Rush Hour Concerts open new era with mixed Stravinsky

Wed Jun 04, 2014 at 3:37 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

"Soldiers" by Marc Chagall, 1912.
“Soldiers” by Marc Chagall, 1912.

One could hardly have asked for a more glorious summer evening to begin a new era for the Rush Hour concerts, which opened its season Tuesday at St. James Cathedral.

Series founder and guiding light Deborah Sobol passed away suddenly last January, yet it’s a testament to her spirit and the strength of her vision that the free weekly summer concert series is continuing. Interim artistic director  (and CSO cellist) Brant Taylor has put together an intriguing lineup this summer ranging from Copland’s Appalachian Spring to Steve Reich’s Sextet with a commission by Jason Seed to be premiered August 19.

That’s all good news. Yet the Rush Hour series got off to a decidedly mixed start Tuesday with Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat performed by the Fulcrum Point New Music Project. With its long stretches of narration without music, A Soldier’s Tale was an odd choice to kick things off.

Stravinsky’s sardonic tale of the soldier-violinist who sells his soul to the devil was presented in the septet version. Yet even with some fine cornet playing by Stephen Burns, the performance never seemed to come together for reasons logistical as much as musical.

The vast cathedral acoustic is always a challenge for a mixed ensemble of winds and strings, and so it proved again. The musicians failed to blend cohesively, with brass and percussion dominating tuttis. Clarinet playing was fitfully sharp and when Rika Seko’s violin was audible at all, her reticent playing and grainy tone lacked the projection and the personality to make the necessary impact.

Frank Babbitt brought wonderful relish to his story-telling role, though the aggressive amplification for his voice needed to be turned down at least two notches. Too bad the playing of the musicians didn’t deliver a performance half as characterful and involving as Babbitt’s narration.

The Rush Hour Concerts continue 5:45 p.m. June 10 with Janet Sung and Kuang-Hao Huang performing Brahms’ Sonatensatz and Violin Sonata No. 2. 

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