Whales, trout, birds - pleasureIf the last MIT Chambers Players concert had a motto, it probably was the following: there are very few things to be said in art, and an infinite number of ways to say them. The theme of the concert was sounds of animals. Schubert's Trout Quintet, Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques and George Crumb's Vox Balenae could hardly have been better chosen to exemplify the variety of approaches of composers to the sounds of nature.
Oiseaux Exotiques was comissioned by Pierre Boulez from Messiaen in 1955. Messiaen responded with a mini-piano-concerto for piano and chamber orchestra.
Each instrument represents a bird. The sounds are taken from almost twenty birds from India, Malaysia, China, North and South America. The percussion instruments play ancient Greek and Hindu rhythms. The E-flat clarinets and the xylophone have secondary solo parts.
The combination, as director Marcus Thompson put it, "is quite an aviary". All of the birds sing, whistle, fly, fight together. None of them ever tires of claiming its own part in the listener's ear.
The piano impersonated mainly the red cardinal. The bright red of the cardinal and its liquid, shrill voice lit-up the entire piece. The pianist, guest artist Martin Amlin, seemed made for his part. He played the red Cardinal passages -- marked at times "brilliant, as fast as possible" -- with a vivacity that would have done justice to the brightest-colored bird.
Crumb's Vox Balenae was similar in concept to Oiseaux Exotiques: it too, seeked to imitate the sounds of nature. But the comparison went no further.
Crumb was inspired to write this piece by a tape of whale sounds he heard. He wrote it in 1971, for three masked players: electric flute, electric piano and electric cello. The piece was premiered by the New York Camerata.
In Thursday's performance, Monty McGovern played the piano, Cynthia Woolley the flute and Stephanie Wingfeld the cello. The players used regular instruments. This set them at a relative disadvantage, but they overcame it remarcably well.
The piece began with "Vocalize for the Beginning of time", for solo flute. The marking for the Vocalize is "wildly fantastic, grotesque". The flautist sings while playing. The slow, voice-instrument lamentation, the performers' black-masked faces, the blue light bathing the scene, all transported the listener into the composer's eerie fantasy on "the beginning of time."
Toward the end of the Vocalize the piano introduced a brief motif recalling the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
The body of Vox Balenae is a set of five variations on a haunting sea-theme, introduced by the cello. The variations take the listener from the Archeozoic (marked "timeless, inchoate"), through the Mesozoic ("exuberant"), up to the Cenozoic era. In this era, the motif from Also Sprach Zarathustra returns to mark the drama and sense of destiny associated with the appearance of man.
Unfortunately, this theme was not prominent enough and the message failed to get through. One was lefty wishing to hear more of it.
From the Cenozoic, we passed to the end of time. This was described in a "sea nocturne (...for the end of time)", marked "adagio, pure, transfigured". The piece ends with seven repetitions of a simple ten-note motiv. The motiv diminishes until it becomes so soft that the last time it has to be performed in pantomime. The final instruction in the score commands the players to remain immobile after the end of the piece.
The piece, as theatrical as it was musical, created a forceful, lingering impression. The players deserve congratulations for tackling this unusual music, which required them to explore the least-known facets of their instruments.
The 19th century amateur cellist Sylvester Paumgartner was so entranced by Schubert's short song Die Forelle -- "The Trout" -- that he comissioned from the composer a quintet based on this song. Schubert accepted the offer in the countryside in Steyr. "There are eight girls here," he wrote to his brother, "almost all pretty. The country around Steyr is unbelievably lovely." From that carefree athmosphere was born the unbelievably beautiful Trout Quintet, perhaps Schubert's best known work.
The five movements of the piece, although structurally correct, are considered very simple from the musical point of view. A breathtaking wealth of melodies takes the place of musical complexity, making the piece a counterpart to Mozart's divertismenti and serenades.
The beginning, Allegro Vivace, introduces all the instruments, as if each competes with the others, unable to wait for its turn.
The weakest part of Thursday's performance was the second part, a lyrical Andante. The players started too slowly, and the music tended to drag.
The Andantino -- Theme with variations --on the other hand, was beautifully played. One had the impression that the piece only started with that part. The cellist, David Finch, played especially well. His interpretation was extremely sensitive, laden with the lyricism and simplicity the music called for.
The impetuous Finale, with its melodies inspired from carefree Hungarian dances, ended the quintet and the entire program.