The Symbiosis Ensemble
Thayer Hall at the Colburn School
November 18, 2011
Chamber music can be a little like guerrilla warfare. Eminently portable and adaptable to both usual and peculiar situations, you never know when or where it’s going to show up or who might be participating. It was part of Stravinsky’s intention in creating his L’Histoire that it should be played beyond the bounds of normal chamber music orthodoxy. It was a little like that on Friday evening as the Symbiosis Chamber Orchestra opened its season of chamber music with the extremes of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and Beethoven’s E flat Septet, Op.20. The Colburn School continues to be the best place in town for chamber music of all sizes. As an antidote to the standard formula of music in expensive places, the tickets are affordable to free. Ninety nine percenters, take notice. The pre-concert advertising included a third piece which was not performed Friday.
This is a talented ensemble of young players that has dedicated itself to contemporary composition and a broad approach to their performances and repertory. Mostly Friday’s concert lived up to high standards, but the great disappointment came in the narration of L’Histoire du Soldat by Joseph Beribak which didn’t begin to meet the requirements the text. Think of the part as another instrument and a solo one at that. Too often, Beribak leaned on sheer volume and forced expression to provide intensity or buried the colloquial rhyming couplets. Also proving distracting was his use of the microphone which at times boomed and popped or disappeared altogether in vague murmurings. Reading from the text while often turned obliquely away from the audience, I found it difficult to feel him as a genuine part of the ensemble. Under these circumstances I could have gone just for the music alone which was strikingly played (without conductor) in its original scoring for seven intrumentalists.
But still, there were brilliant moments here especially from cornetist, Conrad Jones and clarinetist, Andrew Leonard who supplied an ample share of sardonic and mocking personality in their playing. Trombonist Paul Jenkins and bassoonist, Brianna Lehman also were excellent. Eric Wuest gave a workman like account as the violinist but one might have wished for a wilder statement, it being the Devil’s own instrument he was playing. His sound leaned more toward a quiet, folk styled version. Percussionist, Katy La Favre, was solid throughout and especially memorable in her closing solo in the unruly Triumphal March of the Devil. Paul Macres was the bassist. The ensemble managed the difficulties of the many time signature changes and felt cohesive and secure in the complex transitions.
L’Histoire du Soldat was imagined by its composer as a kind of travelling chamber musical. With its ultimately peculiar story and genre confounding characteristics it can seem more contemporary than its nearly hundred year history might allow. With wars, civil mayhem and economic crisis saturating the world’s daily headlines, it is as much a fable for our era as it was for the devastated and unhinged economic chaos in Europe at the close of World War I. Think of The Soldier’s Tale: Somalia or Libya and you get an idea of the music’s possible contemporary applications. I couldn’t help but wonder if that congressional super committee might, even now, be making a play for the Devil’s little magic book of voodoo economics and accounting miracles.
The second half of the program was dedicated to Beethoven’s mixed wind and string Septet, Op 20. It is a lengthy salon piece frequently punctuated by challenging solo playing, especially for the violin and clarinet. Violinist Stirling Trent played dependably throughout with one brief moment of uncertainty in the finale of the alla Marcia movement. In general, the ensemble achieved a well-crafted blend with all of the solo interjections sounding secure and well played with the exception of the surprise horn arpeggios in the Trio of the Tempo di Menuetto. They sounded unclear and didn’t quite catch up to the movement’s established tempo. The work is an appealing blend of divertissement with the instruments functioning as soloists and as obbligato accompaniment. It pairs a trio of winds against a trio of stings in an appealing sequence of six movements. The best of the six was the Adagio Cantabile which had the most sophisticated blend of solos and responses. The additional players were Joo Lee (cello), Stephen Pfeifer (bass), Grace Park (viola) and Elizabeth Upton (horn).
Visit the Symbiosis Chamber Orchestra at: http://www.wix.com/symbiosisensemble/home for additional details and schedules of upcoming concerts. The ensemble is under the artistic direction of Joo Lee.