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Practiced Playing from Brattle Street

Brattle Street Chamber Players perform at

By Matthew H. Coogan, Contributing Writer

On Saturday night, one of Harvard’s lesser-known musical groups, the Brattle Street Chamber Players, gave a polished performance in Paine Music Hall. The group premiered “Gilded Glass,” a piece composed especially for the group by Elizabeth C. Lim ’08, before playing two relatively obscure pieces: Igor Stravinsky’s “Concerto for String Orchestra in D” and Antonin Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings.” It became apparent by the end of the evening that the group should have a larger draw.

Now in their eleventh year, the unassuming Brattle Street Chamber Players perform without a conductor, resulting in a unified ensemble characterized by constant interaction among the players. Throughout the concert, each of the thirteen players looked at the others every few measures or so, and it often seemed as though they were playing from memory.

The first piece on the program, “Gilded Glass,” showcased the ensemble’s precision and expressive range. The opening pizzicato was in tune and well-synchronized. The violas, which do not ordinarily project well and can often get lost behind the penetrating high notes of the violins and the booming resonance of the cellos, were forceful in the first movement.

Even more impressive than the Players’ confidence and technical skills was the coherence of Lim’s composition. It was a bit of a relief to hear an enjoyable modern piece, given the unpleasant atonality of many new pieces. The first movement was a rhythmically witty exchange among the strings, anchored by a playful call and response between the double bass and the cellos, while the second movement was sweetly melodic and made use of unexpected harmonic changes. The third movement, “Danse Macabre,” combined material from the first two, producing a twisting, grotesque result. Julia L. Glenn ’11 played a solo that boasted a fair amount of verve. At the end of the piece, Lim, all smiles, went up to the stage to receive appreciative and deserved applause.

The Stravinsky also included tricky, unusual rhythms and atypical harmonies, but the ensemble proved themselves up to the task of playing it. In the first movement, Charlotte S. Austin ’11 commanded the stage with a rich and nuanced solo. The orchestra traipsed along through the movement, maneuvering through the quirky piece and making evident the ironic, twisted elegance for which Stravinsky is famous. The piece’s sudden contrasts were deftly delivered as well, as the players transitioned from elegance to a forceful march to a quiet and technically difficult suspension of harmonics in the lower strings. The ensemble’s continued internal communication allowed them to stay in sync for the entire piece. In the second and third movements, the group’s sound was occasionally muddled, and lacked the transparency it had in “Gilded Glass.”

After a brief pause, the group played Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings.” The program was well-designed, as the more familiar rhythms and harmonies in the Dvorak emphasized the piece’s serenity. David H. Miller ’11 played the double bass with a touch that added color and stability but did not intrude on the centered sound of the ensemble. The concluding, triumphant gesture was a confident end to a pleasing concert.

The Brattle Street Chamber Players’ mission is admirable: They seem to be intent on making classical music more accessible and fun for those unfamiliar with the genre. The program notes included playful, clarifying parenthetical remarks in keeping with the ensemble’s informal and relaxed vibe—a departure from traditional classical concerts that can tend to be stuffy. While this little group isn’t yet well-known around campus, they are remarkably self-assured and competent, and I left the concert hoping that Brattle Street Chamber Player’s efforts to make approachable, enjoyable and experimental chamber music are heard by a broader audience.

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