Chamber music performances take your breath away

The Boston Globe, 10/31/01

by Richard Buell

LEXINGTON — On this occasion the Winsor Chamber Music Series was offering for our consideration: 1) a revision — by oboist Peggy Pearson — of a revision by Mozart (K. 516) of one of his earlier pieces (K. 388); 2) the first performance of a revision by John Harbison (oboe in, flute out, and a brand new movement) of one of his earlier pieces; and 3) the Second 

Piano Quartet

 by Gabriel Faure, a masterpiece known to a happy few who are livid with resentment that it’s this composer’s First that always gets played.

Well, those happy few happen to be right. The slow movement of the Second — its subject the innocent bliss of childhood, recollected in a kind of ecstasy of nostalgia — occupies a special place in Faure’s output. So special, in fact, that after a good performance you can imagine yourself stopping passersby in the street and haranguing them about it, even in the midst of a pelting downpour. Friday night’s performance was more than just a good one. But more of that later.

By his own admission, John Harbison hears the world much more than he sees it. This he has in common with a great many other musicians. Not, mind you, that he’s indifferent to the glory of the visual world. “Smitten” is how you might describe his response, in “Six American Painters,” to George Caleb Bingham, Thomas Eakins, Martin Johnson Heade, George Inness, Hans Hoffman, and Richard Diebenkorn in their diverse appeal.

But how do you render in sound rectilinearity, gloss, saturated hues and meager ones, abstraction as against representation, or just mood? First of all, he says, be brief, as if, looking at it, you had quickly taken the work in as whole, as visual artists are wont to do and musicians aren’t.

Foreground and background, a sense of narrative movement across the canvas, texture, brightness vs. darkness — these are things that music can express, or at least hint at. The music of “Six American Painters” did so, certainly, though opinions will differ as to how successfully a one-to-one correspondence was achieved in, say, Eakins — more so than in Inness, or vice versa. For your reviewer, Harbison’s aural snapshot of Hans Hoffman was the real knockout among the six, and compelling on musical grounds alone; its other, pictorial qualities seemed like so much topping, an emanation, an associated scent in the air.

The performers for this concert were Peggy Pearson (oboe), Bayla Keyes (violin), Mary Ruth Ray and Betty Hauck (viola), Rhonda Rider (cello), and Sally Pinkas (piano). They found the right tonal palette for the Harbison, another right one for the Mozart — Pearson’s tartly Germanic oboe timbres being just what was required — and yet another one for the Faure, in which Keyes narrowed her normally big, ripe, gorgeous tone of voice into a lean, clear, Gallic, pencil-lined one. It was but one facet of a supernal performance of a supernal piece of music. It broke over listeners in wave after wave. After the slow movement you could hear the audience holding its breath. Of such things are conversion experiences made.

The third and final concert in this series, featuring works by J. S. Bach, Shulamit Ran, and Beethoven, will be on Saturday, April 20.