IN: Reviews

Pleasantries Beyond Standard Repertoire


Amy Marcy Cheney
Amy Marcy Cheney

According to its bassoonist Neil Fairbairn, Solar Winds came upon the programming theme for its February 28th presentation at Brandeis University’s Slosberg Hall a bit accidentally. There were a few pieces the wind quintet wanted to play, and when they realized that they were all by women, they decided to make a whole concert of compositions by females. The result was admirably varied chronologically and stylistically. Fairbairn allowed as how the works were not otherwise connected, but we detected some linkages that we disclose below.

The ensemble comprises Jill Dreeben, flute; Charlyn Bethell, oboe; Diane Heffner, clarinet; Fairbairn, and Neil Godwin, horn, all of them locally active freelancers and teachers. They were joined by pianist John Kramer for the closing sextet by Louise Farrenc. Only one piece we heard was what one would call standard wind quintet repertoire, so kudos to Solar Winds for imaginative programming.

They opened with the shortest, the Pastorale, Op. 151, by Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944, who throughout her adult career went by Mrs. H.H.A. Beach. From 1942, and possibly her last instrumental composition, it very much finds Mrs. Beach in a valedictory mood through a gentle, rocking 6/8 meter that could be mistaken for a barcarolle. Its wistful melody adds depth by substituting English horn for the oboe, and its harmonies, despite some piquancy from clever suspensions, recall earlier phases of the composer’s career rather than the slight spikiness evident in even her immediately preceding opus number, the piano trio of 1939. The quintet gave it a mellow, well blended reading.

Next came the only item likely to find its way into standard wind quintet inventories, the Suite by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Dating from 1952 (she died in 1953, aged 52), she returned in this late example to an abstract idiom after a 16-year hiatus while she worked with her husband, Charles Seeger, in pioneering folk music research (and a handful of compositions on folk themes). Her avant-garde efforts of the 1920s and early 30s took every opportunity to throw up spiky walls of sound, but this suite offers a much friendlier face to atonality, with a disarming lyricism and easy-to-follow rhythmic pep, especially in the ostinato-driven first movement. Solar Winds, which achieved fine balance among the parts, took this movement (as well as the finale) with what seemed like an overabundance of caution, lacking to our taste in speed and punch, and with a narrow dynamic range. The central slow movement, though, was admirable, as it built with finely gauged gradations of dynamics and texture to a solid climax before climbing down again. The finale, a rondo whose principal theme is never harmonized, only stated in unisons or octaves, was, as noted, slower than we’ve heard it elsewhere, and as a consequence the momentum of the two episodes tended to sag a bit.

There are at least two mysteries concerning French composer Claude Arrieu (1903-90): first, why did she, born Anne-Marie Simon (some say Louise Marie, but thanks to correspondence dug up by BMInt colleague Liane Curtis, the former seems to be right), adopt the other name, which seems not to have been a pen-name, as she used it universally? Not to hide her sex, certainly, as Claude is an androgynous name in French. Second, and more importantly, why is her music, which was well-enough regarded to earn her the Légion d’honneur, so little known such a short time after her death? Her Quintet in C, from 1954, presents as a charming, unpretentious, entertaining, yet subtle extension of the great French neoclassical traditions of Les Six, quite in the line of Milhaud (and especially in the perfumed, melancholy slow movement, of Poulenc), and placing her in the very un-shabby company of Ibert and Françaix.

The quintet is in five short movements, the first a jocund and abundantly tuneful one with an occasional Latin beat; the second a perambulatory andante whose sound is much more blended than one expects from French wind music. The scherzo offers a charming galumphing rhythm, which compensated for the diffidence of the players’ pacing (the only real negative criticism we have of the performance), the adagio, as noted, was the most emotionally forward, with some lovely blues licks finely rendered by Heffner, while the finale was both sprightly (the quintet regaining its gearing mojo) and “spritely,” with delicate filigrees, and almost circus-y in spots. For our money the best on the program, the work displayed all the virtues of French music—entertaining, uncomplicated by learned polyphony and developmental cogitation, directly communicative chiefly through the astute harmonization of melody, and attentive to the interplay of instrumental sonorities. Thanks to Solar Winds for bringing it to public attention, and for the care and obvious fun they displayed in the execution.

