On the edges of the main chairs

James Sommerville seemed delighted. (Photo Robert Torres)

What happy, Vienna-centric entertainment the Boston Symphony Chamber Players provided at Jordan Hall yesterday afternoon, during which we compared 16-year-old Mahler with 19-year-old Schubert, hailed a fleet of 94-year-old feet whose work sounded the youngest of all, and imagined a monkey and a barrel organ.

At the age of 20, in 1816, Schubert wrote one of dozens of inspired works for string trio. Haldan Martinson, violin; Steven Ansell, viola; and Blaise Déjardin, cello, gave the single movement in B flat major D. 471 a caressing embrace of both classical restraint and dazzling intensity, soaking up and sharing architectural perfection. Schubert’s bittersweet nostalgia, already fully formed, must have given players a delicious opportunity to unwind after Mahler 6e the night before.

“The Second World War carefully bifurcated the arc of the life of the composer Hans Gál: born near Vienna, he left Austria in 1938 at the age of 4 and, from 1939, lived the 48 last years of his life in Edinburgh,” wrote Robert Kirzinger. “His music was relatively conservative and tonal, closer to the late Romantic style of Hugo Wolf, Zemlinsky and early Schoenberg than to the chromatically saturated works of his older contemporaries Berg and Webern.” We find his Serenade for clarinet, violin and cello op. 95 to be extremely nice. The four ambient movements, Cantabile, Burletta, Intermezzo and Giocoso shared and developed melodic ideas within a somewhat Schumannian arc—puckish, lilting, deep by turns. We have sometimes thought of a comic Pierrot and other times of a dying Petrouchka. William Hudgins’ clarinet sang long lyrical lines, but also channeled sly mockery. Hudgins co-starred with Haldan Martinson, who intoned with more juice than in the more restrained Schubert. Gal gave the cello a somewhat junior role, but cellist Blaise Déjardin, as always, found an emotional line to share. Gál’s serenade left us with a knowing wink and a sigh.

At Yehudi Wyner’s In the evening air for wind quintet, one of four short works commissioned for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ 50th anniversary season and premiered by the ensemble on February 9, 2014 at Jordan Hall, represented the only detour from Vienna’s centricity… though she wore a whiff of distant Darmstadt warmed by temperate tunes. Wyner wrote in 2014:

In the evening air was evoked by an elegiac late poem by Wallace Stevens, an expression of hesitant frankness and elusive simplicity. Yet despite the elements of abstraction that pervade the poem, the overall atmosphere is loving and deeply consoling. The final lines project a sense of accomplished resolution, a sense of ultimate tranquility. I wrote this little wind quintet without knowing the poem. I worked to find an appropriate title. All sorts of references to “5” have been explored and discarded. And then, for unknown reasons, my wife Susan Davenny Wyner suggested this poem by Wallace Stevens, fashioned in the twilight of his life. Something essential about the poem’s progression resonated with the quintet’s trajectory, especially as it seeks a conclusion of quiet affirmation rather than a resigned sense of loss. The poem, titled “The Inner Lover’s Final Soliloquy,” begins with the phrase “Turn on the first light of evening…” and ends with these words: “From this same light, out of the central mind, We make a dwelling in the evening air/ In which it is enough to be there together.’

The prickly pointillism intensified into restlessness, with a certain sharp, almost Hebrew urgency. More contrapuntal than in general chords, the five lines showed tremendous independence and effective characterization. That said, James Sommerville found his own dark, deep signature in a sharp, distant chromaticism, reminding me of his rendition of the Britten Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. A moment of tongue fluttering seemed to open the door for a silent summons to Elijah. We are still waiting.

It’s no news that 16-year-old Gustav Mahler wouldn’t measure up to 20-year-old Schubert. When I asked a certain composer in the crowd if the completed single movement of Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A minor (I Nicht zu schnell) had been released, he felt that “…it shouldn’t have been. He had some good ideas but didn’t know what to do with them, and the piano writing had neither sound nor flavor. Still, the musicians, accompanied by pianist David Deveau, gave a very warm run through with juicy slides and plenty of dramatic plea for Mahler’s teenage hormones. If the performance seemed to overwhelm its materials, details, such as Deveau’s brilliant octave ranges (after we grew weary of its repeated chords) and Martinson’s short but wittily enormous cadence rewarded us. A big ritard and diminuendo, two short chords, and it was gone.

Yehudi Wyner thanks the players (photo Robert Torres)

So here is a buried lede. I was able to see and sometimes hear my harmonium joining the greats on the Jordan Hall stage. Chamber arrangements prepared for the so-called Schoenberg Verein often included the harmonium as an ensemble glue or to cover missing wind parts. In the best arrangements of this genre, as for Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, or his Songs of a Traveler, this instrument becomes almost indispensable. And yet, it is a recessed household whistle that rarely draws much attention to itself. I joked with the contingent during rehearsals that I could bring my monkey and turn a crank, but Vytas Baksys got enough sound out of the instrument if one listened carefully to Strauss’ Webern arrangement Schatzwalzer op. 418. The players, having got rid of all constraint, shoveled on the Schlagg, aiming and performing the right Viennese timing tricks. The big accelerando at the end would have required smelling salts from the old nobles at the balls.

Perhaps because he had a real flute and oboe instead of the pale imitation of the harmonium, Schoenberg found more color and life in his transcription of the Kaiser Walzer op. 437; it was more than a counterfeit for a benefit. It added enough layers and colors to keep us interested until the next element of our dance card. Players, fruity and frothy unashamedly, leaned forward and gave debriefs at the edge of the seats that amplified the fun. What an era… but we know how it ended.

And speaking of endings, BSO CP clarinetist William Hudgins told a shocked audience that James Sommerville had just appeared among them for the last time. An emotional ovation ensued. I’m sure we’ll hear more from management about Jamie’s sad and impending retirement from the BSO.

Lee Eiseman is the editor of the Spy


Haldan Martinson, violin Elizabeth Rowe, flute

Steven Ansell, viola John Ferrillo, oboe

Blaise Déjardin, cello William R. Hudgins, clarinet

Edwin Barker, double bass Richard Svoboda, bassoon

James Sommerville, horn

with the members of the BSO Elita Kang, violin Elizabeth Klein, flute
and with
David Deveau, piano
Vytas Baksys, harmonium

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