Once again the Nova Chamber Music Series turned its spotlight on Utah Symphony principal harp Konrad Nelson, in a program of mostly standard pieces Monday at the Museum of Fine Arts.
How standard? Well, it marked the second time he has soloed in this building in Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, and the second time this season in Debussy's "Danse Sacree et Danse Profane" (the first being last November/December with the Utah Symphony).Yet there were differences. Not his luxuriant sound - that is nearly always a constant. But in the Debussy we were able to hear it balanced against a string quintet as opposed to a string orchestra, enhancing its Grecian atmosphere. And balanced it was, thanks to not only Nelson's control but his colleagues' ability to come up to his level. (Here they were the Western Arts Quartet - violinists Ralph Matson and Barbara Scowcroft, violist Roberta Zalkind and cellist Ellen Bridger - and double bass Jamie Allyn.)
The quartet was also on hand in the Ravel, along with flutist Jane Morrison Lyman and clarinetist Edward Cabarga. Like the Debussy, it was appealingly urged, with the flute and clarinet particularly well matched. But despite its more obvious emotion, this likewise seems to me a basically "classical" piece, and one in which Nelson's impassioned approach is a shade too much. A dazzling range of solo effects, however, especially in the quieter pages. And whereas last time I'd have called it a 300 percent performance, here it was closer to 200 percent - i.e., an improvement.
Earlier the quintet joined him in the second of two Marcel Grandjany morceaux, supplying the plush backing in the quasi-Handelian "Aria in Classic Style." Again one admired the harpist's tonal splendor, both here and in the romantically impressionistic "Rhapsodie," which came in for a kaleidoscopic rendition.
Ditto a pair of Carlos Salzedo showpieces, "Fraicheur" and "Chanson de la Nuit." Although performed in their solo versions, when a second harp proved unavailable, the rainbow of sound Nelson conjured up often suggested more than one instrument, whether in the watery glissandi of the first or the Spanish-tinged impressionism of the second.
For the rest the harp was relegated to an accompanying role, first in a pair of string encores - "The Swan" from Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" and the "Meditation" from Massenet's "Thais" - then as part of the instrumental ensemble in Debussy's "Les Chansons de Bilitis," surrounding the similarly ersatz Grecianisms of poet Pierre Louys.
Throbbingly intoned by Bridger, "The Swan" worked its usual magic, as did Matson's tasteful fiddling in the "Thais" excerpt.
By contrast the "Chansons" emerged somewhat lumpily, at least musically. Here Nelson, again doing double duty, was joined by Lyman and Sally Humphreys on flute and Marjorie Janove on celeste, all fine players. But for some reason rhythms sagged and the celeste was frequently too loud. Not so the almost conversational readings of the Louys poems by Francoise Chanut, a bit offhanded at times but refreshingly unhistrionic.
A word of praise for whoever decided to couple this with the Massenet, moreover. Not only did the opera premiere the same year the poems were published - 1894 - but a "Thais" also pops up in the last of the 12 to be included in Debussy's setting. Which, I expect, is about as coincidental as anything else in French music of this era.