BSO Chamber Players at Tanglewood: Every day is another game

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LENOX — Violist Steven Ansell spoke: "All borders are like a line drawn with a stick of wood or a heel of the shoe in the sand. Up to here there's the borderline. All this is artificial. Tomorrow we play another game."

The inscription, cited by composer Sofia Gubaidulina to be read with her "Garden of Joy and Sorrow," introduced the work Wednesday night at Tanglewood. The piece in turn opened the Boston Symphony Chamber Players' annual concert, and an unusual work it is, employing wispy sounds from a flute, harp and viola.

How to describe the work? How explain the enigma?

Mystical? Incantatory? Hypnotic?

Divine wisdom or metaphysical riddle?

All of these or none of these?

How explain a dream or a rainbow?

But what if that's the point - that the material world is artificial and every day we inhabitants of it play another game?

The chamber piece was written in the aftermath of the Russian composer's "Offertorium," a tumultuous 1980s violin concerto commissioned by the BSO and premiered and recorded by it with Gidon Kremer as soloist. In effect, "Garden of Joy and Sorrow" is a miniaturized sequel to the concerto, concentrating Gubaidulina's deeply spiritual - specifically Christian - concerns in a smaller form.                                                                                                                                                 

The single movement, though suggestive of Debussy in instrumentation, has a more Japanese sound, as if for shakuhachi and koto. Elegantly performed by the BSO's flutist Elizabeth Rowe, harpist Jessica Zhou and Ansell, "Garden of Joy and Sorrow" answered the concerto's wrestling with fate with delicate, bent and scraping tones that often seemed more silence than music. Modest in size, the piece occupied a large space.                                                                                                              

The rest of the program also had its enigmatic side.                                                                      

Bach's cantata No. 199, "Meine Herze schwimmt im Blut" (discreetly translated as "my heart is bathed in blood"), is hardly typical Chamber Players fare. It is also a particularly lugubrious work. Soprano Yulia Van Doren's uneven voice, whose low register often dipped below hearing, and heavily emotive singing did little to redeem the mood. Oboist John Ferrillo contributed an expressive obbligato in the "mute sighs" aria and recitative.                                                                                                                                            

The ensemble of mostly first-chair BSO members was more firmly on home ground in the evening's finale, the much-loved Dvorak Piano Quintet, with pianist Paul Lewis as a distinguished guest artist. He, if anything, underplayed the piano part in the long first movement. After that, he and the BSO strings took off in a spirited, well-unified account of the old favorite.

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