Chamber Contrasts

by

comment

Wednesday afternoon’s ninth chamber program delivered extreme musical contrasts — and an unfortunate instrumental problem.

Enter King Charles, along with his musicians, to introduce the opening selection. “From My Window” is a lovely and sensual aria from the opera Ainadamar, by Osvaldo Golijov: one of today’s hottest composers. Public and critical acclaim for the opera inspired the composer to transcribe the aria for two violins — though he entrusted the piano reduction of the orchestral score to Stephen Prutsman, our series pianist (also a terrific composer/arranger).

Prutsman, of course, presided at the Steinway here, along with violinists Livia Sohn and Geoff Nuttall, her husband-cum-new artistic director (but not ‘til June 8, as Charles keeps reminding him). Sohn and Prutsman did their thing onstage, while Geoff stood a few yards off to the side, stage right. Livia started things off with a low, slow melody line that glowed and smoldered, over the piano’s soft tapestry of Latino-hued sound.

After a brief and tentative same-note response from Geoff (as if from outside Livia’s “window”), the onstage violin resumed its pleading song. When Geoff came back in, it was to begin an earnest, pleading dialogue that soon became an aching love-duet. The pair, notes intertwining, finally faded into quiet murmers, as if falling asleep together. It was sheer, devastating musical sorcery.

After Geoff quickly bounded back onstage from the Memminger’s floor, Charles commented, “I could do that, but I’m not a showoff like Geoff.”

Then we got to have some good ol’ down-home FUN, with clarinet-meister Todd Palmer’s own arrangement of Aaron Copland’s bouncy and bumptious “Hoe-down,” from the popular Rodeo ballet suite. We of course heard Palmer on clarinet — along with Tara Helen O’Connor’s piccolo, Prutsman at the keyboard, plus the entire St. Lawrence bunch. And they had a thigh-slappin’, foot-stompin’ good time of it — obviously enjoying the music’s quirky, shifting rhythms and sudden stops & starts.

After Doc W described the final offering as “the most divine, inspiring and perfect chamber work for clarinet I know,” Geoff took over to introduce W. A. Mozart’s ravishing Clarinet Quintet (it’s my own Mozart chamber fave).

They couldn’t have finished up with anything more different from what went before, either. Like Geoff told us, “You can’t say that you don’t get contrast in this series.” He went on to speak of the composer’s uncanny ability to achieve musical immortality with material that’s “effortlessly simple.” He then recounted Mozart’s late-in-life friendship with Anton Stadler, then Vienna’s finest clarinetist. The virtuosity and spirit of his playing inspired Mozart to write this number, plus two other clarinet masterpieces: the “Kegelstatt” trio and his clarinet concerto.

Palmer and the St. Lawrence Quartet then got down to exalted business. It sounded like it took them a moment or two to get into the groove, but all was well (well, almost) once everything “clicked.” The opening mood of quiet joy and contentment came through soft and clear, punctuated by bubbly outbursts and one incredible passage of overlapping arpeggios.

But there was a problem not far into the haunting, pastoral slow movement. Some of Palmer’s notes started sounding strange: kind of strained and strangled — even missing. And he abruptly stopped playing. The problem turned out to be a broken reed (an occupational hazard) — so he took a moment to slip in his spare and reassemble his instrument before resuming the piece from where it had left off. Maybe he broke something during the exuberant Hoe-down? I wish they’d started the movement over; as it was, some of the work’s sweetest moments suffered.

“This is embarrassing,” he muttered right after they had to stop. But he recovered nicely, with a cheery, “Don’t worry, you’ll get your money back” after he’d finished his brief, on-the-spot repair job. Never fear, Todd — it wasn’t your fault, and we still love you.

Back to the music. The enchanting minuet movement, with its two contrasting central trio sections, took us back to Mozart’s graceful world of “powdered wigs and teacups” (as Geoff put it a few concerts back). I particularly enjoyed the second trio section’s folksy little country dance. The finale’s deft and delightful theme-and-variations took us to the end with smiles on our faces.

And have you ever noticed how so many musicians smile beatifically as they play Mozart? That is, unless you’ve got your mouth wrapped around a clarinet. But you could hear Todd’s smiles in the music.

Add a comment