Last Friday night, Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall was filled almost to capacity with students, staff and eager members of the community for the Williams Chamber Players concert. A resident chamber group on campus made up mostly of music department faculty from the College as well as the occasional visiting artist, the Williams Chamber Players offer performances several times a year, presenting a range of chamber pieces with a special emphasis on music of the 20th and 21st centuries. During Friday’s concert, musicians both enchanted and educated their audience with recently-composed pieces such as Three Fantasy Pieces for Viola and Percussion as well as old favorites such as Trio in C Minor Op. 101 by Johannes Brahms.
The concert opened with a piece entitled Concert Trio for Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon by Finnish composer Bernhard Henrik Crusell. Best known in the winds community, Bernhard was enchanted as a young child by the sounds of a shopkeeper in his hometown who played flute in the evenings. Much of his work is composed for wind players, especially the clarinet. Artist Associate in Clarinet Susan Martula, Artist Associate in Horn Victor Sungarian and Artist Associate in Bassoon Stephen Walt opened the piece with warm, flowing tones, melodies interweaving and then pulling together into a single line to create a tone which felt both carefree and idyllic. Transitioning between movements without pause, the work was alternatively hesitating and urgent, each musician performing quick, complicated passages; despite the piece’s intricacy, the performers still maintained a pleasant, measured tone, never once appearing rushed or hurried.
For the second piece of the night, Artist in Residence Lyell B. Clay, violinist Joanna Kurkowicz, concertmistress of the Boston Philharmonic and Berkshire Symphony Orchestras and acclaimed pianist Doris Stevenson took to the stage to perform Edvard Grieg’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 45. A bold and passionate piece, the first movement of the work seemed to ricochet between dark, frenzied melodies and sweeping, romantic passages, Kurkowicz bowing heavily on the strings of her violin while Stevenson’s hands leapt off the keys of the piano. After a slightly more delicate second movement, the pair brought the piece to a forceful close in the third movement with a leaping violin line underlain by a pounding beat from the piano, garnering the pair an enthusiastic applause from the audience.
But perhaps the highlight of the night came just after the intermission, when Artist Associate in Percussion Matthew Gold and Artist Associate in Viola Scott Woolweaver came together to perform a relatively new piece composed in 2003 by Claude Baker. The stage setup alone was enough to make this piece intriguing – it took nearly 20 minutes to move all of the instruments into place. The entire stage was eventually covered with percussive instruments ranging from the expected, cymbal, gong and wood block, to the bizarre, such as an odd hanging contraption of colored wooden chips that made a chaotic rattling sound when touched. The work itself was just as exciting – the first movement began with a chorus of wood-block trills (Woolweaver played some percussion in this piece as well) punctuated by long silences before the viola entered, playing so quietly that the music seemed to be fading in and out, the melody ethereal. Every so often, this quiet music would be punctuated by moments of shocking loudness before fading away. In the second movement, the wry humor of the composer became obvious – while the violist played in a classical tone, the percussionist accompanied with a wild combination of drums and glockenspiel. Although at first the two lines clashed, over the course of the piece they began, almost miraculously, to complement one another. The piece concluded with a more serious, introspective movement combining viola and vibraphone. As they applauded, the audience was surprised to see the composer himself stand up and thank the performers.
The night concluded with one of Brahms’ most economical pieces, Piano Trio in C minor, Op. 101, during which Stevenson and Kurkowicz returned to the stage, joined by Nathaniel Parke, artist associate in cello. Throughout all four movements, the piece was characterized by a deep, rich tone as the violin and cello blended together, at some times stately and at others joyful. The trio concluded the night with a loud, decisive flourish as the fourth movement, “Allegro Molto,” brought the work to an end.