In the middle of chamber music programs VII, VIII, IX and X, music director Geoff Nuttall inserted some pretty great modern music. It was the meat of the sandwich, the nutritious stuff for which audiences seem to be developing a taste.
The first of these concerts at the Dock Street Theatre opened with a Vivaldi concert for oboe and violin. Lovely. And it ended with a refined performance of Brahms’ magnificent Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, featuring Inon Barnatan at the keyboard, Livia Sohn on violin, Meena Bhasin on viola and Nina Lee on cello. The fourth movement, a “rondo alla zingarese,” made all the little hairs stand up. A thrilling closer.
But it was the piece in the middle, “Aus dem Nachlass” (“From the estate”) by Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008), that focused my concentration most. A 20-minute work written for viola (Masumi Per Rostad), cello (Joshua Roman) and double bass (Doug Balliett), the trio was an evocative, quirky set of short movements that struck me as a disjointed musical representation of three family members discussing matters ranging from art to politics. Sometimes they agreed, sometimes they disagreed. Often they didn’t bother to pay much attention to one another, preferring to make independent declarations. It was a form of musical theater in miniature.
The next chamber music program opened with a bang, showing off the technical skills of 22-year-old British trombonist Peter Moore. He played “Doolallynastics (A Brief Torture for Solo Trombone)” by fellow trombonist Brian Lynn, who knows well the limits of the instrument and how to push past them. From the title, you might imagine what it sounded like.
Alban Berg’s “Vier Stuecke” Op. 5 followed, featuring Todd Palmer on clarinet and Gilles Vonsattel at the piano. Again, we were treated to some unorthodox music in the middle of the show, again a series of short evocative movements, again a fascinating, often delicate, elusive conversation.
The concert ended with Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-Flat Major, op. 100, which featured Pedja Muzijevic on piano, Sohn on violin and Roman on cello. They offered an affecting interpretation of a masterpiece at once Classical in its musical language and Romantic in its far-reaching form. Schubert really went for it, creating complex, ever-shifting, glorious music. And it was presented with great respect for the composer’s 31-year-old genius. (He would die about a year after completing the trio.)
In the 9th program, the opener was one of those immaculate chamber confections of Mozart, a quintet of dance music that was supposed to feature a French horn, but was instead presented with a tenor trombone since Moore was in the house and since the trombone’s register matched that of the horn. It was impressive to hear Moore play the brisk, ornamented melodies of the first and last movements, and the lovingly sustained lines of the slow middle movement, but I missed the oozing warmth of the horn.
For something completely different, Vonsattel appeared next to perform Bartok’s “Out of Doors,” another post-Romantic multi-movement evocative piece, this time meant to mimic, or at least represent, the sounds of a unusual musical instruments and of nature, albeit in Bartok’s peculiar Hungarian manner.
It started with drums and pipes, continued with a rolling sea song followed by an odd little musing on ornamental French keyboard music as if it were played on a small bagpipe, then delved into the night forest to cast a spell. It finished with a rambunctious fox hunt.
Bartok is not exactly known for program music, so it was cool to hear him setting musical scenes and telling musical stories. Vonsattel clearly loves the piece and played it with finesse and flair. The last movement especially was heart-pounding.
The program ended with 20th century British composer Gerald Finzi’s neo-Romantic clarinet concerto, arranged by Todd Palmer for chamber ensemble. It was lush and sentimental, perhaps a little over-the-top, though nicely played by Palmer and his team.
The penultimate program of the season, and the last one I attended, remained true to the form Nuttall had established for the second half of the series: it began with a short piece meant to impress — this time composer-in-residence Doug Balliett’s Fanfare for Trombone, Double Bass, and Bass Clarinet — a neat romp that employed a variety of textures and sounds, uneven meters and rhythmic drive, and even embedded a Haydn quotation for fun.
It was followed by two Rachmaninoff songs performed by tenor Paul Groves (singing in Russian), with Vonsattel on piano and Nuttall on violin playing the part of Rachmaninoff’s compositional collaborator, Fritz Kreisler.
Then came the contemporary piece in the middle: Three songs by Balliett from his “Swoon” cycle, set to texts by poet J. Mae Barizo. These were correctives. Balliett said he’d been listening to Schumann’s song cycle “Frauen-Liebe und Leben” (“A Woman's Love and Life”), with its dated and, by today’s standards, sexist poetry about a woman’s devotion to her man. He decided to write a set of songs with new and improved words suitable to our times.
Groves, accompanied by piano quartet, accepted the challenge and rendered these songs engaging and delightful.
The program finished with a stunning late-Romantic piece by Arnold Schoenberg for two violins, two violas and cello, called “Verklaerte Nacht.” This was program music, too, telling the story of a passionate love affair with an altruistic ending. One could hear Schoenberg pushing the boundaries of tonality, but never quite breaking through. It was a great example of the composer’s redolent early work, and it was evident that the performers had invested themselves in it.
I share Nuttall’s interest in contemporary music and his love of the human voice, so it’s particularly gratifying to find both well represented in the chamber music series. But I also look forward to more Schumann, Brahms and maybe a little Shostakovich.