Well Played Indeed: Brattle Street Chamber Players

January 2, 2011

Good humor and great musicianship carried the night at the Brattle Street Chamber Players’ fall concert in Paine Hall. Nobody tripped even on the most difficult of passages, but most strikingly, the players visibly and audibly kept in close communication with each other and with the audience throughout the performance.

The opening “jig” movement of Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite was rousing high drama with a cinematic feel. The violins and the viola traded themes back and forth easily, with a precision of synchronization and joy of expression that was evident all night. There was spontaneous clapping and yelling at the end of the movement—not the mark of being new to classical concerts, but simply an overflow of enthusiasm. Keir GoGwilt ’13 and Charlotte Nicholas ’13 on violin stood out in the second movement. GoGwilt’s rapidly flowing line helped to anchor the sound, allowing individuals to rise out of and recede into the group texture incredibly smoothly, and underlying the suspended, floating sound the group achieved as a whole. The third movement showcased the group’s remarkable range of musical and emotional modes and its ability to subtly shift between them.  This was facilitated by the players’ constant communication with each other through looks and gestures. The fourth “Dargason” movement was light while remaining clean and forceful–the complex, competing tempi were maintained precisely but not mechanically as the melody traveled from instrument to instrument.

The audience was already chatty and in high spirits by the end of the Holst—people shouted “yeah, Keir! Yeah, Jeremy!” to the people moving the piano bench into place for the next piece, Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for two violins—beautifully arranged for four cellos by Lucien Werner ‘13. As one of the cellists searched for the last page of his music (“We seem to be missing a very important piece of music…we’ll be right back”), audience members offered jokes and requests for a canon in D. The concerto is noted for the conversation-like back-and-forth between the two violins, and that was something Bobby Chen ’14 and Alan Toda-Ambaras ’13 really brought out, even though the use of all cellos meant the parts were sometimes hard to hear separately because everything was limited to one register.
Next was Anne Wilson’s “Lament,” a heavy piece written “in memory of Matthew Shepard” that is fractured and sharp, dwelling on dissonance. Werner, still on cello, and Nick Bodnar ’11 had warm and rich sounds in the first “Premonition” movement, despite some initial tuning issues. The horizontal striking of the cello strings created a surprising and expressive effect at the end of the second movement. In the final “Requiem” movement, all the cellists produced a gorgeous legato, leaning into the dissonances and swift shifts of tone and motion. At its close, there was utter silence as the players looked intently at one another before lifting their bows.

Those performers not playing for the next piece, Shostakovich’s “Two Pieces for String Octet,” rushed out to the audience to sit and listen—wanting the best seats for their friends’ show. GoGwilt again proved his incredible violin talent, nearly breaking strings with his intensity during the prelude. The piece was frantic and unrestrained, the most energetic part of the concert—which is saying quite a bit for this group. Britten’s “Simple Symphony” was a great piece to do next and to end the concert with, relaxing the musical tension once more and highlighting the group’s sense of humor. The execution was as flawless as the audience must have come to expect, with textures, bowing styles, and dynamics blooming and fading by intricate turns. The group’s playful style highlighted the fun Britten pokes at symphonic conventions—they dramatized the sarabande movement with excessive bravura and strummed their cellos with abandon during the unique pizzicato section.

Lest someone coming away from the concert want more musical enlightenment and irreverence, they need look no further than the group’s infamous program notes, a subtle and clever mix of both fact and humor that might baffle those with less classical music knowledge. Re-reading the program notes well afterwards and reflecting on the performance, details of this stellar concert came easily back to mind: Brattle’s wonderful musicianship, communication so good that they need no conductor, and stunning command of both the music and their audience.

- The Harvard Art Review Music Board

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