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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Boston Unhinged Chamber Players perform

Undergraduate, graduate and alumni musicians take on large-scale works

Published: March 14, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

After seeing a flyer advertising the debut concert of the Boston Unhinged Chamber Players, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Did “unhinged” refer to an experimental style of music, an innovative type of instrumentation or a avant-garde interpretation of classical repertoire? I went to the concert on Sunday night in Slosberg in an attempt to find an answer, but what I discovered was an ensemble whose level of musicianship and mastery of challenging literature blew away my expectations.

The Boston Unhinged Chamber Players is comprised of a rotating group of undergraduate, graduate and alumni musicians dedicated to the interpretation of large-scale chamber works. Music director, Nick Brown—a French horn player and baritone vocalist whose biographical notes in the program read like the resume of a musical overachiever—established the ensemble in 2007 to contribute to the variety of student-run music groups at Brandeis.

Sunday night’s program commenced with a performance of Beethoven’s Septet, a piece that revealed the ensemble’s aptitude for reinvigorating classical works with raw vitality. The piece was divided into six movements, each with a distinctive style and tempo. The highlights included the gently cascading motifs of the first movement, Adagio-Allegro con brio, the jaunty percussive rhythms of the fifth movement, Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace, and the intense, grave introduction of the final movement, Andante con molto alla Marcia-Presto that gives way to a playful, spicatto melody.

The ensemble displayed subtle yet powerful phrasing throughout the piece, expressing great dynamic contrast and a clear sense of style. Concertmaster, Graham Patten, stole the show with his extraordinary, nearly Heifetz-level precision and crisp articulation. The blend of the ensemble, however, occasionally made the Septet sound more like a concerto when the lower stings and woodwinds failed to balance Patten’s incisive tone.

The legato swells of the Adagio-Allegro con brio immediately set the tone for the piece and showed the ensemble’s ability to capture the essence of one of Beethoven’s most popular chamber works. The Tempo di Menuetto was a sprightly yet regal dance in three-four time whose tight articulation brought out the classical side of Beethoven. On the other hand, the Adagio cantabile was the weak link, a slow and fragile movement that sounded rather bland with the ensemble’s monochromatic dynamics.

The second half of the program consisted of Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonietta. If there’s anything diminutive sounding about the title, it isn’t reflected in the music. “This will be a bit of a shock to your ears after the Beethoven,” warned Brown, and he wasn’t far off. As Britten’s first formal work written when he was a student at the Royal College of Music, the Sinfonietta has the sound of an ambitious, passionate young composer eager to find his own voice amid the fascinating new developments of early modern music.

From the outset, the music sounded three-dimensional, with fragmented melodies emerging, colliding, and exploding in discordant catharsis. The piece featured more of an ensemble sound than the Beethoven, and there was clearly more of an emphasis on balance. As motifs ricocheted off one another and intermingled in fascinating ways, it was clear that the musicians were acting as a single living, breathing organism rather than individual players.

The ensemble’s musicality brought the brash, bold sound of the first movement to life with a firecracker-like intensity. Their attention to detail, especially through dynamics and articulation, revealed the intricacies of Britten’s technique. One memorable moment occurred in the first movement in which acrobatic wind motifs leapt out among a background of pizzicato string chords. Another occurred in the final movement, featuring sky-scraping violin harmonies that revealed the euphonious side of early modern music.

Nick’s conducting style was dexterous and confident, revealing his ability to coax emotional phrasing out of the players. His subtle and seamless baton strokes went beyond the kind of laissez faire timekeeping that characterizes many student conductors. He was clearly engaged in a process of interacting with and reacting to the musicians as they navigated the treacherous waters of Britten’s Sinfonietta and explored the gorgeous melodies of Beethoven’s Sextet.

“Both are very different but both were written very young in the composer’s careers,” Brown explained regarding his choice of repertoire. “And what’s interesting in retrospect is that they say a lot about the composers’ future works and the style that they eventually develop.” If Brown’s conducting performance tonight is any indication of his future career, the classical music world is in for a treat.