Louise Farrenc by Luigi Rubio (1835)
Louise Farrenc by Luigi Rubio (1835)

The second half began with the newest piece heard, the 1985 On Seven-Star-Shoes, (no explanation for the title anywhere we could find) by Julia Wolfe, one of the founders of the Bang on a Can festival and ensemble. Wolfe’s is a polyglot musical personality, with influences from minimalism through pop and rock, yet this work, despite its driving rhythms, ostinato, occasionally screechy harmonies, and mildly updated timbres (flute doubling piccolo and clarinet doubling bass clarinet, rasping stopped horn), the clearest influence we could detect on the overall sound was Stravinskyan neoclassicism, which (we promised we’d get to this) establishes connections to both the Arrieu and the classical formalism of the Crawford Seeger. This notwithstanding, there were also moments of surprising lyricism. It’s bright and breezy, but we had the sense that some of the players weren’t fully comfortable with it: the lines occasionally lacked clarity, and it seemed as if it were being taken too slowly (again). Granted, it presents rhythmic challenges, but the performance seemed a couple of rehearsals shy of fully baked. That said, some of the playing was spot on, like a wonderful unison passage for piccolo and clarinet.

The biggest piece of the evening was the Sextet in C Minor, Op. 40 (1852) by Louise Farrenc (1804-75, née Jeanne-Louise Dumont), who like Arrieu was celebrated in her lifetime, first as pianist (she became the first female professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire) and then as composer. In the former capacity she was a student of Hummel and Moscheles, and in the latter of Anton Reicha among others. Her music follows in the footsteps of her teachers, as well as others of the early Romantic style such as Spohr, Onslow and Sterndale Bennett. In other words, despite their superior craftsmanship and mellifluous turns of phrase, the world moved in other directions and passed them by—consider that Farrenc’s contemporary was Berlioz, not a trace of whose eccentric originality and French particularity can be detected in her music. Still, there’s a lot of perfectly listenable music out there by such people, and it is right and proper to expose them.

The Farrenc sextet is significant for historical reasons: as far as we can determine, having made occasional studies of the matter, this is the first sextet for this combination, inasmuch as the wind quintet as a set ensemble was only recently established by the prodigiously prolific likes of Franz Danzi and Reicha. The Mozart and Beethoven works for piano and winds were quintets, and Onslow’s sextet substitutes a second bassoon for the horn, while his septet adds a contrabass. Thus, Farrenc and, at the end of the century, Thuille, stand as the only notable Romantic-era producers for this combination, though the repertoire has since been enriched by the likes of Poulenc, E.B. Hill, Wallingford Riegger, Gordon Jacob and William Bolcom.

Solar Winds
Solar Winds

This sextet, in an unusual-for-its-time three-movement form, displays expert part-writing and offers, let’s be frank, some pretty forgettable thematic material. It can’t quite decide whether it wants to be an integrated sextet or a small-scale piano concerto: the first movement seems to promise the former, which Kramer carefully respected by not dominating the texture (note that unlike a piano quintet with string quartet, piano domination does not have to be assumed and deliberately counteracted with massed textures in the non-piano instruments). The players kept the busy music flowing and up-tempo. The other movements are more ambivalent; indeed, in the finale, a cadenza threatens to break out, though it is squelched before it has gone too far. Kramer had a finely modulated touch, didn’t over-pedal, and displayed a good idiomatic approach to the musical style. There is ample room for the wind performers to shine, and here they all did, though we do want to mention some lovely solo passages by Godwin.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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  1. Mr. Koven, thank you so much for the great review, very enjoyable and insightful!
    Of course, nothing is more subject than musical tastes, but *I* can remember all of the themes of the Farrenc Sextet, and therefore, they are quite memorable, not forgettable. QED.
    By the way, my favorite Farrenc piece is her Symphony No. 3 in G minor – I wonder when I will get to hear a performance of that???
    I bet the “Pleasantries” of the title was a word choice of our beloved Editor; to me it sounds a bit lukewarm for an evening that was both exciting and delightful. Cheers, however, to the Editor for finding the gorgeous portrait of Farrenc by Luigi Rubio – I didn’t know who the painting was by; I did know it was a relatively recent discovery.

    Comment by Liane Curtis — March 1, 2015 at 10:04 pm

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