Outgoing BCMS director lets the music do the talking

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2009
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CAMBRIDGE - For his final concert as artistic director of the Boston Chamber Music Society, cellist Ronald Thomas did not opt for a sentimental farewell. Addressing the crowd at Sanders Theatre, Thomas corrected an error in the published program order ("My legacy," he joked), briefly thanked the board, the musicians, and the audience, and then shrugged.

"That's it," he said. No more talking; time to do what BCMS does best, unassumingly accomplished performances of the meat of the classical-music canon.

Thomas's successor, violist Marcus Thompson, joined clarinetist Thomas Hill and pianist Mihae Lee for Robert Schumann's "Märchenerzählungen" ("Fairy Tales"). The varied musical personalities - Lee's athletic touch, Hill's forthright, articulate oratory, and Thompson's satiny lyricism - made for diverting conversation. Lee's skittish, dry fanfares in the first movement set up a fluctuating, shifting ground; a deeper touch and steadier rhythmic snap inspired a nobler second movement. Thompson's singing line kindled an elegantly shaped slow movement, while Hill's robust tone keyed the jaunty finale. Balance was sometimes an issue - clarinet had a tendency to swallow up viola in shared registers - but the interplay had consistent interest.

Thomas and Lee gave Beethoven's A-major, Op. 69 Cello Sonata a measure of emotional restraint that hinted at an aggressive presence at the other end of the leash. Sometimes, as in the finale's Adagio introduction, the reticence produced sophisticated dramatic substance, although the subsequent Allegro vivace opted for headlong dash over interpretive depth. The best moments came in the sly, scrupulous Scherzo, the purring in dangerous proximity to the teeth.

In the second half, a guest, the young French violinist Arnaud Sussmann, joined Thomas and Lee for an outstanding, fervent rendering of Brahms's Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87. With a full-fledged theme-and-variations for its slow movement, the Trio comes off as unusually expansive for chamber music, not straining at the seams, but luxuriating in a larger canvas. Sussmann and Thomas proved particularly well-matched, both in their tight, intense tone as well as their ardent, voluble phrasing and penchant for dynamic extremes.

The pair made for a capable foil to Lee's piano, given a part of near-orchestra density. The rapport between all three provided a wealth of fine musical detail along the journey. It was a more fitting valedictory for Thomas's 26-season directorship than any speech would have been: BCMS renewing the richness of venerable repertoire, with its usual flair.

BOSTON CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY Ronald Thomas, artistic director

At: Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Sunday