The Ptolemy Players
Some Bright B’s and Some Flat B’s
Last Friday, the Ptolemy Players presented their fall concert in the intimate atmosphere of Killian Hall. The concert, funded in part by the Council for the Arts at MIT, featured classical selections written by composers whose last name begins with the letter ‘B.’ To bring the title theme to an extreme, all the pieces chosen have at least one movement in B or B-flat. Pieces by Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, interspersed with songs by Britten, Byrd, and the Beatles enchanted the enthusiastic audience, although some of the performances were not as bright as the title may have implied.
The opening piece was Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2,” which celebrates the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death (or rather it has been 251 years since Bach died in July 1750). One of the most difficult pieces for piccolo trumpet, the piece was handled admirably by an ensemble made up of 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, trumpet, and harpsichord. A new presence in Killian Hall, the harpsichord intensely revived the spirit of baroque music with dry, unsettling arpeggios and scales. The other instruments were also played in a baroque style (almost no vibrato on strings and flute, and very precise intonation), adding to the overall detached, yet joyful atmosphere of the piece. Steven Tistaert delivered a very convincing trumpet solo, especially in the last movement of the concerto.
“The Flower Songs” by Benjamin Britten followed, performed by an eight-singer chorus. The contemporary approach in terms of harmony and form was quite obvious when the composer represented the poetic phrases with musical imagery. The vocalists sang very well, delivering coherent and lyrical performances of these unusual pieces. However, some of the passages sounded weak, lacking some brilliance and energy.
Brahms’ Sextet no.1, op. 18 for strings is a marvelous work written in a very clear style that combines classical form and rigor with the exuberance of romantic harmonic means. Sadly, the performance did not rise to the level that this piece demands. The players used vibrato extensively, which blurred some of the passages, and failed to produce grasping lyrical phrases. Also, the sound cohesion of the sextet was rarely achieved, and many of the entrances were unsure. Thus, the clarity of the attacks were compromised. However, in the last two movements the phrasing improved, and the finale achieved some momentum that ended the rather unconvincing performance in a more brilliant fashion.
After the intermission, the chorus resumed the concert with two church-themed songs by William Byrd. The more conventional harmony highlighted an accurate technique, and the singers handled the intricate canonical passages of the songs well. Moreover, the melodic lines had a very nice flow and intonation, as the voices of the sopranos and altos alternated with a well-sung moving bass line of the tenor and basses.
Out of the blue, an unusual performance of the Beatles’ song “For No One” followed, which left the audience quite surprised. The performance was original, given the choice of instruments (harpsichord, French horn, small drum, and electric bass), but it was completely misplaced in the context of the concert. The Beatles clearly have nothing to do with all the other composers featured in the program. The gap in style, attitude, and message of the music between “For No One” and the rest of the pieces was too big.
The last piece of the concert was Beethoven’s String Quartet op.130 no.5. One of the late quartets by Beethoven, it features romantic elements distilled in a classical, highly rigorous approach to music. The unusual six movements of the piece alternate sonata forms with dances (“alla Tedesca”) and folk songs inspired lullabies (“Cavatina”). This difficult piece was given a very good, though not outstanding, performance by a quartet of players. The articulation was very convincing, and the dynamics fully illustrated the intent of the composer. The highly lyrical slow movement featured full sonorities due to a calm vibrato and soft bowing. The last movement was performed with accurately marked beats and soft accompaniment, on top of which a wild folk-like theme was energetically articulated.
The program of the concerto featured the usual quirks of the Ptolemy Players: the hieroglyphic title, the funny disclaimers about some of the performances and pieces, and a very difficult ‘B’ quiz. The concert was followed with ‘B’ food at a short reception hosted by the organizers. While all these original elements are usually welcome, they may have been a bit over-the-top for this particular evening, and the audience was left confused.