Chamber Soloists present intimate take on Mahler and Tchaikovsky

By Greg Stepanich

Song was central to the art of Gustav Mahler, and he built huge orchestral structures out of music that began as one piano, one voice.

 In the first of two programs devoted to music by major composers who paid important visits to the United States, the Florida Atlantic University Chamber Soloists offered a recital of Mahler songs and the most popular piano work of Tchaikovsky, with the help of a narrator, Sunday afternoon in Boca Raton.

 These programs are typically quite modest, and its presenters ask only for donations (in this case, the suggested pitch-in was $10 into a giant brandy snifter on a table at the entrance). The group’s artistic director, Leonid Treer, presents the works in a homey, friendly fashion, and typically there will be a small bit of stage business — someone reading the letters of a composer, for instance — to accompany the music.

 The first half of Sunday’s program featured the soprano Sandra McClain in five Mahler songs, accompanied by Treer at the piano: Three of the Ruckert Lieder, one of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs (Wer hat dies Leidlein erdacht?), and one, Fruhlingsmorgen, from the early Lieder und Gesange collection. McClain’s voice is pleasant, if somewhat dry, but she clearly knows plenty about breath control and how to try to sell an art song to an audience.

 She and Treer made an effective, intimate pair who were at their best when the music was at its most delicate, as in the Ruckert song  Ich atmet’ einen Linden dunft, with its delicate accompaniment reflecting the romantic text. Their high point — good singing, sensitive accompaniment — came in the finest of the five songs,  Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, with its signature sound of Mahlerian resignation expressed through bittersweet harmonies and a lovely melody.

 The second half contained The Seasons, Tchaikovsky’s musical cycle of the 12 months of the year, which he cranked out in a professional manner (“I continue to bake musical pancakes,” he told a friend) for a magazine supplement in 1876. It’s salon music, but of a higher grade than other works of its kind because of Tchaikovsky’s special melodic power and ability to write entertaining character pieces.

 Treer was joined by narrator Kevin Petrich, a veteran radio man who made the most of the short pieces of poetry that served as epigrams for each piece, and added an interesting, contextually relevant element to the proceedings.

 Treer is a decent pianist who sounds best when the music is at its mooniest (the famous Barcarolle of  June, and the Autumn Song of October), and he can make the most of Tchaikovsky’s high emotional temperature. But he was not able to impart a strong sense of rhythmic drive to the music, playing in a deliberate manner that gets the notes across but not the liveliness. Carnival was labored rather than celebratory, and the Troika got off to a sluggish start, though it picked up speed halfway through.

 Tchaikovsky’s writing for the piano is often quite awkward and non-idiomatic, and these pieces are much harder to play than is first apparent. Yet though this is meant to be a widely varied cycle of mood pieces, Treer’s playing lacked the snap that would have brought the variety needed, with these seasonal colors too similar, and the larger point of the work lost.

 Some modest changes could make the FAU Chamber Soloists concerts more interesting to the public at large, such as providing both foreign and English texts. Also, on Sunday Treer, a Russian native, could have spoken the poems first in Russian, followed by Petrich in translation. Finally, Treer always opens these concerts with a talk to the audience in which his enthusiasm for the music and his vast knowledge is readily apparent. But his English is often very difficult to understand, which can try the patience of even the most receptive audience member. Perhaps someone like Petrich can be brought in to give those talks in consultation with Treer.

 While today’s concert was only moderately successful, having a group such as the FAU Chamber Soloists is a good idea, and the concept of some intimate Hausmusik written by eminent visitors to a growing nation is laudable and worth doing. The concerts are clearly a labor of love for Treer, but things will have to be retooled somewhat in order to make the most of these good ideas.

 Greg Stepanich has covered classical music, theater and dance for 25 years at newspapers in Illinois, West Virginia and Florida. He worked for 10 years at The Palm Beach Post, where he was an assistant business editor and pilot of Classical Musings, a classical music blog. He now blogs at, and works as a freelance writer and composer.

Posted in Performances

5 Responses to “Chamber Soloists present intimate take on Mahler and Tchaikovsky”

  1. Posted Nov 11, 2008 at 10:27 am by Ruth Friedman

    I attended the Florida Atlantic University Chamber Soloists event. It was a truly remarkable afternoon. The works of Mahler and Tchaikovsky are some of my favorite. I found that Leonid Treer’s performance was remarkable. The cozy and intimate setting was pleasant, thanks to Treer’s artistic direction.
    I found it interesting to hear Treer’s informative introduction at the beginning of the evening. His authentic and enthusiastic review of the material combined with his Russian accent was a good way to set the mood for the evening.
    Although I enjoyed the first half of the program with soprano Sandra McClain in five Mahler songs, accompanied by Treer at the piano, I specifically enjoyed the second half with The Seasons by Tchaikovsky. The piano music by Treer, and the poetry by Kevin Petrich added an interesting introduction and set the tone to each part. Treer played Tchaikovsky with highly emotional manner, and added color and energy to the music.
    Again, I truly enjoyed the performance at FAU, and would like to congratulate Treer for a great musical experience.

  2. Posted Nov 11, 2008 at 12:04 pm by Bill Houser

    Very Well Done! Thanks for putting on a very aesthetic performance!

  3. Posted Nov 12, 2008 at 10:39 am by S Sidner

    Leonid Treer has done it again! It is always a challenge to present intinate music in a large auditorium, and in spite of Professor Treer’s invitation to move closer so as to intensify the “cozy” feeling, no-one did. I had the good fortune to be sitting in the front row, and very much enjoyed his sensitive interpretation of both the Mahler and Tschaikovsky pieces. The salon concept was enhanced by Professor Treer’s eloquent introduction, and by the wonderful spoken presentation of poems by Kevin Petrich. The singer, on the other hand, seemed uncomfortable and her presentation was a little forced, but otherwise a delightful ocassion, which will hopefully find a larger audience.

  4. Posted Nov 12, 2008 at 11:23 pm by I.Roytshteyn

    Perhaps not every person understands what demands are placed on the performer who comes onto the stage to play a concert. The audience comes to be impressed by him and also in some cases to judge him. * The music of Tchaikovsky has been very dear to me since childhood and his musical language reminds me of the humble colors of Russian nature.Tchaikovsky gave us a world of intimate music making,quietude and a focus on the inner life. The pieces of the “Seasons”cycle are free of the virtuosity that can mask emotional emptiness. The soulful world of this music must be interpreted from the innermost being of the performer and this can be a great challenge.Leonid Treer was able to communicate the subtle beauty and intimate nature of these pieces with great mastery.Thank you for a wonderful concert!!

  5. Posted Nov 18, 2008 at 5:12 am by Scott Rose

    Another enjoyable afternoon of enrichment. South Floridians are fortunate to have the opportunity to watch these talented professionals perform marvelous classical Salon music for an affordable donation for admission! The concert was competing for viewers with a Miami Dolphins locally televised important football game that started two hours earlier. This made the numbers of people turning out for the concert all the more impressive.

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Mon Nov 10, 2008
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