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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Concert Review: Musicians of the Old Post Road

On Saturday evening February 6th, 2010 the Musicians of the Old Post Road (MOPR) performed a concert at Harvard Epworth Church in Cambridge under the collective theme "From the Romantic Salon."

Despite the frigid weather, the concert drew a capacity audience in Cambridge (which was a repeat performance of the same work from the evening before in Wayland, MA). Although the heating system at Harvard Epworth was in disrepair, the music provided a cozy setting that warmed all.

Members of the MOPR had done their homework not only preparing well-rehearsed pieces for this public performance, but in researching and finding under-performed or long forgotten gems in the classical music repertory.

The unifying theme of the "Romantic Salon" concert centered on one instrument: the guitar. MOPR guest artist Olav Chris Henriksen was featured in all of the five works on the program. He performed on, and spoke about, his family heirloom - a school of Stauffer six-string guitar made in Vienna around 1805. The instrument has been passed down through generations of guitar playing members of his Viennese-Norwegian family.

The concert featured little performed works by Francesco Molino, I.A. Preis, Nicolò Paganini, Friedrich Burgmüller, Wenzel Matiegka (but arranged for quartet by a 17-year old Franz Schubert).

The work by I.A. Preis was a set of variations for flute and guitar. Nothing is known about this composer, and the MOPR performance was undoubtedly the first time the work has been performed in the 21st century. While not a rediscovered masterpiece, the work was competently constructed and of certifiable salon music quality. It's yet another example of a skilled composer who has faded into the black hole of history. Apparently, even the most adept musicologists have been unable to unearth basic information about this now obscure composer - such as when her (or she) was born and died. No other works by Preis have been uncovered.

Flutist and MOPR co-director Suzanne Stumpf performed on a historic old system flute dating from around 1815. It was also made in Vienna. She indicated to the audience that perhaps her flute and Henriksen's guitar had met before in Vienna in the early 19th century. Stumpf performed on her historic wood instrument with both agility and tonal clairty.

The Paganini Serenade in C Major for viola, cello, and guitar was a delight. Paganini was a master of string writing, and one of a small circle of composers to take on the guitar in an intelligent and engaging way. Paganini could probably play the guitar and viola part himself, but I was impressed with the cello writing too. Cellist (and MOPR co-director) Daniel Ryan often soloed high above the treble clef, and managed to make his instrument sound cantabile the entire time.

The final work for the evening was Notturno for the entire MOPR ensemble - a piece originally composed by the Czech guitarist Wenzel Matiegka but re-tooled and arranged by Franz Schubert. Schubert most likely made the arrangement for his family to play at home. He re-distributed the original viola part between viola and cello. Schubert also added his own compositional improvements as well, such as doubling, and a rambunctious virtuosic cello solo in the theme and variations that concludes the work. The work was originally believed to have been penned entirely by Schubert, and thus assigned a Deutsch number of D. 96.

Violist Sarah Darling played a significant chamber music role in both the Matiegka/Schubert piece, and in the Paganini Serenade as well. She has another life as a new music specialist, and when not performing traditional works with MOPR, is championing the music of contemporary composers. She has been involved with more than 100 premieres.

Refreshments followed the program, and musicians, friends, and audience all mingled at the rear of the hall.

Several concerts remain on the 2009-10 MOPR Season, including "Virtuosi Italiani" in March (in Boston and Worcester) and "Conversations Galantes: Music of the French Baroque" in April (at Wellesley College).