Langer premiere makes luminous impact with Boston Symphony Chamber Players

March 4, 2019 at 1:01 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Ken-David Masur conducted the Boston Symphony Chamber Players in the world premiere of Elena Langer's "Five Reflections on Water" Sunday at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Ken-David Masur conducted the Boston Symphony Chamber Players in the world premiere of Elena Langer’s “Five Reflections on Water” Sunday at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Sunday’s concert by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players at Jordan Hall was short but substantial, focused primarily on music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The afternoon’s highlight was the world premiere of Elena Langer’s bracing Five Reflections on Water. A 15-minute-long BSCP commission for ten musicians, Reflections is smartly written and full of intriguing ideas clearly expressed.

The Moscow-born, London-based Langer has a busy career composing for the theater. Her music is widely performed in Europe, and she’s written operas and music theater scores, as well as instrumental music.

Her ties to the BSO date back about a decade. Langer was a composition fellow at Tanglewood in 2009. Five Reflections was commissioned by the BSO several years ago but its completion had to be postponed while Langer underwent chemotherapy for cancer. Her post-treatment European travels with her son included a lot of swimming, a fact reflected in the current work.

Accordingly, each of the Five Reflections’ movements is based on water imagery, some alluding to specific places, others more gestural and abstract.

Static textures define the first one: sustained pitches are framed by short woodwind flourishes and bent string tones, while slivers of melodies bubble to the surface. Eventually, the melodic writing becomes more pronounced, leaping across wide intervals, but the music’s character remains essentially glassy.

That changes in the diaphanous second movement, in which vigorously contrapuntal woodwind lines dance over shimmering string arpeggios. A short, reflective episode for solo strings in the middle provides a breather before the opening, Daphnis-like material returns.

For the third movement, Langer wrote a tripping waltz that disintegrates as it progresses. Shards of woodwind tunes become increasingly splintered and the pizzicato string accompaniment devolves into skeletal form.

This leads directly into the fourth movement, which evokes falling raindrops. Beginning with string tremolos, the full ensemble is quickly engaged, and the music ebbs and surges rather like a summer rain storm, ending with a big, sudden whiff.

Reflections’ finale recalls certain gestures from earlier in the piece (the first movement’s liquidy glissandos figure prominently) while also providing some soaring writing for piccolo, oboe, clarinet, and violin. As in much of the rest of the score, Langer’s writing here is basically diatonic but seasoned with pungent chromatic turns and ear-catching ideas. The last one is breathtaking, indeed: floating woodwind lines and artificial harmonic string glissandos simply evaporate into the ether.

Sunday’s premiere, conducted by Ken-David Masur, was tightly-knit and full of personality. The central movements were particularly characterful, the BSCP gamely drawing out the second’s genial sunniness and the fourth’s seething turbulence. Let’s have more music from Langer – both from BSCP and BSO.

Many of the same qualities also mark Michael Gandolfi’s Plain Song, Fantastic Dance, a 2005 BSCP commission that was the afternoon’s closer.

A septet for mixed strings and winds, the first of its three movements, “St. Botolph’s Fantasia,” draws on plainchant and Medieval music, weaving them together in increasingly complex ways. Its second, “Tango Blue,” seems misnamed, neither sounding much like a tango nor, until the acidy penultimate chord, the blues. Rather, it’s a good-natured, off-kilter dance that pits string quartet against woodwind trio. The finale’s title, “Quick Step,” is similarly misleading. Here, a short, scalar motive is passed around the ensemble, which takes its time to get moving. Eventually it does, though the feeling is more that of a grand fugal wrap-up than any sort of nimble shimmy.

At any rate, Sunday’s reading was a lively one. Clarinetist William Hudgins’ syncopated phrasings set the first movement’s rollicking tone and the music’s lean textures sang brightly. Richard Sebring’s horn solos in the second were mighty and golden, while violist Stephen Ansell made brilliant work of Gandolfi’s bravura writing in the finale.

Further fireworks were to be heard Sunday with cellist Blaise Déjardin’s and double bassist Edwin Barker’s account of Gioachino Rossini’s Duetto in D. An 1824 score, its three movements adapt Rossini’s penchant for euphony and virtuosity to instrumental, rather than vocal, forces.

Déjardin and Barker proved a charismatic duo with plenty of rapport to go around, each imbuing their imitative lines with well-matched vim. In the soaring slow movement, Barker demonstrated that his bass, with its thick, musky tone, could sing as nobly as Déjardin’s swooning cello.

Samuel Barber’s charming woodwind quintet Summer Music opened the afternoon. A mid-1950s score written for the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, it showcases Barber at his most songful, alternating tender, lyrical sections with rhythmic, playful ones.

Sunday’s performance teemed with gusto. The BSCP winds’ articulations of the score’s energetic pages were perfectly unified while the contemplative moments floated dreamily. John Ferrillo delivered his oboe solos supply and the music’s busy passages were always thoughtfully balanced.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players will perform music by Mozart, Françaix, and Beethoven 3 p.m. April 14 at Jordan Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200

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