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Boston Symphony Goes Small-Time

Chamber Players Perform Schubert, Stravinsky, Rands at Jordan Hall

By Brad Balliett

Boston Symphony Chamber Players

Jordan Hall

Nov. 16, 3 p.m.

Between the free outreach concerts in cities like Brockton and Lowell and the four-concert series of recitals by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, the Boston Symphony Orchestra probably offers more regular chamber music concerts than any other major American orchestra. The afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 16 marked the first concert for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players this year. The group consists of the principals of each section, and is supplemented by other orchestra members or outside musicians when necessary (the program designates unambiguously who is member of the players and who is a guest).

The chance to see some of the finest players from the symphony interacting on an intimate level is almost a privilege, so it was disappointing to see large sections of the balcony in Jordan Hall unfilled. Seeing empty seats, especially in a relatively small hall like Jordan, can’t possibly motivate the musicians to put everything they have into a performance.

The opening performance, a reading of Schubert’s one-movement String Trio in Bb, D. 471, suffered a bit from this lack of motivation. Although the musicians (Malcolm Lowe, Steven Ansell, and Jules Eskin) drew lovely warm sounds from their instruments, the performance lacked drama in the development, and never really rose above a mezzo forte dynamic to fill the hall. Of course, part of the problem was that this piece is truly chamber music; it was designed for performance in a small room, not a concert hall. Still, a little more intensity of sound would have been welcome to give the piece more shape.

The performance of Bernard Rands’ Concertino for Oboe and Ensemble was never in danger of lacking shape or direction: from the very opening gesture, it was clear that solo oboist John Ferrillo was in charge. Boston Modern Orchestra Project music director Gil Rose was on the scene to keep everyone together, but he wisely limited his role to that job, allowing the musicians shape the music as they pleased.

It was refreshing to hear such a carefully prepared performance of a recently composed piece; ensemble and intonation were near perfect throughout. This kind of care in performance made it very easy to follow and appreciate the piece, which is important when an audience is hearing the piece for the first time, as most patrons on Sunday probably were. Ferrillo’s command over every aspect of the instrument during the demanding cadenzas was inspiring, and Ann Hobson Pilot produced a strikingly incisive sound on the harp.

The main event of the program was the second half, a rare complete performance of Stravinsky’s half-theater, half-concert piece L’Histoire du Soldat. The story of a soldier losing, regaining, and ultimately re-losing his soul (represented by the fiddle) to the devil is a familiar one, but Stravinsky’s interpolated musical numbers manage to sound fresh and exciting no matter how familiar the listener is with this piece. Judith Cohen’s English adaptation of Ramuz’s original French text reduced the number of speaking roles from three to one, which had potential for confusion during the dialogue scenes, but narrator Will LeBow’s internal cast of characters made it constantly clear who was speaking.

The adaptation solved many of the problems of United States performances of the standard English translation (Carlisle-Black), which contains many idiomatic English expressions. It also strengthened the storyline with some judicious deletions and additions (like the last few lines given to the devil over the final drum tattoo, which heightened the drama to an ecstatic level). Some may cry mild treason against Ramuz’s original text, but the adaptation was so effective and easy-to-follow that one imagines Stravinsky would be pleased.

The best parts of the performance were the bits that highlighted the violin, like the “Music to Scene 1,” the “Three Dances,” and the “Triumphal March of the Devil.” Violinist Malcolm Lowe had no trouble projecting over the ensemble, and somehow managed to make everything in the beastly difficult and awkward part look simple and natural.

Percussionist Timothy Genis played with the same degree of intensity and focus that characterizes his timpani playing with the symphony, providing an unerringly solid backdrop in pieces like the “Royal March” and “Triumphal March.” Bassist Edwin Barker also deserves praise for his rock-solid performance of the difficult licks in the “Devil’s Dance.”

Unfortunately, the winds did not measure up to their colleagues: besides the “Pastorale” duet between clarinet and bassoon, which was beautifully shaped, the playing was generally sloppy and failed to match the level of attention and precision that Lowe, Barker, and Genis had created.

The brass playing especially lacked the rhythmic intensity and sharpness of articulation so desperately needed to make Stravinsky come to life. It would be forgivable if this had been a performance put together very quickly, but the impressively high level of ensemble playing suggested that this was a well-rehearsed performance that contained some unfortunately careless playing. Fortunately, LeBow’s dramatic reading coupled with Lowe’s virtuosity and isolated moments of beautiful woodwind playing kept this performance exciting throughout, and few audience members could have been disappointed with the overall effect of the piece.