Formed in 2007 by violist Janz Castelo and showcasing the abilities of musicians from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and some guest artists, the Buffalo Chamber Players have gotten to the point where their concerts are “must see” dates on the calendar for some Western New York chamber music fans. Frankly, they deserve an even larger following. Their opening program for the 2013-14 season was the perfect example of why this is so.
Wednesday night found the various groups of musicians that make up a “typical” BCP concert making their way through works by a quintet of masters – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Samuel Barber, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner and Antonin Dvorak. All of these composers have well-known scores that are staples of concert programming for ensembles large and small, but what makes this particular series a joy is that the players frequently delve into corners of a composer’s repertoire for material that doesn’t get heard all that often.
The first half of the evening showcased works by Mozart (the Divertimento in D major, K.136) and Barber (“Dover Beach”, op. 3) that were written when the authors were in their teens and a midperiod sextet for winds by Beethoven.
The Divertimento for string quartet was a nicely played bon-bon, an easy-on-the-ears starter piece familiar to young string players getting their first crack at chamber music.
Barber’s song for “medium voice” and string quartet featured a fine performance from baritone Alexander Hurd. The piece is a vocal gem with an emotional impact due in part to the text Barber set – a Matthew Arnold poem with phrases talking “of human misery,” “the eternal note of sadness …”, etc., – and in part because of the effectiveness of how the composer, who once toyed with the idea of becoming a vocal soloist, meshed the words and music.
The wind sextet, for doubled clarinets, bassoons and horns, was one of those pieces hinting at Mozart’s influence while waving toward the full-blown genius of Beethoven’s later years. It’s a piece with an opus number in the neighborhood of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies and the “Emperor” Concerto, works with which it has very little in common, a fact based upon when it was published rather than when it was written.
As Castelo noted before all the musicians crowded onstage to perform the fifth of Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder,” it was the bicentennial year of the composer’s birth. Soprano Colleen Marcello was marvelous, and the lush backdrop provided by the chamber orchestra was effective and charming.
The harmonium, a pump organ popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was at the heart of Dvorak’s five bagatelles. It isn’t an instrument likely to be heard in concert settings, but this is another reason why the BCP programs can be so interesting. The particular harmonium used by Roland Martin in this performance was, according to Castelo, “found on Craig’s List,” where it was offered free to anyone who would remove it from the owner’s basement.
It was finally made ready for playing on the weekend before the concert, and Martin played a short selection by Cesar Franck to show the audience what it sounded like.
In the company of a string trio, the harmonium didn’t necessarily take center stage as much as it provided a ground for the strings to operate from.
The folk-tinged rhythms and Dvorak’s gift for couching melodic material did the rest.