Review: Chamber Music Society

Njioma Grevious, violin
Melissa Reardon, viola
Mary Boodell, flute
Charles Overton, harp
March 6, Seventh Street Christian Church

The latest offering from the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia was a homecoming – and hometown professional debut – for Charles Overton, an alumnus of Richmond Montessori School and the American Youth Harp Ensemble who has become a rising star among US harpists, building a resumé of dates with major orchestras and recital presenters.

Joining three mainstays of the Chamber Music Society – violinist Njioma Grevious, violist Melissa Reardon and flutist Mary Boodell – Overton could be heard in roles ranging from collaborative to supportive, sometimes in the same piece.

The most vivid showcase of his playing came in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fantaisie in A major, Op. 124, for violin and harp, a fairly late (1907) work from a very prolific composer whose chamber music and orchestral miniatures often featured unusual instrumental combinations or were written for under-employed instruments. (Name another prominent composer who produced a bassoon sonata or chamber music with trumpet.)

The Saint-Saëns Fantaisie is prime example of two genres of late-romantic and early modern French music: Short-ish, rhapsodic works for violin (Ernest Chausson’s Poème is the best-known of these) and pieces that feature the harp. The modern chromatic instrument was introduced by French builders in the 1890s, and soon figured prominently in music by the country’s composers, notably Maurice Ravel’s, but usually as a rhythmic enhancer (somewhat like a continuo harpsichord) or as a means of enlarging the palette of tone colors.

Saint-Saëns makes the harp a full partner, engaging in a real dialogue with the violin. The exchanges between Grevious and Overton, and the merging of their voices as the piece grows more intense and passionate, amounted to a clinic in the interpretation and performance of high-romantic music. Saint-Saëns also was a classicist, devoted to form, balance and musical symmetry, and this duo projected those qualities as well.

In Claude Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1916), one of the rather austere, expressively elusive chamber works written toward the end of his life, the harp plays quasi-continuo or atmospheric roles behind the alternating leads of flute and viola. The harp is also a sonic mediator between the sharply focused tone of the flute and the darker, at times more earthy or wiry, tone of the viola – a role that Overton filled with keen sensitivity. Boodell and Reardon ably negotiated the shifting moods of this music, a weird tonescape that ranges from pastoral reverie to almost hermetic introspection.

The second half of the program was devoted to music by contemporary composers: “Winterserenade” (1997) by the Lithuanian Onutė Narbutaitė and “The Eye of Night” (2010) by the American David Bruce.

Narbutaitė’s piece for flute, violin and viola, styled as a paraphrase of “Gute Nacht” from Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Die Winterreise,” is more of a deconstruction of the melody in the minimalist yet emotionally resonant style often heard in modern Baltic music. Boodell, Reardon and Grevious nicely realized Narbutaitė’s spare texture and ambivalent moodiness while echoing Schubert’s emotive tone.

Bruce’s “Eye of Night,” scored like the Debussy for flute, viola and harp but more democratically apportioned among the instruments, proved to be considerably less intense, technically and expressively, than the other works on this program, giving listeners a pleasant, at times breezy, sendoff.

Boodell was the star of the piece, juggling three different flutes and varying expressive roles across four movements. Reardon and Overton had their moments, too, especially in pizzicato exchanges, a natural opportunity for interplay between harp and fiddle that Debussy, for whatever reason, rarely exploited.

This post has been corrected to clarify Charles Overton’s educational background in Richmond.