred piece. Its odd instrumentation, drums and a soprano, may have made some audience members scratch their heads. However, after the first “phrase,” listeners in my row smiled at the charming, oddly secular love songs, marvelously sung by Sabrina Learman. Thomson’s use of the drums is minimal in all but the fifth piece. In today’s multi-cultural environment, Thomson's basic tom-tom rhythm would probably be supplanted by more complex ones, perhaps with African or Brazilian instruments. However, the temple blocks in the fifth piece do produce stirring and intriguing effects. Berets off to drummer William Manley!

Manley was also featured with violist Scott Woolweaver in the Boston premiere of Tigran Mansurian’s mysterious Duo for Viola & Percussion. Have you ever heard of a “puzzle canon?” It is an eighteen century canon in which the performer must quickly discover which rule applies to the canon. Mansurian’s duo is not a canon, but it is certainly a puzzling piece. The foreboding viola opening is accompanied by Manley on vibraphone. The themes are introduced in a random, almost aleatory fashion. Viola glissandos interact with intermittent percussive notes. Sometimes it seems like a viola solo with percussion intrusion. Unlike Bartok’s celebrated Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, the interplays are rarely clear cut. At one point, there is one, a dialog between the viola and marimba, and it is almost whimsical. Perhaps this duo is an extended essay on twenty-first century angst. I am glad the Chameleons played it, to introduce us to this enigmatic composer. I enjoyed the use of the crotale, a bizarre bell that Manley played with a bow and sounds like a glass harmonica. But I’ll be hornswoggled if I can unlock the redoubtable door of this piece, or even find its key.

Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Harp (actually more of a fantasia) begins with a languid flute accompanied by sturdy ostinatos on Anna Reinersman’s harp. There are all sorts of treats in this delightful piece, such as beguiling scalar interludes, an allegro with smooth collaboration, and an underlying jazzy feel to some themes. There is a madcap middle section featuring complex harp interaction. This is not your typical “light and airy” flute piece played outdoors at a daycare center benefit. It can play rough and raw at times. Toward the end, flutist Deborah Bolden plays a haunting melody with a middle eastern flavor and the effect is stunning. The finale ends the piece as it began, slow, languid, and satisfying.

“It’s difficult playing Prokofiev at ten o’clock at night!” said violinist Joanna Kurkowicz after her stellar rendition of the Sonata No. 1 in F Minor. Yes, probably as difficult as diving into a cold mountain stream. But if you are a good swimmer, you quickly adapt. Portentous piano figures and quivering violin notes open this piece, and the audience instantly senses that they’re in for a twentieth century experience different from the jocund pyrotechnics of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2. Composed before and after World War II, Sonata No. 1 features doleful crossbowing, rapid glissandos and spectacular demisemiquavers. Kurkowicz and Chien both excel at exposing the harsh edges of a piece, and in this one there is perfect synchronicity between the two. It’s as if they are one player before us with two sets of arms. In the second movement (Allegro brusco), the descending triplets, shards of melody, are repeated furiously, almost angrily. The Andante is a keening, but not entirely tragic, movement. The musicians’ grasp of Prokofiev’s faint hope glimmerings is poignant without a trace of sentimentality. The final movement is virtuosic, arch, even playful. The way Chien accompanies Kurkowicz’s tasty pizzacatos is amazing, as is the way both lead the piece to its melancholic coda.

Peter Bates