by Lindsay Koob
On my way into Dock Street for Saturday morning’s Chamber VI program, I overheard a lady saying something like, “After each of these chamber programs, I keep telling myself that it’s the best one I’ve been to so far — until the next one rolls around.” I know how she feels, as I often tell myself the same thing. Yes, indeed — there seems to be no end to the parade of memorable music.
Director Geoff Nuttall introduced the concert’s first music by telling us, “I won’t even say good morning to you, ‘cause this first piece will do it for me.” And, sure enough, it did: Beethoven’s rarely- heard Serenade in D Major, for flute (Tara Helen O’Connor), violin (Daniel Phillips), and viola (Hsin-Yun Huang). The piece is ideal deal “rise-and-shine” music, with a winning array of sunny tunes and “conversational” interaction among its players. You don’t often think of grumpy old Ludwig as being a humorous composer, but much of his music — like this piece — is chock-full of musical jokes, grins, and giggles. And grins were often in evidence on our players’ faces (except for O’Connor: it’s kind of hard to grin while tootling your flute).
Many around me, as they settled into their seats before the concert began, were wondering aloud why there were two grand pianos on the stage. That’s because the smaller of the two had been specially “prepared” — with things like screws, nails, nuts & bolts, etc. inserted in and around the instrument’s strings — which, of course, made a big difference in the kinds of sounds it made. John Cage, perhaps America’s best-known avant-garde composer of the twentieth century, wrote a lot of music for prepared piano, both solo pieces like this one — Third Interlude and Sonata V — and others with assorted side-instruments. The two-movement number — expertly rendered by pianist Pedja Muzijevic — was kind of strange, but definitely well-worth hearing; its second movement recalled the unique sound and style of a Caribbean steel-drum band.
And, ah, the grand and glorious finale. Referring to the previous piece in his introduction, Geoff pointed to the unprepared piano onstage, saying “It’s really important that we have the right piano for this one.” I know vastly underrated French composer Ernest Chausson’s Piano Quartet in A Major only from recordings, but hearing it live was an absolutely revelatory experience.
Chausson’s major influences were his fellow Frenchmen Massenet, Franck and Debussy — plus German opera master Wagner — and they all showed, though the piece remained very much Chausson’s own. The emphatic and tonally juicy opening movement gave way to the passionately elegiac second movement. The following section, marked “Without haste,” offered a heavenly waltz-tune over plucked strings. The final movement alternated between brusque anxiety and long-breathed passages of silky-smooth beauty. The work’s stunning impression was no doubt due in part to the stellar performers who delivered it: violinist Nuttall, violist Huang, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and — back at his Steinway — pianist Muzijevic.
As revered comedian/actor Steve Martin once put it, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” We critics are often driven to despair as we struggle to convey to our readers precisely why a certain piece of music is a deathless masterpiece — as is the case here. If you didn’t get to hear this program, go find a recording of the Chausson piece (there’s a pretty good one on YouTube). Only then will you truly realize what you missed.