From a purely musical standpoint, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players often feel like the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s best kept secret. Obviously, the chamber ensemble made up of principal BSO players isn’t trying to hide, but its Jordan Hall concerts don’t draw anything like the crowds that fill Symphony Hall when the full orchestra plays. Plus, each Chamber Players concert is a one-off: blink and you miss it. But at any given Chamber Players outing, you’re all but guaranteed to witness about two hours of masterful chamber-music alchemy, and Sunday afternoon’s first Chamber Players performance of the 2019-20 season was no exception.
More often than not, the Chamber Players bring in a pianist when they bring in a guest. But this concert was an exception, the featured guest player being harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon. When many people think of the harpsichord’s signature twinkly rattle, Baroque music is the first thing that comes to mind. However, by no means does the repertoire stop there, and Sunday’s program included no pieces more than a century old.
With just one exception — selections from Sofia Gubaidulina’s Eight Etudes for double bass solo, rendered with elastic style and flair by Edwin Barker — the pieces emphasized exactitude of ensemble musicianship over individual virtuosity, and considering the tremendous level of technical confidence that the program called for, especially in Elliott Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, this was no small feat.
Listening to Bordignon locking together with flutist Elizabeth Rowe, oboist John Ferrillo, and cellist Blaise Déjardin in the devilish Carter sonata at the end of the first half, one would never know he didn’t play with the Chamber Players crew every week. Here the harpsichord intoned a steady pulse; here it spun up into a thorny perpetual motion machine, while Rowe and Ferrillo traded blunt incantations with such clarity that the two instruments were often indistinguishable from each other.
The concert followed a path from familiar to strange and back again, the Carter being the spikiest and least tonal piece. The concert’s first piece, Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, is practically a repertoire staple, and Sunday’s performance was bracing and electrifying. In recording, the bassoons are often lost among the blasting brass, but Richard Svoboda and Suzanne Nelsen’s madcap currents were unmissable.
With the second piece, Virgil Thomson’s “Sonata da Chiesa,” five players built a little cathedral out of sound. In the opening Chorale, a sinewy viola and then a keening clarinet declaimed as if from a pulpit, while spacious chords rang out from the other four players. The dark little tango that was the second movement could have used more punch, but the labyrinth of a fugue that ended it was edge-of-seat compelling.
After Barker’s tour through the obstacle course of Gubaidulina etudes, Manuel de Falla’s radiant Concerto for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello ended the concert with a carnival of sound. The outer movements of the busy piece recalled memories of bustling crowds, flashing lights, and the smell of excitement. A break in the revelry arrived with the solemn second movement, dated 1926 on the feast of Corpus Christi; you could almost smell the sacramental incense in its many clarion cadences.
So why can’t the Chamber Players draw the crowd they deserve? Though this elite squad’s playing is top notch, their concerts can give off the air of exclusivity, strictly for those who know to seek them out. Plus, Jordan Hall’s dim lighting and the program’s small print didn’t exactly encourage perusing the notes mid-concert. With that, I’d love to hear a player give thoughts on a piece before playing. These musicians pick such fabulous, fascinating places to visit. It’d be wonderful if they’d take that additional step to bring the audience along.
BOSTON SYMPHONY CHAMBER PLAYERS
At Jordan Hall, Sunday afternoon.Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.