Ensemble’s winds take center stage

Guest pianist Jonathan Bass performs Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano with flutist Elizabeth Rowe at Jordan Hall on Sunday. Guest pianist Jonathan Bass performs Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano with flutist Elizabeth Rowe at Jordan Hall on Sunday. (STU ROSNER)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / January 25, 2011

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Strings usually rule the day at chamber music concerts, as they do in much of musical life. So it was notable that only two string players were to be seen at Sunday’s performance by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and then only in the performance of Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du soldat,’’ in the second half. The rest of the afternoon was, in large part, a showcase for the BSO’s winds, who collectively constitute one of the treasures of American orchestral playing.

The concert opened with Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, composed for Paula Robison in 1987. Liebermann’s avowedly tonal music gets a bad rap from those whose sympathies lie unshakably with the avant-garde, but the sonata, like most of his music, is beautifully constructed and idiomatically written for both instruments. The eeriness of the opening movement — moving uncertainly between major and minor — is swept away by the perpetual motion machine of the second. It was given an expert, brightly colored performance by Elizabeth Rowe and guest pianist Jonathan Bass.

Bass remained on stage for Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, a candidate for most neglected masterpiece in the composer’s oeuvre. Joining him were oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, bassoonist Richard Ranti, and horn player James Sommerville. They gave a meticulous, beautifully contoured performance, well balanced and alert to the music’s nuances. It was also cool and understated, and with a slightly lighter touch and a quantum of extra energy their reading might have gone from very good to extraordinary.

After intermission came the Stravinsky — a Faustian morality play about a tug of war between an Everyman soldier and the devil, set to a quasi-ragtime score that contains some of the composer’s most darkly comic, gleefully crooked music. The Chamber Players were joined by actors Jacqueline Knapp as the narrator, Michael Aronov as the soldier, and Leland Gantt as the devil. Though all were good, they would have made a stronger impression had they loosened up physically and not remained so closely tied to their music stands. Still, they did an admirable job of carrying the story line — especially Gantt, who was an irrepressible and insinuating Satan.

The musical end of things was superb. Standouts included concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, playing the all-important role of the soldier’s fiddle, trumpeter Thomas Rolfs, and percussionist Timothy Genis, whose eloquently shaded playing told much of the story in itself.

David Weininger can be reached at