Elias Canetti once famously compared orchestral conductors to fascist-style dictators who demand absolute obedience from musicians and audiences alike. To be sure, the older model of baton-wielding tyrants is on the wane in the current age of the conductor-as-CEO, but playing in an orchestra still requires trading in a good portion of one's own artistic autonomy. It's no surprise then that many orchestral players also seek out the more enfranchised joys of chamber music, in which there is only one player per part and each ensemble makes its own choices of programming and interpretation.
One lucky group of principal players in the Boston Symphony Orchestra gets to combine both types of music-making in a single job description. They form the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, who offer an annual series of recitals in Jordan Hall. The first of these took place Sunday afternoon and featured solid, well-crafted performances of both familiar works and seldom-heard repertoire.
With so many musicians to tap, the group is a highly protean ensemble, capable of tackling music scored for almost any combination of instruments. The program began with BSO oboist John Ferrillo joining concertmaster Malcolm Lowe , principal violist Steven
Written in 1944 when Schuller was just 19 years old, it documents his early grasp of not only a neo-classical style but also, in the second movement, a more swaggering, free-flowing jazz. Listening to the piece today, one naturally hears it as a youthful signpost pointing toward Schuller's later interests in charting a compositional ``third stream" that could bring together traditional concert music and jazz.
The scoring of Roger Kellaway's witty ``Esque" -- for trombone and double bass -- makes it the sort of novelty work you don't hear often but it was an apt pairing with Schuller's quintet. Written in 1972, Kellaway's piece was also shot through with jazz-like gestures but of a more deconstructed variety, sewn into the work's rigorous harmonic language. Despite a small equipment malfunction, Ronald Barron and Edwin Barker made the demanding score seem both playful and inviting.
The fine pianist Joseph Kalichstein joined the ensemble for the final work, Schumann's blockbuster Piano Quintet. Kalichstein's assertive, vital playing seemed to inject the proceedings with an extra shot of energy, but even so, this was a reading more notable for its sobriety and polish than for its pulse-quickening vigor or expressive abandon. Given the players' busy day jobs, perhaps it is not realistic to expect them to play with the passion and hunger of, say, a roving young quartet for whom chamber music is its lifeblood and livelihood. But it would have been a nice surprise.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.