Chamber Players triumph with Brahms trio

Last Friday night, the Williams Chamber Players presented their first concert of the semester, “New Yorker Connections,” featuring the music of two living composers as well as Brahms’ Piano Trio in C Major. Both living composers have connections to The New Yorker. Russell Platt, who gave a pre-concert talk about his piece Sonata for Violin and Piano, is currently a music editor at the magazine, where he is responsible for the classical music listings in the “Going On About Town” section. Allen Shawn, who teaches composition at Bennington and whose composition Dreamscapes was performed at the concert, is the son of former New Yorker editor William Shawn.

Shawn’s Dreamscapes opened the program. A single movement work for oboe, bassoon, violin and cello, the piece made great use of the somewhat unusual ensemble, exploring a surprising number of contrasting, expressive timbres. Darkly-hued, slow-moving chords opened the work, creating a melancholy and expansive space. But in what became a clear strategy of the piece, Shawn quickly introduced new textures and kept the work moving forward. Particularly colorful were a comically high, straining bassoon line, played with great intensity by Stephen Walt, director of woodwinds, and a section near the end of the piece with driving string arpeggios, interrupted by bursts of low bassoon and cello lines. After moving through multiple shifts in mood and character, the piece closed by returning to the opening texture, rendered even more openly and quietly, played with great tenderness and delicacy by the ensemble.

The second piece on the program, Russell Platt’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, followed the general compositional strategy of Shawn’s, moving quickly through a multitude of different ideas and emotional states. Comprising three substantial movements, the work most often alternated between thunderous climaxes and yearning, lyrical melodies and, while I somewhat enjoyed the unsettled quality of the first movement, as the 28-minute piece went on, I grew tired of its constant shifting. The second movement began with a quiet, unadorned violin line supported by thick, granite-like chords in the piano. But instead of letting the audience enjoy the suspended, hazy space, Platt quickly developed the texture into a frenzy and reached yet another declamatory climax that didn’t seem to follow the texture that preceded it, and so rang hollow.

Platt’s piece was generally Romantic in style, with figurations and harmonies that for the most part Brahms himself could have used. However, the quick movement between highly contrasting sections, without a lot of development and careful transitioning, is a far more modern compositional tendency. In Shawn’s piece, the transitions – though sometimes quite short – seemed more prepared, and he gave his sections enough time to develop in satisfying ways. As a result, the piece felt more complete and intelligible. Platt used a far greater number of textures and tended to move between them much more quickly, and as a result his piece seemed far more schizophrenic and, ultimately, unsatisfying. The few times he gave his material enough room to grow and develop were the highlights of the piece, but all too often he resorted to the tired strategy of abandoning a particular section and starting something new. Violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and pianist Doris Stevenson should be commended for giving a technically precise and expressively forceful performance of this powerfully demanding, though stylistically stunted, work.

After the rather tumultuous first half, the Brahms Piano Trio in C Major, which was written in the early 1880s for the standard piano trio group of violin, cello and piano, felt like the welcome embrace of a long-lost friend. Kurkowicz and Stevenson were joined by cellist Nathaniel Parke, who had a sumptuously warm tone and brought an exquisite gentleness to Brahms’ lyrical melodies. The three performers were carefully balanced and attentive to each other, the result being (as is often the case in Brahms’ chamber music) a surprisingly powerful, orchestral sound.

Among the highlights was the opening of the second movement, with quietly pitching piano chords rolling underneath a blooming melody in the violin and cello. The third movement, a scherzo, featured a rippling, propulsive line played with an appealing clarity by Stevenson on the piano. The transition from this rigorous, driving texture into a yearning, sentimental melody was a fantastic moment, and the performers ended the movement with an impressively soft and gentle tone. The ensemble performed the final movement joyfully, with the great, towering melodies building to a powerful conclusion. Brahms knew how to construct satisfying structures in his music, with melodies, figurations and harmonies that are instantly recognizable and repeated carefully to signal when and how his music is being developed. It is because of this repetition and the space he gives his material to grow that his climaxes feel both earned and rewarding, a lesson that younger composers would do well to emulate.

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