Mar. 30 Boston Chamber Music Society

Boston Chamber Music SocietyBoston Chamber Music Society, Syracuse Orange produce outstanding team efforts Saturday

The celebrated chamber music ensemble showed that ‘March Madness’ in this town isn’t strictly limited to college basketball

By David Abrams

The Syracuse Orange wasn’t the only team to score big on Saturday.  Just ask the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music fans — who less than an hour after the final buzzer signaled the Orange’s trip to The Final Four left their TV sets to catch the Boston Chamber Music Society concert.

Come to think of it, the game plans for both teams were identical: tightly knit ensemble play, synchronized execution and solid teamwork.

Now in the final months of its 30th season, the Boston Chamber Music Society (BCMS) is the longest running chamber music series in New England.  The group comprises a core of “member musicians,” led by violist and BCMS Artistic Director Marcus Thompson, pianist Randall Hodgkinson and newly appointed professor of violin at Syracuse University, Harumi Rhodes; as well as a consortium of guest artists that include cellist Astrid Schween and clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois.  Taken individually, these are first-rate performers at the top of their games.  Together, they play as a cohesive and experienced ensemble.

Saturday’s program opened with Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, a product of the promising young composer’s early period (written in 1797) whose firm command of string writing looks ahead to the outstanding Opus 18 string quartets.

The trio consisting of Harumi Rhodes, Astrid Schween and Marcus Thompson sounded the opening four-note descending motif in perfect unison and forged a solid rhythmic feel through the strongly accented recurring weak beats that kept the movement alert throughout.  The ensemble’s rhythmic prowess peaked in the third movement scherzo, with the four-note motif passing playfully and seamlessly from player-to-player.  Balance of sound among the three players was excellent throughout the four-movement work.

The Beethoven Trio afforded me my first good look at Rhodes since the 2008 Skaneateles Festival, where her warm and intimate phrasing in Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio in D Minor and Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat major impressed me with her level of musicianship and understanding of the two musical styles.  I also remember how Rhodes maintained her composure during the chilly Saturday outdoors Brook Farm concert, when her stand light went out during the end of the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos No.5, leaving her to play the rest of the three-movement work in near-total darkness.  That she missed neither note nor beat through the rest of the work spoke volumes about her level of preparation.

Rhodes bore the lion’s share of the work on Saturday’s program, playing the challenging lead part in three of the four works.  She played confidently and fearlessly, and while she had an occasional tendency to lose intonation on a pitch every now and then, Rhodes delivered her parts both with technical precision and stylistic grace and élan.

Max Bruch’s Eight pieces for clarinet, viola and piano, composed in 1909 and publish the following year, is an über-Romantic work that exploits the dark and expressive alto registers of the clarinet and viola, and treats the piano almost as if it were a harp.  Here, violist Thompson was joined by pianist Randall Hodgkinson and clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois (misspelled in the printed program as “de Luis-Langois”) in a performance that found just the right balance between playfulness, sensitivity — and schmaltz.  Honoring the composer’s wishes that the work not be done as a complete cycle, only three of the pieces (nos. 2, 6 and 7) were programmed for this performance.

When I last saw Thompson at the 2011 Cooperstown Summer Music Festival, I marveled at the violist’s rich and strongly defined tone that helped breath life into Dohnányi’s magnificent string trio, the Serenade in C Major, Op. 10, and his shimmering arpeggiated figures that captured joie de vivre of Albert Roussel’s Trio for Flute, Viola and Cello.

Thompson was every bit as adept as I had remembered, playing with a rich tone that forged a worthy complement to the timbre of the clarinet (which I dare say is every violist’s alter ego).  Nevertheless, the center of attention in this piece lay with the clarinet part — for which Bruch wrote for his son.  And de Guise-Langlois pretty much stole the show here.

The attractive young French Canadian clarinetist, a graduate of Montreal’s McGill University and the Yale School of Music who now makes her home in Brooklyn, has a string of competition medals to her credit and performs regularly with top-tier chamber ensembles such as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  The accolades are well deserved, judging from this piece and Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat Suite that followed.

Guise-Langlois plays with a sound that clarinetists like to call “French,” meaning an easy-going tone whose fluid legato and extremely soft dynamic levels typically come at the expense of intensity of tone (which defines the so-called “German” sound).  While I much prefer the German sound, I found myself growing increasingly drawn to de Guise-Langlois’s sinuous tone, which is pure and attractive (and at times even mesmerizing) with its focused quality — and hint, just a hint, of vibrato.

The delicacy of her playing was especially apparent in the two pieces in minor keys, No.2 in B-minor and No. 6 in G-minor — the latter of which gave her great leeway in milking the phrases to the extreme.  Guise-Langlois’s intonation was incredibly accurate in all registers, even across the tricky “throat-tones,” which tend to be sharp in pitch.  Pianist Hodgkinson faithfully rolled his piano chords in the manner of  a harp (Bruch had originally intended to use a harp rather than piano in this work), and found the right dynamic balance to match timbres with Thompson and de Guise-Langlois.

Hodgkinson, de Guise-Langlois and Rhodes returned for Stravinsky’s own trio arrangement of his septet, L’Histoire du soldat, set here as a five-movement suite for clarinet, violin and piano.  Although you’d never guess it from the pernicious writing for clarinet, the work was commissioned by a wealthy amateur clarinetist (now there’s an oxymoron: “wealthy clarinetist”) and signaled the beginning of the composer’s neo-classic period.

Ensemble was tight and alert in the opening The Soldier’s March, with crisply dotted-rhythmic figures and concise articulations in the violin and clarinet parts.  Rhodes produced cleanly executed double-stops in The Soldier’s Violin movement and captured the proper “hoe-down” feel of the following A Little Concert movement.  While I may have had a few issues with the tempos chosen for the tango, waltz and ragtime, execution of the dance movements was largely convincing.  The closing Devil’s Dance, taken at breakneck speed, was especially impressive in its wild, abandon-all-caution delivery.  The crowd rewarded the three in
strumentalists with resounding voices of approval at the conclusion of the work.

The program closer, Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 47, revealed a level of comfort in the manner of performance and precision of execution that top-notch chamber ensembles such as BCMS routinely convey to their audiences.  Written concurrently with the composer’s more popular Piano Quintet (also in the key of E-flat Major), Schumann’s Piano Quartet reveals parallels between the works that are difficult to ignore, especially in the scherzo movements, which look, feel, taste and sound as if processed through the identical meat grinder.

As in the three prior works on the program, the ensemble demonstrated a firm command of pulse — never rushing the dotted-rhythmic figures that permeate much of the opening movement.  Ensemble work during the rapid 16th-note fugal subject that passed from viola to piano to violin was crisp and precise, and balance between piano and the strings was incredibly well matched.

The lovely slow movement Andante cantabile, which contains one of Schumann’s most memorable melodies, shimmered at the hands of cellist Schween — whose playing in this work and the earlier Beethoven Trio was consistently outstanding.  Schween, a well-seasoned performer whom some may remember as the long-time cellist of the Lark Quartet, is a delight to watch, whether giving reassuring glances to Rhodes or using her facial expressions to cue players’ entrances and phrase-endings.  In both her pieces, Schween was the glue that bound the players into a cohesive and well-timed ensemble.

Details Box:
What:  Boston Chamber Music Society
Who: Presented by Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: March 30, 2013
Next: Pacifica Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 4
Ticket prices: Regular $25, Senior $15, Student $10
(available at door)
Information: call (315) 682-7720