Follen chamber series makes delight-filled debut

The Boston Globe, 9/17/96
by Richard Dyer

LEXINGTON – Peggy Pearson says that her family has always commemorated important occasions by singing a Bach chorale together. So after intermission at the debut program of Pearson’s new chamber music series at the Follen Community Church in Lexington, the oboist asked the audience to join the assembled musicians in performing “O Jesulein suess.”

This was a lovely moment in an afternoon full of them; family feeling pervaded everything. Although she now divides her time between Boston and New York, Pearson remains one of the most beloved figures in our musical community. Her series features interesting programs, performers who are not only colleagues but friends, and informal commentary by Pearson herself; the audience that filled the church Sunday afternoon included some of the area’s most admired musicians.

The octagonal Follen Community Church provides wonderfully clear acoustics for chamber music, an attractively intimate relationship between performers and audience, and a piano with problems. Fortunately the piano was not featured in the first half of the program, and in the second half it was in the capable hands of Judith Gordon.

Music by Bach began the concert with a Sonata for Oboe, Viola and Continuo, transcribed from a particularly difficult chorale prelude for organ. Pearson’s superiority in Bach has been well established for more than 20 years; once again she played , with bold attack, eloquent phrasing, long-breathed line and uncommon finesse of dynamic detail. Mary Ruth Ray was a match for her in the difficult viola part, and cellist Beth Pearson and harpsichordist Michael Beattie capably laid in the groundwork.

Then came the premiere of a recent work by John Harbison, a trio sonata that can be played by any combination of treble, alto and bass instruments, on this occasion oboe, viola and cello. “It ought to be lucrative for his publisher,” Pearson observed, an oblique way of noting how attractive this little piece ought to prove to performers and audiences. It is in four movements, all marked “fast,” and all developed from some familiar gesture from baroque music (shape, counterpoint, rhythm). Each of the first three movements is deliberately foreshortened and inconclusive – the underpinnings are gone – before the last movement finally breathes free. The piece and performance were captivating.

Pearson arranged a Haydn String Quartet (Op. 64, No.2) for oboe and strings. This makes the treble line even more pungent; the bits that lie outside the oboe’s range went back to the violin, and Sarah Roth made the most of her sallies into the stratosphere. “There’s nothing authentic about this,” Pearson observed, quoting a friend. “We would have done ‘Aida,’ but we couldn’t afford the elephant.” Authentic or not, it was delightful.

The concert closed with a fiery performance of the Schumann Piano Quartet, Op. 47. “I don’t want to scare you,” said Pearson, reassuring the audience in introducing it that she didn’t plan to play in it too. Gordon was fearless in attacking the piano part, and the exchange of the eloquent melodic line in the Andante between Ray and Pearson was something to cherish.

The series continues with concerts Nov. 3, March 24 and April 28.