Review: Chamber Music Society

Sept. 15, Perkinson Recital Hall, University of Richmond

The Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s 2019-20 season programming hinges on contrasts between the musical past and present. Such contrasts can be unexpectedly revealing – remember the surprising kinship between Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet and Osvaldo Golijov’s “Dreams of Prayers of Isaac the Blind” in a 2018 program? Or they can be jarring exercises in “and now for something completely different.”

This program tended toward the latter. A pairing of Satie’s “Gnoisienne” No. 1 for solo piano and Debussy’s “Syrinx” for solo flute, followed by John Adams’ “Road Movies” for violin and piano, followed in turn by Brian Raphael Nabors’ “Énergie” for flute and electronics, was then-to-now chronological but lacked any perceptible thread of stylistic or expressive evolution.

An intermission mercifully separated those pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50, an epic-length high-romantic work that has nothing at all in common with what preceded it.

While the parts added up to no coherent sum musically, the program was nonetheless satisfying in its displays of virtuosity and/or musicianship.

Pianist Roman Rabinovich, returning after memorable performances of two Brahms piano quartets last season, delivered sensitive, stylish readings of the Satie and the radically different Adams. Violinist Diana Cohen met Adams’ formidable demands of technique and stamina – all the more impressive as she is at an advanced stage of pregnancy – and with Rabinovich realized the work’s cinematic quality and pop-culture evocations. Flutist Mary Boodell was a fluent voice for Debussy’s moody atmospherics and Nabors’ combination of lyricism and animation.

Nabors, a 28-year-old composer from Alabama, speaking by phone with James Wilson, the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director in a pre-concert conversation, suggested that “Énergie” speaks to today’s concerns about environmental degradation; his translation of energy into French is an indirect reference to the Paris climate accords.

His brief tone poem, however, does not explicitly evoke the natural world or humanity’s effect on it. The electronic track, which accompanies a live flutist, begins with massive, atonal effects not unlike the sound of a glacier “calving” and gradually evolves into a vaguely Caribbean-sounding rhythm track, while the flute develops a tune that, in this context, sounds a hopeful, positive note.

Pianist Rabinovich, violinist Cohen and cellist Wilson were impassioned advocates for the Tchaikovsky, a lengthy elegy to and biography-in-sound of his friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein. The heart of the piece is a theme-and-variations set with each variation representing a stage in Rubinstein’s life, from youth to death. A somber main theme, developed in the trio’s first movement, returns to be treated with obsessively accumulating passion in the finale.

This arrangement of materials requires performers to take great care in creating and maintaining a musical-narrative arc, a task this threesome of musicians accomplished impressively. Rabinovich’s apportioning of volume and intensity was especially effective in punctuating the story line. The string players enhanced that with characterful gradations of nostalgic and mournful lyricism.

Notably in the Tchaikovsky, and at times in other selections, the musicians found themselves coping with an unsympathetic sonic environment. Since its renovation several years ago, Perkinson Recital Hall’s formerly warm, mellow acoustic has turned hard-edged and rather cold, tending to project instrumental sound in clinical detail. In this performance, piano sound louder than forte gave off distracting sympathetic tones, while higher registers of violin and flute often turned glassy or grating.

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