Stepping foot inside Jordan Hall is always a treat. Its modest exterior gives no indication of the delight within, and immediately one feels somewhat nostalgic, until it hits you that the features of the stage are strikingly similar to those in Symphony Hall just up Huntington Ave. Jordan Hall is the primary performance space of the New England Conservatory (NEC), and their theatre is beautiful. From my second row balcony seat, I sat sloped toward the stage and tried to recline with the lean. In all honesty, I’m always just happy to be there for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players concerts, which only perform about four times a year on Sunday afternoons. Each concert represents a one-time program, and this afternoon’s featured Bohuslav Martinu’s Four Madrigals, the world premiere of André Previn’s Octet for Eleven, Daris Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi René, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor. It was admittedly my first time hearing all four pieces.
This excellent program began with principal violist Steven Ansell’s announcement that Mr Previn had injured his hand in an epic battle with a door and that he would not play in the piano quartet as scheduled. Most of us in the audience it seemed were unable to catch the name of the replacement pianist, though I believe he is affiliated with NEC. Naturally, we wish Mr Previn a speedy and full recovery.
The Martinu featured oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William R Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda in a trio that is strikingly different from those involving strings that I am more accustomed to. To my ears, the voices are clearly distinct but share enough commonality in timbre to be slightly transparent at times. I love the tone of the oboe and bassoon, and the clarinet provides the higher range. The Lento was particularly beautiful with the wind ensemble, though I enjoyed the entire piece.
Previn’s Octet for Eleven, written this year, had an interesting arrangement of the eleven players on the stage. Seated in their natural positions were the strings, with BSO Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and BSO second violin principal Haldan Martinson on the audience left, and BSO cello principal Jules Eskin (one of my favorites to watch) and BSO viola principal Mr Ansell seated on the audience right. Behind the deeper strings sat BSO principal bassist Edwin Barker. In an arcing row behind them sat BSO principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe followed by Mr Hudgins, Mr Ferrillo, Mr Svoboda, and BSO principal French horn player James Sommerville and finally BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs. Whew.
This piece is arranged into three movements, whose fairly straightforward names really do not leave anything to interpretation: for instance, the first movement is entitled, “♩ = 92”, signifying that each quarter note occurs at 92 beats per minute. No “Allegro moderato” is found here — clearly a composer who knows what he wants! The piece itself was unassuming, fairly straightforward through the first two movements but seemed to grow in complexity by the final movement. It was easy to hear the give and take from the winds and brass to the strings, creating a nice conversation. As always, I enjoyed Ms Rowe’s brief but memorable solo playing. I often do not know what to expect from modern compositions, but I did enjoy this one. Mr Previn was on hand tonight despite the injury and was greeted to a standing ovation for the successful premiere.
After the intermission, we heard a very pleasant piece, Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi René (The Fireplace of King René). This seven song wind quintet featured Ms Rowe and Mr Ferrillo, Hudgins, Svoboda, and Sommerville. It reminded me of period music such as that which one might hear at a Medieval or Renaissance festival but with modern wind instruments. I half expected to see a person skipping across the stage while playing the recorder, but for better or worse, it didn’t happen.
Finally, with apologies to our unknown pianist, the Mozart Quartet in G minor for piano and strings (K. 478) was performed by Mr Lowe, Ansell, and Eskin. I believe that Mozart is very difficult to play properly, perhaps more so than other composers. While Mozart is often serious music, it is also often times playful and carefree. This piece manages to capture the moods of both, with dark and dramatic starts and finishes but lighter throughout. Perhaps it is my narrow interpretation of Mozart, but I believe that, especially with the lighter side of Mozart, the bowing technique and attack matters enormously in effective performances. By and large, this chamber group succeeded in that heady task, with special compliments to our currently nameless pianist: the piano seems to be an instrument on which it is particularly difficult to execute properly staccato notes while maintaining the proper amount of air or space in its wake, and the pianist did marvelously in this regard.
I love small ensemble concerts at Jordan Hall for its acoustics and intimacy. Ensemble performers can never really blend into the surroundings of the orchestra and thus have to be nearly flawless in their execution, and the reliable Chamber Players certainly don’t disappoint.