Brattle Street, A Hidden Gem

The name “Brattle Street Chamber Players” is not usually brought up in conversation about Harvard’s performing arts scene. And that’s just the way the musicians like it. “[It] gives us leeway to do whatever we feel like doing,” said Lenora C. Murphy ’12, and then added with a smile, “it feels like you’re one of the cool kids.” Her colleague Jeremy Ying ’13 agrees. “It feels elite,” he said jokily, “like, haven’t you heard of Brattle?” The group’s underground feel gives their concerts a special excitement and charge, and their audiences pride themselves on discovering this rare gem. However, given the caliber of their performance, the Players may find it hard to keep their project a secret for much longer.

Last Saturday in Paine Hall, the Players presented a joint concert with their sister chamber orchestra from Columbia University, “fourbythree.” The evening’s repertoire embodied the spirit of the group—that is, an electrifying mixture of zaniness, bombast, and the finest individual musicianship that Harvard has to offer. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than the Players’ rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Art of Fugue, BMW 1080.”

Arranged for the group by Lucien D. Werner ’13, the fugue epitomizes the Brattle Street aesthetic. According to Bobby S. Chen ’14, the arrangement was, harmonically, a real challenge—a musical progression of increasing complexity made all the more difficult by the fact that the Players are unconducted. However, listening to the musicians confront the piece, as risky as it was, was part of the fun.  The acute attention of each of the performers—and the cohesive performance that resulted—was reminiscent of a high-wire act: if any of the musicians erred, the entire ensemble would be thrown off. Though not necessarily a technically perfect performance, the Players’ performance of Bach was wholly characteristic: full of excitement and ambition.

The highlight of the evening, however, was the “Allegretto from String Quintet in C Major, D. 956” by Franz Schubert. It is a nakedly showy piece, as even the Players admitted themselves—Chen likened the piece, which the musicians played with  gusto, to the soundtrack of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The playing was simply infectious, especially in the berserk, frantic violin sections at the piece’s beginning and end. The performance received a veritable roar of approval from the audience, and one could not help but feel the sense of intimacy Murphy described between the group extend to their small body of fans.

Also worth mentioning were the Players’ thrilling performance of “La Follia Variations for String Orchestra” by Francesco Geminiani and arranged by Michi Wiancko—complete with woodblock, tambourine, and synchronized foot-stamping—as well as the World Premiere of a student-written composition, “Then the Silence Increased,” by Zachary T. Sheets ’13. Sheets’ piece stood up surprisingly well in the masterful selection of works—perhaps because, as Murphy explained, it was written specifically for the Players and thus tailored to the musicians’ individual talents. This commissioning of original work has become an important part of the group’s remit.

At the risk of sounding pro-Harvard jingoistic, I believe Brattle’s unabashed passion and bombast may have made for a more lovable performance. However, the musicians of “fourbythree,” many who are students of the Columbia-Julliard Exchange, gave an impressively professional performance; Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night, Op. 4” was a testament to the group’s more technically demanding musical selections. Their performance of “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives was powerful, combining a swirling ambient wash from a small orchestra hidden behind the stage curtain of Paine Hall with incongruous slivers of fragmented brass and woodwind. Though “fourbythree” did not exude the same sense of riotous pleasure as the Players, their musicianship is undeniable. Perhaps a performance in their home concert hall may have brought out a similar quality.

Indeed, this riotous pleasure seems to sum up the Players’ entire ethos—that music should be fun. This approach, as much as their technicality and artistry, is the source of their compelling performance. As Murphy said, “we do this because we love it.”

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