in: Reviews

March 17, 2014

Vivacious Chamber Music for Winds and Piano

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“Curtis on Tour” visited Calderwood Hall (at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) Sunday as part of the Curtis Institute of Music’s showcasing of students (and alumni). Other venues will include Costa Rica, Washington State, California and New Mexico.

Two disclaimers: first of all, I am not related to the Curtis family of the Curtis Institute of music. A distant cousin (who I only know because she does genealogy) has researched this back to 1562(!). And second, I am president of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy, an organization which helped to fund the commission of “Winter Winds” by Katerina Kramarchuk.

And let me continue with a personal confession. To me, wind chamber music is always just so fun! Of course I love string chamber music, but the variety of timbres, characters, and techniques in a wind group just seem to have an inherent effervescence. So I definitely came with a sense of anticipation, both for the make-up of the ensemble, and for the programming which seemed varied and balanced. And though beset by another day of cold temperatures, we had a lot of insights into summer and sparkly radiance of all kinds.

These six musicians ranged from clarinetist Slavko Popovic, completing his first year at the school, to two who will graduate this year: bassoonist Catherine Chen, and Sarah Boxmeyer (horn). The other winds were Niles Watson (flute) and Corban Stair (oboe). Also on the tour are two alumnae, pianist Di Wu (who by some accounts should have taken the gold-medal in the 2009 Van Clyburn competition see here), and composer Katerina Kramarchuk.

It was my first venture inside Calderwood Hall. For the first half I sat on the main level, in the second row, in the corner away from the piano. I wound up hearing a lot of the winds who were the closest to me, while the piano sounded very distant. Pianist Di Wu’s dynamic body language seemed to be a way of keeping a connection with the others while the sound she created went straight up into space (from the unlidded piano). After intermission I went two levels up, and that was better although a bit vertiginous, looking down on the ensemble. Anyway, next time I am there, I will try one level up, or the main level in the front row.

Composer Jennifer Higdon is a Curtis alumna and faculty member who has become one of the most performed living composers. The concert started with her short atmospheric work, “Summer Shivers” for the sextet. It begins with oscillating figures and fragments of melody that gradually coalesce and build to something like a vigorous chorale, although still agitated by a rhythmic ostinato. Swells and fades on single chords were part of the ebbing of momentum, and the musicians’ ensemble was perfect as the work slowed the rhythmic drive, easing in a relaxed peroration.

Samuel Barber (also a Curtis alum) gave us another take on an evocative summer scene with his wind quintet “Summer Music” (1955). Its opening gesture, with its sultry, yearning duet of the clarinet and bassoon, is memorable and even iconic. The young musicians played with a fluidity and sensitivity far beyond their years. Barber’s warm nostalgic melodies are interlaced with playful, fluttering riffs. The graceful oboe and flute enjoyed lilting interplay, then moving to more agitated exchanges. An ensemble of such excellence as this always stirs in me a desire to play every instrument. Except, I must admit I never felt the desire to play the bassoon until this afternoon. Catherine Chen gave the instrument’s voice such a warm and full-throated baritone (even when in a high register, paired with the clarinet). There was no the gruff raspiness or rumbly quality so often heard on the instrument.

Before each piece one musician introduced him- or herself, and then the piece, showing their poise in public speaking as well as musicianship. It was a lovely touch to see another side of them like this. Of course I always like it when the musicians talk to us, and breaking down “the fourth wall” seems especially apt in a space like this with no traditional stage.

The first two pieces were accompanied by some high-pitched acoustic feedback, which I suspect was from some audience hearing aid. I think I saw other people looking around and noticing it as well (not like I was the only dog in the room could who could hear it). But what to do? It really might be a moment for a house manager to say something between pieces (“Could you please check your hearing aids to see if yours is the one making that sound?”) Might be better than ignoring a problem I found annoying. I found this on-line article that addresses the larger problem.Fortunately, it was gone by the third piece. Whew!

The first half ended with Mozart’s quintet in E-flat major K. 452 (for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano). This work begins with the slow introduction before moving to into the Allegro. The musicians exuded the moods and contrasts of the different themes with an almost hyper-emotional energy. The legato melodies were heartfelt while faster themes were sparkly and ebullient. The exchanges of cascading runs seem to hurtle at each other with an energy just veering on wild. The body language brought them all together even as the motives were batted about.  I really had to catch my breath after that.

The Largo was profoundly moving. I thought of some great operatic quartet, perhaps the bassoon, clarinet, horn, and oboe were the Count, Cherubino, Figaro and the Countess exchanging heartfelt confidences and sincere resolve. My only suggestion would be that particularly in the slow movements some ornamentation would be appropriate in the repeats. Although I certainly appreciated the spontaneity of the playing, the notes can vary as well as the sentiment. I sometimes find Mozart’s Rondos a little silly, as if he’s embarrassed by his own depth of emotion in the slow movement and wants to create a distance from it. But this one was buoyant and frolicsome without being banal. Again there was more incredible elasticity and electricity in the musicianship. I think we were all on the edges of our seats at least metaphorically, if not literally.

Katerina Kramarchuk’s new work, “Winter Winds” for woodwind quintet, was perhaps conceived as an antithesis to the Barber and Higdon, or offered as a reality for what we had outside, as opposed to fantasies of the distant summer. While it was definitely written in a compelling and evocative neo-romantic language, I was not convinced by a specific “winterness” of it. The close shifting of some of the harmonies in lilting parallelisms struck me as spare and cool, but there was also a lot of bouncy propulsion, and the 3+3+2 rhythm was dancelike, perhaps Eastern European but also perhaps Caribbean! Again the ensemble was tight and energized, and I was moved by the fluidity of the motion, for instance as the bassoon at one point begins the ostinato slowly and ratchets it up oh-so-gradually. At any rate, it was a winter that gave us hope for spring.

For the conclusion we heard the whole ensemble in the Poulenc Sextet of 1932 (is it really infamous, as the young musician described it?) I wound up comparing it with and contrasting it to the Mozart. For instance the Allegro Vivace seemed like an introduction of jangling banter that then leads to a more solemn and occasionally hypnotic passage. But the ending is again rollicking. The middle movement, Divertissement, began with Mozartian exchanges between the winds and piano, and then burst into playful theatrical music. This then moved to lush textures and ended with a poignant twist of the piano motive.

The Finale was high-energy, ascending cascades of chords alternating with smooth, propulsive melody. Is there a car crash (the musician who described it mentioned one)? Listening that way put it in the context of a very eventful piece, perhaps a chase scene with the series of dramatic events that build to a climactic crash followed by a stunned silence; then an ending that is a dreamy, dizzy exhalation. Breathtaking. Again, the interplay between the musicians was brilliant; one would think they’d been playing together for years except that they were all young people!

It was an exhilarating concert and I left convinced that the Curtis Institute, where the 168 students all receive full tuition scholarships, is building a strong and successful future of classical music.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc..

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