in: Reviews

September 24, 2013

Wind Band Transcriptions Impress

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The period-instrument wind ensemble Grand Harmonie commenced its second season with a concert (waggishly titled “No Strings Attached”) at First Church, Cambridge, on Saturday, playing well-loved music of Haydn and Mozart as well as some lesser-known Rossini. The ensemble is comprised of instrumentalists from both Boston and New York: it is refreshing to see that our two cities can sometimes put aside their many rivalries and collaborate for the sake of art. This ambassadorship seems fitting since the wind band (Harmonie) of the late 18th century and 19th century performed a similar task in service of larger-scaled symphonic and operatic repertoire. At a time when the average citizen seldom or never had the opportunity to hear an orchestra in concert, many composers arranged their own orchestral works, and those of others, for the Harmonie. In this case we heard re-orchestrations, for winds only, by three composers who were roughly contemporary with the more famous ones whose works they arranged.

The evening opened with nine selections from Wolfgang Amadé Mozart’s The Magic Flute, eight arranged by Joseph Heidenreich (1753-1821) and one by Thomas Carroll, clarinetist of the ensemble. The rest of Heidenreich’s ensemble was: Kristin Olson and Lindsay McIntosh, oboes, Balint Karosi, clarinet, Elizabeth Hardy and Allen Hamrick, bassoons, and Elisabeth Axtell and James Hampson, horns. It seems odd that the arranger should omit the flute in view of the opera’s name, but perhaps he was aware of Mozart’s well-known dislike of the instrument. Given that this opera has the most variegated orchestral accompaniment of all Mozart’s operas, Heidenreich creatively took up his challenge, suggesting the different colors—and dramatis personae—by spotlighting all the instruments of the group at different times.

After an Overture that frolicked and sparkled, Papageno, “der Vogelfänger” (the birdcatcher), was introduced to us at a curiously sedate tempo; it didn’t seem likely he would be catching many birds. Heidenreich included all three verses but orchestrated each differently. “O Isis und Osiris” featured elegant sustained playing that conveyed the kindly paternal authority of Sarastro. “Wie stark ist nicht dein Zauberton” was enjoyable for its ebullience and instrumental virtuosity, particularly that of the solo horn. The chorus “Wenn Tugend und Gerichtigkeit” was joyful and notable for its crispness of ensemble even through numerous staccato chords (bear in mind that this is a conductorless ensemble). One can see why Heidenreich might choose to omit the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria from his arrangements, pivotal though it is to the plot: its frisson comes largely from the fiendish coloratura fireworks demanded of the soprano, and instruments alone cannot reproduce that aspect of the experience. But nothing daunted, Thomas Carroll made his own orchestration, and its dramatic power—contrasting starkly with the other selections—was undeniable.

While not the child prodigy Mozart was, Gioacchino Rossini did compose some fine music as a child, e.g., his string quartets, composed in his twelfth year. (The composer himself, however, didn’t share this opinion, labeling them a “horrendous representation of my youth.”) Grand Harmonie gave us the fourth in B-flat, in an arrangement by Frédéric Berr (1794-1838) for flute, clarinet, bassoon, and horn as played by Sarah Paysnick, Carroll, Hardy, and Hampson, respectively. The first movement, Allegro vivace, had atmospheric call-and-response sequences between flute and clarinet, but the whole was unfortunately marred by frequent sour intonation though this improved somewhat in the latter two movements. There was some fine, expressive playing in the mournful Andante, and the final Rondo was a rowdy country dance à la Haydn’s The Seasons.

The largest offering came after intermission with Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 “Oxford.” As arranged by Josef Triebensee (1746-1813), it called for oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpet (Christopher Belluscio was the trumpeter). The introduction of the first movement was mellow and rich, and the woody, rustic quality of the period instruments came to the fore. The trumpet, as new member of the ensemble, was so much a part of it that it was hardly perceptible until it punctuated some staccato chords as the highest voice. Players and audience alike enjoyed the subtle humor of Haydn’s many harmonic quasi-non sequiturs. The Adagio second movement displayed suave legato playing and expressive finesse. A particular high point was a chromatic passage near the end of the movement, affetuoso, well-tuned, and moving. The famous Minuet (truly, a moderate-tempo Scherzo) was entertaining and funny throughout. The players were not afraid to make some very pregnant pauses, and in the staggered entrances of the trio the horns’ offbeat crescendos were delectably over the top. The final Presto was breathless, its scurrying admirably controlled without sounding that way, though it did have the evening’s one instance of not taking the acoustics of First Church into account. There are many paired chords with a dissonant harmony resolving to a consonant one. When the clarinets had these figures, they emphasized the dissonant chords to such a degree that the resolutions were swallowed up in the reverberant room. This was not the case when the oboes were assigned these paired chords, due partly to their sharper timbre and partly to their playing in a higher octave. This is a minor quibble, though. There was plenty of impressive technical display, and, at least as importantly, much fun was had by all.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach, and choir member at Trinity Church, Copley Square and in the Back Bay Chorale.

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