in: Reviews

May 4, 2013

Berlin Winds Recharge Boston

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“We want to dedicate this performance to the victims of the Boston bombing.” So began Friday night’s concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. One of the pieces came from the pen of Pavel Hass, a Czech who died in Auschwitz in 1944 after a two-year incarceration at Terezin, a “model” concentration camp, the Nazi’s devised as a propaganda tool to show the world that Jews were merely being relocated rather than exterminated.

With all of this in the back of our minds, Mozart’s “Three Fantasies for Mechanical Organ” surprisingly lilted as a wind quintet in Jordan Hall. And as have so many, the Berlin five also praised the New England Conservatory concert space as being one of the best halls in the world in which to play. The five in the hall were a perfect fit.

Formed in 1988, the ensemble has shied away from—“steadfastly refused to play”—arrangements. Flutist (and sometimes arranger) Michael Hasel goes on to write, “we make an exception for Mozart, because his oeuvre includes certain works that cry out for a quintet performance.”

I could very well have imagined an organ as the five played straight through the three fantasies, though certainly not the uninflected clockwork barrel organ for which Mozart wrote them. Unimpeachable playing governed. For one thing, Berlin’s glinting and gleaming resonances recharged Mozart’s un-mechanical pleasantries. For another, and as often as not, illusion reigned. I cannot tell you how many times I was fooled by one instrument sounding like another. How could that be, I kept on asking. Blend does not adequately describe. Wind quintets are not supposed to sound this way, but the Berlin players changed that—though not entirely.

When it came to playing the other side of their program, it was all French, Milhaud, Ibert, and Françaix, and you know that color galore, more and more, would have to take over. And it did. From sonic sublimity of La cheminée du roi by Darious Milhaud to intimate innocence of Trois pièces brève by Jacques Ibert and lighthearted pulses of Quintette à vent no. 1 by Jean René Désiré Françaix, the Berliners would have you believing they were an orchestra, and not a small one at that. Françaix’s comicalness coupled with le bon goût of the Berliner’s caused spontaneous expressions of delight from an audience far too small for so rechargeable a performance as this.

Such elegance, starting off the eight o’clock concert, continued right on through to the encores that wound us up with Americana and let us out at 10 p.m. sharp. Now, that is yet another sign of German precision. Joining Michael Hasel, flute, were Andreas Wittmann, oboe; Walter Seyfarth, clarinet; Fergus McWilliam, horn; and Marion Reinhard, Bassoon.

Of the short encores, two invited the apt description of “delightful” from the appreciative audience exiting the hall. A bluesy piece of American color given some Berlin sophistication only tempted us wind instrument fans more. Next followed a fast-paced Stephen Foster medley including “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Camptown Races” that had us laughing out loud.

Hearing for the first time Quintet, Opus 10 by the Czech composer Pavel Haas had me thinking of Czechs Janáček and Martinů, whose works the BSO Chamber Players performed last Sunday at Jordan Hall. Haas’ mix of folk and Stravinsky-like turns further shows the wealth of Czech music from the early half of the 20th century. I also was recalling the Lincoln Center Players who performed the Milhaud at the Gardner in February. A lot of wind music to hear; where else could this be but in our Boston. The Berlin five could be seen applauding and thanking us. What an entertaining evening of listening we all had, this while remembering those days in April that made Boston one—the power of music?

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

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