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KC Chamber Players: Ravel, Dutilleux, and Dvořák

Composer Henri Dutilleux (photo by Myles Granger)
Sunday afternoon, the Kennedy Center Chamber Players presented an elegant program of Ravel, Dutilleux, and Dvořák that, though less than meaty, was certainly well suited to the Chamber Players’ effortless grace in collaboration. The first work, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet, is a gem of the chamber literature that was originally conceived as a showcase for the harpist. The piece was written in 1905 in response to a commission from Érard, who had just designed a pedal harp in direct competition with the Pleyel Company, which had commissioned a work from Debussy for their new chromatic harp.

The resulting work by Ravel was supposedly polished off in a hurry, but his creation was perfect in its display of the new instrument. The harp, often an accompanying instrument, here comes to the forefront, surprisingly able to carry a melody over all the other instruments in a few instances, and Dotian Levalier, principal harpist of the National Symphony Orchestra, was marvelous. Levalier played with weight and grace, and the distinctive sweeping sounds of the instrument were gorgeous in her rendering of what was, at the time, a new chromatic sound, via the pedals. Though the harpist shone in particular, the ensemble as a whole blended beautifully, with each instrument weaving lightly through and among each other.

Henri Dutilleux, a living French composer, is known in the area because he had a close relationship with the National Symphony Orchestra and director Mstislav Rostropovich. This work, Ainsi la nuit (1976), would have perhaps had a better effect had it not been preceded by an ill-conceived spoken and played introduction to it, articulated by cellist David Hardy. The work has seven movements, with “parentheses” in between that recapitulate old or foreshadow new material, and with no time between. Foreseeing possible confusion among the audience as to where the titled movements began and ended, the musicians played the first few measures of every movement, and then proceeded to play the parenthesis preceding that movement and its transition into the movement itself. Needless to say, this was a long, drawn-out introduction to a piece that stands firmly on its own, and which does not need a thorough analysis for audience-members’ untrained ears. Dutilleux has exacting and quirky standards, and a love of harmony above all else. Out of his dissonant twentieth-century sound will emerge lush and richly intricate harmonies that seem to hearken to an earlier century. Always technically rigorous, the musicians acutely captured the jarring sounds of this string quartet, only to come together to create richly sonorous harmonies.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Harp takes center stage in Chamber Players' varied program (Washington Post, April 27)
The final work, Dvořák’s String Sextet in A major, op. 48, was so much in the Kennedy Center Chamber Players’ element that the piece practically played itself. However, at the beginning of the fourth movement, the musicians let this comfort get the better of them, and intonation began to slip. Despite this shortcoming, there were some wonderful moments, such as during a variation in the final movement in which cellist Hardy had a haunting solo over the other instruments’ transparent and blending sound. All in all, it was a wonderful program from a group that rarely disappoints.

The Kennedy Center Chamber Players offer one more program to end this season (June 6, 2 pm), a program featuring quintets by Gieseking and Schubert, as well as Szymanowski's Mythes for violin and piano.


Varun said...

"ill-conceived spoken and played introduction to it"

Not to mention that I had lost track of the second movement's introduction by the time they introduced the fourth.

Anonymous said...

My untrained ears thought the introduction was helpful. In general, I would discourage critics from discouraging efforts by musicians to open up pieces for the non-cognoscenti.

Sophia Vastek said...

Well I'm glad you found the introduction helpful! And I certainly wasn't discouraging musicians from making music more available to audiences, I just thought that it didn't quite work in this instance. Mostly because I didn't remember a few of the transitions when they actually played the work, but also because it was such a long introduction and such a tease. I think an introduction was a good idea, but that they really didn't need to go through each transition. But I'm truly glad it worked for you!