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Musical Evolutions

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

April 25, 2009

You never really appreciate what you have until it’s taken away from you. This may be something of a cliche, but it still rings true for me, and it describes my relationship with the Brandeis Music Department very well. I never attended any performances at Slosberg while I was attending Brandeis; for some reason, I didn’t think to look at their upcoming schedule or set aside any time for events I was invited to. Now that I’m on leave from the University, the idea of enjoying multiple concerts every week featuring timeless music and top-notch musicians seems heavenly, and I can’t believe I thoroughly ignored that opportunity for so long. Thus, my reaction to the “Musical Evolutions” performance by the Boston Unhinged Chamber Players that I attended on April 4th is mixed — not because the concert wasn’t wonderful (it was), but because it reminds me of everything I’m missing by being away.

The Boston Unhinged Chamber Players were founded in 2007 to perform large-scale chamber music in the Boston area. Their membership is composed of Brandeis students and alumni, and they are led by the able baton of Nicolas Alexander Brown. Brown himself is a fascinating individual. He works as a conductor and manager with almost every performance ensemble at Brandeis, as well as with the Music Department, the Boston Opera Collaborative, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He plays the French horn with the 215th Army Band as an enlisted serviceman. He sings with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Brandeis is fortunate to have someone of his considerable talent and dedication, and I expected a great performance based on his resume alone.

The theme of the concert was the evolution of German music, but it could have been more accurately described as the evolution of German Romanticism. All the pieces performed were written within a hundred year period, skipping much of Germany’s rich musical history (no Baroque music from the land of Bach and Handel?). However, taken as a journey through the Romantic period, the program suddenly becomes very comprehensive, tracing its development through the founding of Romanticism with Franz Schubert, the chromatic and orchestral revolutions of Richard Wagner, and the modernist-influenced Paul Hindemith.

The first half of the concert was devoted to Hindemith’s early vocal works. I was completely unfamiliar with Hindemith, and that might be why I didn’t get as much out of these works; however, the performers themselves certainly weren’t to blame. Guest vocalists Pamela Dellal and Pamela Wolfe brought impressive resumes of their own and voices to match. The opener “Wie es wär’, wenn’s anders wär” was a pleasant song, and certainly the lightest piece of the concert. It was followed by the six-movement song cycle “Die Junge Magd”, a much more despairing composition chronicling a young maid’s life against a horrific background of oncoming war. The emotional singing was particularly haunting as the cycle culminated in the maid’s untimely death.

After the intermission, the Players performed the adagio-allegro first movement from Franz Schubert’s excellent Octet in F major. Heavily influenced by Beethoven, the Octet was written in 1824 and represents the first wave of Romantic masterpieces. The ensemble masterfully handled the pretty adagio, then transitioned energetically through a dynamic passage before settling on the bouncy main theme. Brown’s conducting was full of life, and he brought out the happy, fun elements that characterize the piece. Poor performances of early Romantic works can make the rich orchestration techniques, so revolutionary at the time, sound primitive in light of later developments, but Brown kept the piece fresh by allowing Schubet’s matchless melodicism to carry the piece.

The concert concluded with Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. It’s unusual to hear Wagner, with his propensity for huge orchestras and grand spectacle, composing in a chamber setting. Still, the familiar Wagner themes of delicate, beautiful melodies built to powerful crescendos shone through, and the Chamber Players executed them expertly. Brown led the crescendos with great care, consummating Wagner’s rich harmonies to make it sound like there were far more then just 15 instrumentalists on the stage. The Idyll was written for Wagner’s wife as a birthday present, and the Chamber Players succeeded in making me understand his passionate love for her — no small feat considering what a hateful man Wagner was.

“Musical Evolutions” was an exceptional performance, one that displays the great talents we have at Brandeis and symbolizes the strength of our Music Department. If you’ve never experienced one of our many ensembles in concert, make a point to do so soon. Even if you find one only half as good as the Boston Unhinged Chamber Players, I guarantee you’ll leave wanting more.

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