Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: Chamber Music Society

Oct. 29, First Unitarian Universalist Church

Halloween arrived early, and with extra helpings of spookiness, in “Voyages fantastiques,” the finale of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s French-accented fall mini-series.

Harpist Sivan Magen and the Aeolus Quartet played works inspired by two of the more macabre stories of Edgar Allan Poe: “Ballade fantastique” for solo harp by Henriette Renié, inspired by “The Tell-Tale Heart;” and “Conte fantastiques” for harp and string quartet by André Caplet, a more or less blow-by-blow translation-into-tone of “The Mask of the Red Death.”

Both pieces are products of the French impressionist style at its most advanced, melodically fractured, harmonically prismatic, structurally episodic and vividly evocative. That last quality is what attracts listeners who are often put off by the other three in post-romantic music – an audience that might squirm through, say, Schoenberg or Bartók, is absorbed, even mesmerized, by the moodiness and color of impressionism.

Virtuosity helps, of course, and Magen has both the technique and the intensity to draw the listener deeply into any music he plays. His performance of the Renié showpiece, a trippy danse macabre whose heart beats to the tango (which, though born a continent away and half a century after Poe, surely would have appealed to his sensibilities).

Magen and the Aeolus brought comparable fire, focus and sonic edge, plus a compelling sense of narrative, to the Caplet. James Wilson, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society, introduced the Caplet by reading an abridgement of “The Mask of the Red Death” – a lengthy but useful preface.

Flutist Mary Boodell joined Magen and the Aeolus’ violist, Gregory Luce, in Claude Debussy’s Sonata for those instruments, one of the later (1915) and most abstract of this composer’s chamber works. The threesome effectively emphasized the music’s elusiveness and ambiguity by playing up its transparency. One was as aware of the spaces between notes and instruments, by the tones and tempos that were suggested rather than heard, as by the sounds and rhythms themselves.

Boodell and cellist Wilson audibly relished the feast of tone color and exotic instrumental technique served up by Gabriela Lena Frank in “Four Pre-Incan Sketches,” a set of pieces inspired by artifacts of ancient Amerindian cultures of Peru.

The odd piece out in this program was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantasy, Op. 124, for violin and harp, a lengthy exercise in sugary lyricism punctuated with elaborate flourishes, largely showcasing the fiddler. Nicholas Tavani, the Aeolus’ first violinist, and Magen gave the piece what it needed expressively and technically; but it inevitably came across as a rather insipid timeout from the sonic wonders that preceded and followed it.