After 127 years Loeffler’s folk-tinged Octet gets its New York debut

Fri May 24, 2024 at 2:13 pm
Charles Martin Loeffler’s Octet, written in 1897, received its New York premiere Thursday night at the Morgan Library. Photo: Ken Kubota

Charles Martin Loeffler, a straddler of centuries and musical styles, came briefly into focus Thursday night with a lively New York premiere of his Octet for two clarinets, harp, string quartet and double bass at the Morgan Library.

Joined onstage by an all-star band of noted chamber musicians, clarinetist, arranger and musical detective Graeme Steele Johnson presided while the 1897 work emerged from 127 years of silence as just one manuscript among many in the Library of Congress. Two more-familiar works by Debussy and Sibelius, in new chamber arrangements, filled out the bill, providing perspective on the musical ferment of the 1890s.

German born, stylistically Francophile, and a proudly naturalized American, Loeffler dominated the Boston music scene for decades as assistant concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, composer, teacher and violin soloist. A perfectionist who tinkered endlessly with his compositions, he published only rarely, thereby condemning much of his music to future obscurity.

Thanks to one piece of his that is still heard from time to time, the atmospheric Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola and Piano, and a Boston critic’s description of him as “a decadent…a hunter after nuances [who] believes in tonal impressions rather than thematic development,” Loeffler is now identified with the morbid, sensual world of Symbolist poets such as Baudelaire, Verlaine and Maeterlinck.

As if to emphasize this connection, Thursday’s concert began with the ur-Impressionist piece, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arranged by Johnson for the same forces as Loeffler’s Octet, except (of course) for a flute replacing one of the clarinets. Emi Ferguson played the famous opening flute solo without even a hint of breathiness, sounding almost like a wordless mezzo-soprano, and later danced fetchingly with Johnson’s clarinet.

Harpist Bridget Kibbey’s response to that solo sounded startlingly loud, and indeed her robust playing, artful and expressive as it was, overmatched the other instruments much of the time. Debussy wrote effectively for string quartet elsewhere, but in this reduced arrangement, one missed the orchestral version’s full string choir, sighing languidly in that Symbolist landscape. Thursday’s performers—also including violinists Siwoo Kim and Stella Chen, violist Matthew Lipman, cellist Samuel DeCaprio and double bassist Sam Suggs—played with commitment and expression, especially Ferguson as the dreamy faun.

The raw energy of Sibelius’s En Saga gave the concert an opposite pole of expression. By his own account, the composer developed this 1902 orchestral piece over ten years, first as a septet or octet; referring to an early orchestral version, arranger Gregory Barrett imagined what that 1892 chamber piece might have sounded like.

As performed by the Debussy ensemble minus the harp, Sibelius’s saga traded orchestral grandeur for village-band vigor. With bottom-heavy strings and frequent teaming-up of low clarinet and cello, this composer’s predilection for low, bear-like sonorities asserted itself. Simple, homophonic textures, skipping rhythms, and frequent tempo changes evoked folk dancing.

With an intermission adding to the suspense, the long-awaited Loeffler Octet arrived at last, and it turned out to resemble its contemporaries by Debussy and Sibelius not at all.

Loeffler the decadent Symbolist had left the building, replaced by Loeffler the colleague of Chadwick, Foote, Beach and the other Second Boston School composers, like them speaking the language of Brahms and Dvořák with an American accent.

As edited by Johnson from the mad tangle of the composer’s much-revised manuscript, the strings sang out with robust Brahmsian sonorities, the two clarinets (Johnson and David Shifrin) added dusky notes and a yodeling theme, and Kibbey’s harp rippled in well-balanced support. Those ripples, and the music’s general melodiousness, brought a touch of Fauré to the mix.

The Allegro moderato’s swinging three-to-a-bar was captivating in small doses, but its persistence throughout the movement left one longing for a contrasting theme or two. One was grateful for a bit of major-minor ambiguity in the coda.

The Adagio molto was blessed with more contrasting moods and novelty in scoring. The clarinets and first violin dialogued with a distinctive up-and-down theme decorated with rapid scales. A passionate minor-key episode added drama à la Dvořák’s dumky.

The viola led the way in a nostalgic Andante introduction to the finale. The Allegro alla Zingara adopted the alternately fiery and teasing moods of a Brahms Hungarian dance, only more leisurely and discursive. Octave doublings of clarinets and strings refreshingly opened up the group’s sound, while energetic harp and pizzicato bass drove the action. A splendid harp cadenza set up the brief, heel-clicking coda.

In a program note, Johnson recounted the months of work on Loeffler’s puzzle of a manuscript, wondering if he was “wasting my time on a dud of a piece.”  What he has given the world is no dud, but a piece of music in an individual Romantic style, which one hopes will adorn many a chamber music program in the future.

On Thursday, by way of a victory lap, Johnson and harpist Kibbey offered an encore with an appropriate title for the occasion, their arrangement of Loeffler’s delicate mélodie for voice and piano, “Timbres oubliés” (Forgotten sounds).

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