Nathan premiere headlines Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ wide-ranging program

January 12, 2015 at 12:20 pm

By David Wright

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players performed the world premiere of Eric Nathan’s “Why Old Places Matter” Sunday at Jordan Hall. Photo: Hilary Scott

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players treated listeners Sunday afternoon at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to a program of discoveries—including the ultimate discovery, a world premiere.

Eric Nathan’s Why Old Places Matter for oboe, horn, and piano, commissioned for these players by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, made its bow in a performance that seemed to do full justice to its jumpy, stuttering rhythms, evocative solos, and idiomatic writing for each instrument.

Filling out the bill was a bagful of novelties: a melodious quintet for winds by Josef Mysliveček, contemporary of Haydn and friend of Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart; haunting music for flute and string quartet by the Boston-based Romantic composer Arthur Foote; and a familiar piece by Dvořák, the Serenade for Strings in E major, dressed in unfamiliar new clothes.

Local connections abounded in this music.  Foote was prominent in Boston musical life for half a century as composer, organist, and teacher.  Nathan was a Tanglewood Fellow and presently teaches at Williams College.  Even the English conductor-arranger Nick Ingman, who recast Dvořák’s Serenade for an octet of strings, winds, and piano, spent some of his student days at Berklee College of Music and New England Conservatory.  Only Mysliveček was too busy wowing audiences in Italian opera houses back in the 1770s to visit the Hub of the Universe.

No doubt his music made it here in printed form, however.  When Mysliveček’s operatic fame was at its zenith, his chamber compositions sold briskly on the home music market.  Alas, by the time he composed a set of six quintets for the unusual ensemble of two oboes, two horns, and bassoon in 1780, illness and show-business intrigue had sunk his career, and no publisher would touch them.  He died a few months later, at 43.

His melodic imagination and expert workmanship appeared undiminished, however, in the Wind Quintet No. 2 in G major.  John Ferrillo made his oboe sound like a creamy-toned soprano, sometimes duetting prettily with fellow oboist Mark McEwen, in the aria-like Larghetto sostenuto.  James Sommerville and Rachel Childers on horns contributed a general glow and some discreet toots.

A good deal of the ensuing Allegro consisted of whimsical dialogue for the two horns alone, and the bassoon led the way in the relaxed, skipping finale, which was marked Presto but sounded more like Allegretto.  But then, this was music for intimate enjoyment, not for showing off.

Intimacy of a different sort characterized Foote’s Nocturne and Scherzo for flute and string quartet, especially in the first movement, where murmuring strings, shifting harmonies, and Elizabeth Rowe’s exceptionally full-toned and malleable flute evoked an interior landscape in 50 shades of melancholy.  An urgent central climax for strings spent itself, and the flute stole back in, holding the listener spellbound to the movement’s hushed close.

After that, it’s wasn’t easy to tune one’s mind to the drawing-room comedy of the Scherzo, despite an admirably fleet and piquant performance by Rowe and violinists Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Jules Eskin.  The well-crafted score had many charms in the outer sections and some mystery in the trio’s long flute and cello solos, but a certain gentlemanly reserve—a trait that to some extent restrained all the Boston Romantic composers except Amy Beach—left it sounding rather pallid compared to the Nocturne.

Nathan’s new piece, Why Old Places Matter, is also cast in two movements, one evoking a vivid experience and the other “recollected in tranquillity.”  That phrase is from Wordsworth, but Nathan got the piece’s title from closer by, a series of articles on historic preservation by a fellow Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

This august institution has offered American composers from Roger Sessions and Samuel Barber to Yehudi Wyner and Aaron Jay Kernis the opportunity to step outside the New World and get a fresh perspective from some really old places.  That perspective can take many forms, including an entire musical work devoted to processing the experience of being there, which is how Eric Nathan described his piece in a note in Sunday’s program.

If the piece is, as he wrote, “a personal expression of the feelings and emotions I have experienced in ‘old places,’” those emotions must have included excitement, agitation, even disorientation, judging from the work’s first movement, a rush of nervous exclamations for oboe and piano over a calmer horn line.

Pianist Randall Hodgkinson executed his part’s spurting arpeggios and marcato chords with a deft and light touch.  He, oboist Ferrillo, and hornist Sommerville sounded perfectly in synch for the music’s relentlessly syncopated outbursts and silences.

In the second movement, Nathan abandoned furious dissonances for long stretches of the horn playing softly by itself, repeating a gently upward-leaping figure.  Without Sommerville’s endlessly artful inflections, this unremarkable motive might not have made very interesting listening; but the imaginative hornist called, responded, reflected, and in general imbued the little motive with that nostalgic ache that is his instrument’s specialty.

Eventually, the oboe slipped in with calls of its own, the piano rumbled and tinkled in the background, and all seemed to be listening intently for the sound of ancient footsteps and voices.  After the work’s quiet close, the audience warmly applauded the players and the composer, who joined them onstage.

The concert closed with some delightful music wrapped in an odd package, a score for mixed chamber ensemble that has been shopped around for the last 20 years, almost but not quite claiming to be a lost work by Dvořák.  It was, quite recognizably, the familiar Serenade for Strings, arranged for two violins, viola, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano.

Dvořák did indeed compose an “octet-serenade” for that ensemble in 1873, which was lost or destroyed after one performance the following year.  And he did compose his evergreen Serenade in less than two weeks in May 1875, when his fame was just blossoming and there was a sudden demand for his compositions.  Did he take his earlier piece and rework it in a more commercially viable form?

There’s no actual evidence that he did, and so arranger Ingman’s speculative back-composing of the lost octet remains just a curiosity, if a sometimes very attractive one.

What the arrangement did prove is that great melodies sound terrific no matter what you play them on.  That is the principle behind the endless stream of arrangements that publishers in the pre-gramophone era sold to amateur musicians who wanted to play the hits themselves, and the reason adventurous artists today sometimes dust off the old arrangements for their recital programs.

In that spirit, on Sunday one could enjoy the new colors that piano and winds brought to the formerly all-strings texture—not so much at the very beginning, where one missed that silky string sound as the low-pitched winds growled and gurgled, but definitely in the third movement, a Scherzo that merrily tossed its theme from part to part, piano to violin to horn and so on, in close imitation.

In the second movement, a dainty waltz, Ingman handled the piano and winds sensitively, but in this case all that handing off of phrases from instrument to instrument seemed like too much orchestration for such a slender piece.

Not so in the expressive fourth movement, Larghetto, recast by Ingman very effectively in the familiar style of a Romantic slow movement with piano accompaniment.  Pianist Hodgkinson duetted affectingly with violinist Lowe, then supported the lush sound of all four strings, and finally backed the winds in the return of the main theme, a satisfying sequence of musical events.

One worried that the lightness of Dvořák’s speedy finale would not survive the addition of piano and winds, but that fear proved unfounded, as pianist Hodgkinson in particular proved he could play as leggiero as anybody.  Even the nostalgic return of the first-movement theme at the end sounded better than the first time, perhaps because one’s ears had adjusted to the unfamiliar ensemble.

Any reservations expressed here about the historical significance or musical aptness of Ingman’s arrangement do not reflect in any way on the sterling musicianship of Messrs. Svoboda, Sommerville, Lowe, Martinson, Ansell and Hodgkinson, or bassist Edwin Barker and clarinetist William R. Hudgins, all of whom clearly embraced this chance to perform a concert favorite that four of them had probably never played before.  And just as clearly, the audience loved it.

The next concert of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players will be works of Schumann and Kurtág with pianist Emanuel Ax, March 15 in NEC’s Jordan Hall.  bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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