incident light

Olmos Ensemble, Camerata SA

Wisdom and cleverness

May 7, 2014

Two chamber concerts at the cusp of the week brought some surprises that, perhaps, shouldn’t have seemed so surprising.

The pianist Kristin Roach is a familiar local presence, often in relatively self-effacing contexts – musical preparation of opera productions, for example. She’s done some fine work in chamber music, too, but she never seemed more in her element than in Camerata’s program of Romantic (and Romanticesque) music Sunday afternoon in Christ Episcopal Church.

Violinist Matthew Zerweck and cellist Ken Freudigman joined Ms. Roach in Robert Schumann’s “Phantasiestücke” and Johannes Brahms’s Piano Trio No. 1 in B. Mr. Zerweck warmed the bench during the opening work, Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Cello Sonata No. 1.

The string players contributed many wonderful moments – most notably their poised, mutually responsive dialog in the third movement of the  “Phantasiestücke” – but Ms. Roach was the rudder of the entire concert. She proved especially sympathetic to the Brahms Trio, in a big, robust performance that was borne on the wings of her expansive, supple phrasing.

Miaskovsky was Russian, a student of Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov and a friend of Prokofiev. His life was bisected by the Russian Revolution, but his conservative style didn’t discomfit Stalin’s aesthetic police – until it did.  He was prolific, producing  more than two dozen symphonies and 11 string quartets, among other works.

His Cello Sonata from 1911 (revised in 1935) is a constant fountain of melody, none of which sticks in memory; and a bonanza of expressiveness, with not very much to express. It was beautifully played, at least.

Petrarch, as every schoolchild knows, observed that “Nihil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio." (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness.) To which the French composer Darius Milhaud might have replied, “Sapientia damnari.” (Wisdom be damned.)

Milhaud was very clever indeed, and even more prolific than Miaskovsky. He designed two of his 18 string quartets to be played either separately or simultaneously, as an octet. He composed quickly, piling up operas, symphonies, concertos, ballets, chamber music and solo piano pieces until his opus numbers stretched into the 400s.  Yet he is widely known for only two works, both of them ballet scores  — the Brazilian-influenced “La boeuf sur le toit” of 1919 and the jazz-influenced “La création du monde” of 1923.

The latter, especially, is so compellingly strange that one should not be surprised to find other bizarrely shaped arrows in Milhaud’s quiver. Indeed, his  Sonate (1918) for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano, apex of the Olmos Ensemble’s concert of French music Monday night in First Unitarian Universalist Church, makes “La création du monde” seem almost sedate.

The first of the Sonate’s four movements is a calm, somewhat dark processional that dabbles in polytonality; the harmonies, and sometimes the contrapuntal texture, are dense and nutty as a Christmas fruitcake. The second is suffused with urban energy. The furious third is mock-barbaric. The finale is most notable for a languorous oboe melody interrupted by banshee laughter from the other players. The whole delicious piece oozes intellectual sophistication, but (in the French manner) it wears working-class chambray under its professorial tweeds.  In its own way, it expands the possibilities of music and invites the listener into a fascinating, unexpected realm. Wisdom? You can listen to Brahms later.
The Milhaud earned a convicted and polished account by Olmos regulars Martha Long (flute), Mark Ackerman (oboe) and Ilya Shterenberg (clarinet) and guest artist Daniel Anastasio (piano). Bassoonist Sharon Kuster added her lustrous voice to the closer, André Caplet’s Quintet for Piano and Winds, an 1899 work that proved agreeable if sometimes too busy; Mr. Anastasio seemed particularly sympathetic to this music.

Hornist Jeff Garza and Mr. Anastasio opened the concert with excellent performances of two compact works, the “Villanelle” of Paul Dukas and the Romance, Op. 36, by Camille Saint-Saens.

 Mike Greenberg