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SLLMF By Any Name

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Mihae Lee (file photo)

The second installment of the five-week Sebago-Long Lake Music Festival, Tuesday in Harrison, Maine, pursued a theme of unusual timbral associations in slightly recherché 18th-century repertoire, with a 19th-century favorite to cap it off.

When encountered on concert programs the name Antonio Vivaldi is almost always followed by the word “concerto,” of which he seemingly wrote six bazillion, chiefly for his young charges at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. But contrary to latter-day expectations not all of these were orchestral pieces: the Concerto in G minor, R.V. 103 (1716) is a fascinating experiment in instrumental condensation, essentially a flute concerto (performed here by Susan Rotholz) accompanied by an “orchestra” of oboe (Steven Taylor) and bassoon (Adrian Morejon). The three together constitute the concerto’s ripieno, with bassoon providing continuo for when the flute was in concertino mode. The sprightly opening movement displayed Vivaldi’s penchant for rapid-fire scalar passagework with some interesting rhythmic digressions. Curiously for such boiled-down instrumentation, the oboe seemed underutilized here, though Taylor’s sound was always equably sweet when he was on. This was compensated in the lovely, lyrical yet contrapuntal slow movement, and then in the peppy finale, in which the familiar Vivaldi cycle-of-fifths trope took on prominence. The performances were admirable, showing off dynamic subtlety and, as one might imagine, superior phrasing and breath control, not only from Rotholz but perhaps even more impressively from Morejon.

Another rarity from an A-list composer followed, the Divertimento a tré in E-flat for horn, violin and cello, Hob. IV:5 (1767) by Haydn. This bit of Tafelmusik, like the Vivaldi, had concerto-like characteristics, the horn (William Purvis) taking on both solo and accompaniment functions, with the violin (Keiko Tokunaga) as a secondary soloist and the cello (Bonnie Thron) largely shoring up the bass line. The Divertimento comprises just two movements, performed attacca, of which the first is a set of variations on a moderately lively 6/8 tune reminiscent of those one hears in Haydn’s contemporaneous symphonies. Haydn enlivens his not-overly-complicated variations with sly syncopation and a mini-cadenza for violin. The Allegro di molto finale features some fiendishly difficult passages for the horn, capped by a proper cadenza. Considering that this piece would have been intended as background music, we’d guess that its complexity and virtuosity was for the professional satisfaction and entertainment of the players, who must have been terrific. As, one hastens to add, were the threesome on stage, especially Purvis, who, though playing a modern valved horn, wonderfully mimicked the sound of the natural horn while brilliantly negotiating Haydn’s labyrinthine runs and leaps. The use of crooks in the horn to give it chromatic range was just beginning at the time Haydn wrote this piece; we leave it to our knowledgeable commenters to say whether the Esterházy hornist used this type of instrument.

The last of the 18th-century charmers closed the concert’s forepart, namely the Quintet in D, G.448, for guitar and string quartet (1798) by Boccherini, known as the “Fandango” quintet for its eponymous finale. Boccherini, a virtuoso cellist, was Italian, but had gone to Paris, where he got a lead to a good job as court composer to the brother of the King of Spain. By appending himself as a second cellist to the court string quartet Boccherini became the father of the “cello” quintet, of which he wrote dozens. But he also explored the Spanish national instrument and, as with this work, rescored some of his cello quintets as guitar quintets. G.448 was actually assembled from two other pieces, and it has become the most popular of Boccherini’s guitar quintets, being also the most demotic.

Oren Fader can be electric too.

We doubt that Boccherini resorted to amplifying the guitar, as Oren Fader did, but then he probably didn’t have to fill an open-sided barn with sound, either. In the event, the amplification was discreet and revealed a charming and sometimes challenging throwback undertaking blending sonata da chiesa structure (slow-fast-slow-fast) with Classical homophony and composition procedures (though the development in the second movement was nearly nonexistent and the stately third movement was really just a slow introduction to the Fandango finale. Except in the finale, the guitar demurely blended with the strings, adding tone color to the ensemble (Movses Pogossian and Tokunaga, violins, Matthew Sinno, viola, and Thron, cello). Boccherini did not, however, forgo his roots—the second movement displayed, and Thron elegantly realized, delicate upper-register cello passages, fingered both conventionally and as harmonics. That fandango, though, is where the bulk of the action happens, with color and intensity exploding like fireworks. Not only did the guitar emerge in full Spanish regalia with robust strumming, but the strings opened up to vigorous gestures and the cellist became a percussionist with obbligato castanets. The blood-pounding closing passage brought the room to its feet.

The aft part of the program brought a return to standard rep with a highly satisfactory, though not perfect, reading of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, op. 49 (1839) by Mihae Lee, piano, Pogossian, and cellist Eliot Bailen. We’ve written HERE about how important and influential a composition this was in its time; its continuing popularity testifies to its ideal marriage of affective immediacy, structural integrity and subliminal intellectual probing. It’s also an object lesson in how to take good advice: violinist Ferdinand Hiller suggested that Mendelssohn make the piano part wilder and more Schumannesque, which despite initial resistance he did to the music’s enormous benefit (not only in this piece but in many subsequent ones).

We’d rate the SLLMF performance a 4 out of 5. Lee was crack on the mark with a juicy Romanticism, reveling in Mendelssohn’s tough pianism. Pogossian, too, was intense and forward (in a touching prefatory remark he dedicated his performance to his daughter for her birthday, and then made a fine show of it). Bailen’s tone was warm, and like all the fine SLLMF roster he had no discernible technical constraints, but he did not match the passion of his colleagues, and they often swamped him in raw sound production, especially in the first movement. Things did improve as they went along, with good balance in the “song without words” slow movement, and for the most part the paradigmatically elfin scherzo, which, to be fair, the piano dominates. The bravura finale went with fire and spirit.

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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