Music review

A nod to the natural world

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / September 16, 2009

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s concert series resumed on Sunday with a smartly assembled program in the hands of three familiar and valued local talents: flutist Paula Robison, pianist Bruce Brubaker, and cellist Yeesun Kim, of the Borromeo String Quartet.

Much of the afternoon concert was taken up with duos, beginning with the “Airs de Ballet’’ from Saint-Saëns’s opera “Ascanio.’’ The arrangement, for flute and piano, made for a charming curtain-raiser and was beautifully played by Robison and Brubaker. So was the weightier “Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird)’’ by Messiaen, early evidence of the composer’s lifelong infatuation with birdsong. The flute speaks mainly in scattered bursts of melody, while the piano seems to embody the surrounding natural world. At the end, an entire flock seems to erupt in a kind of frantic counterpoint of pungent dissonance.

The lone solo was Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat. One of Chopin’s odder works, its disregard of traditional structures makes it sound almost improvisatory. Brubaker let it unfold in its own languid way. The performance was impressive in quieter moments, where the pianist painted in subtle half-shades; louder passages tended to bang.

Some of that improvisatory spirit was also present in Debussy’s cello sonata, much of which has as much to do with exploring unusual sounds as with melodic development. It also provided the afternoon’s most satisfying playing: Kim and Brubaker’s performance was tightly coordinated and rhythmically adept.

All three musicians took the stage for George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)’’ from 1971, when recorded whale songs were all the rage It’s a hard piece to put on: The composer calls for amplification, unusual performance instructions, and even masks for the three players.

The trio and the museum deserve credit for programming it. If the performance was less satisfying than one I heard last month at the Marlboro Music Festival, that was largely due to the setting rather than the performers. In order to succeed, this piece must sound vast and epic; the audience has to feel immersed, ocean-like, in its unusual sonics - something difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the Gardner’s low-ceilinged Tapestry Room. Without that sense of envelopment, “Vox Balaenae’’ is less an avant-garde statement than a collection of interesting sounds. Nevertheless, the three musicians did well by Crumb’s challenging score, and the closing “Sea-Nocturne’’ had an awestruck beauty that reverberated slowly into silence.


At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sunday

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