A John Heiss premiere focuses on the oboe

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 09.10.2015

Boston is that most musical of American cities, so there is never a shortage of recital and concert to choose from. I visit Boston twice and year and partake freely of the offerings.  Boston’s talented performers are the equal of New Yorkers, Parisians, even Berliners.

New music and American music occupy pride of place here and have done so since the days of the legendary Serge Koussevitzky – the Russian-born conductor who dominated the Boston music scene and made the Boston Symphony Orchestra what it is today, a world-class institution.

The area’s giant stone churches, relics from another era, seem more frequently utilized for chamber music than for worshiping. The Winsor Music Chamber Series at St. Paul’s Church, Brookline, is a good example. On October 4, a concert there ranged from the Baroque to the contemporary – including a world premiere of a John Heiss eight-part composition. A mostly subscription (and entirely grey-haired) audience filled the hall.

Music’s elite turned up, including composer-pianist Yehudi Wyner (president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters), star conductor Benjamin Zander and Heiss himself. I sat beside a soprano who had taught a generation of talented Boston singers.

The polished, professional players in this Young Artist Concert seemed equally comfortable with the traditional Luigi Boccherini Quintet in D minor Op. 25 No. 31 and the sometimes-atonal Heiss Microcosms that unfolded in new and fresh directions. The Heiss quintet satisfied the Winsor Series aim of presenting a world premiere at each concert in the series, a remarkable objective for any group.

Peggy Pearson, the virtuoso oboist and founder of Winsor Music Inc. nine years ago, took lead roles in both the Boccherini and the Heiss and made the most of her sensitive tone and fluid phrasing. The Heiss selection was in fact a reworking of an earlier version, premiered in June, that Pearson liked so much she boldly announced that she wanted to play it. Peggy usually gets her way. She recalled for me after the concert that she had said to Heiss, “I’d like you to write me into that piece.” Heiss complied, creating the new version with impressive oboe passages that transformed the piece to her advantage.

Heiss injected his sense of play into the music, beginning with a 30-second movement then a 40-second movement, both mere fleeting ideas, actually, gradually increasing in length to about three minutes. Inspirations popped up and vanished, moods came and went, and percussive effects were added by handclaps and drumming on the cello and viola frames. Stops and starts came at unexpected intervals, to the delight of the audience.

He slipped into the atonal and back to tonal, but always layered with harmonies, some of them pleasant, others in clashing dissonance. One of the players praised the “purity and crystalline quality” of the music. Explaining his brevity, Heiss said he tried to make each phrase perfect, “not wasting a note”. The players never lost sight of the overall piece, giving it coherence and meaning.

Mitsuru Yonezaki led on violin, with Pearson on oboe, Gabriela Diaz (viola), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello) and Lawrence Wolfe (bass). Heiss has been a popular professor of composition at New England Conservatory for 49 years. The quintet is his 53rd completed work.

Following intermission came Jewel Hill: A Song for the Spirit, composed by Megan Henderson, who introduced it with a short explanation. Henderson, who performs both as pianist and as a singer in the Schola Cantorum group, invited the audience to join in a sing-along, reading from a one-page score that was distributed at entry. The notation was in “shape note” style, an old technique for facilitating community singing. I let out a sigh of despond as I realized we were being asked to engage in some kind of group thing, unrehearsed and no doubt painful.

But the ensuing performance produced a spontaneous and beautiful full-chorus effect.  Onstage was Henderson and three other singers (soprano Peggy Murray, alto Henderson, tenor Lysander Jaffee and bass Bret Silverman) plus the strings from the earlier program. The audience, familiar with Pearson’s productions, gamely sang along, and in tune. Somehow it all hung together.

The program closed with a vigorous reading of the Schumann Piano Trio No. 2 in F minor. Op. 80, one of his three piano trios. It begins with the marking Sehr lebhaft (Very lively) and the cello (Popper-Keizer) and violinist (Diaz) were appropriately energetic in extended parallel passages.  Alternately to piano part functions as lead and accompaniment. The piano emerges dominant in subsequent movements, played by the much-decorated Eliko Akahori, a popular Boston area recitalist and chamber player.

Pearson’s Winsor Music, Inc., has grown steadily in popularity, now operating along four lines: development of new works for oboe, a chamber music series, taking chamber music to retirement communities, and schools, and the Bach Institute in collaboration with Emmanuel Music and Oberlin College.


Another version of this review has appeared on Boston Musical Intelligencer at www.classical-scene.com.

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