Tasty musical hors d’oeuvres
Confused? All I mean is that the performances in this concert, which featured solely pieces for winds, brass, percussion and piano, were very good, while the compositions showcased were fairly lightweight.
Michel Debost and Monique Duphil’s performance of Beethoven’s Serenade, Op. 41 exemplified the tasty hors d’oeuvres categorization. The seven short movements of this piece were about as light as you can get. Composed by a 15 or 16-year-old Beethoven in a style reminiscent of 18th century galant works, everything about this piece was charming — from its sprightly rhythms to its playful imitation to the abundance of ornamentation and subito fortes it contained.
There was nothing lightweight, though, about the quality of thought that went into this performance. Duphil played attentively and with sensitivity to detail. However, it was Debost’s interpretation of the flute part, impeccable in its every detail, that stole the show. Not only did he play with a beautiful tone and elegance of phrasing throughout, he also had a wonderful sense of playfulness even in his body language, which added an extra level to the performance.
This last quality was notably demonstrated at the end of the fourth movement of the work, in which Debost responded to a surprising final chord in the piano by throwing his hands up in a mock display of shock, a reaction which motivated the audience to applaud right then, at a point in the piece usually considered inappropriate. I, however, enjoyed this applause, delighted at this additional playfully engendered so-called error.
Poulenc’s Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano was also performed well. Other than the Beethoven Serenade, it was the only other piece on the program by a composer with pieces in the standard repertoire. Duphil again did a fine job at the keyboard, but even more notable were the performances of Laura Griffiths, Principal Oboe player of the Cleveland Orchestra, and our own professor George Sakakeeny on bassoon. Griffiths’s oboe playing was consistently beautiful and pure, and Sakakeeny’s performance had a wonderfully rich quality. The piece itself was quite a curio. In this work, Poulenc combined music in the style of a Mozart divertimento with more dissonant harmonies and some sections that reminded me of lounge music, with delightfulness being common to all sections of the work.
The remaining four works on the program highlighted two different brass faculty members. The first and fifth works on the program featured Paul Cohen on alto saxophone. It was interesting to contemplate the use of the saxophone in a relatively classical setting, although in fact both pieces in which Cohen played contained jazz or blues elements. The first of these was Ballade, a short and simple work by Leo Ornstein in ABA form with a light jazz flavor. Cohen’s performance on this piece was satisfactory, though his heart did not always seem to be in it. Although his tone was very good throughout, a little more dynamic contrast and rubato might have allowed his interpretation to reach an even higher level.
In contrast, Cohen’s performance of Robert Aldridge’s Sound Moves Blues, with guest performers Maureen Hurd and David Witten, was far more exciting. This piece was written in an idiom that frequently reminded me of the music in the rumble scene from Bernstein’s West Side Story. All three players had a strong understanding of this intensity, and working from that understanding, came together to produce a performance of great energy and unity.
The second and fourth pieces on the program showcased the trumpet playing of Roy Poper, and both were pieces Poper had commissioned from composer Richard Halligan. The first of these, Meditation, was another piece with hints of smooth jazz styling. It began with a major seventh chord lightly rippled by James Howsmon, who performed the accompaniment with sensitivity. Poper, for his part, effectively shaped the long, unfolding lines of the work into beautiful phrases.
Halligan’s other piece on the program, Dialogues for Trumpet, Piano, and Percussion, continued to pursue jazz flavors, but differed in that its usage of idioms came across as slightly more original due to a few additional styles thrown in. The piece was arranged in three movements, with the first encompassing styles ranging from minimalism to light jazz to reserved atonality to musical theater. While this movement and the following both cultivated a regretful, pensive air, the last movement in the suite was faster and had a more disturbed and anxious quality.
In all three movements, the use of percussion was striking in creating the sound of the piece from moment to moment. Rather than using the percussion instruments together as one instrument, the composer chose to use each one separately, giving entirely different sounds to different parts of the piece. In addition, the frequent use of the glockenspiel was noticeable, as it gave a precious, dainty air to much of the work. In this piece, the more virtuosic side of Poper’s playing was displayed to good effect. Howsmon and percussion professor Michael Rosen also gave fine performances.
Overall, this was a fine concert, and I would be happy to attend any
performance that maintained such a level of musicianship throughout. As for the
works on the program, I must admit that I initially found them on the whole too
light. However, as most faculty chamber music concerts here offer at least a few
fairly substantial works, I decided in the end that I was pleased to be given
the chance to hear works from another side of the musical spectrum. After all,
some hors d’oeurves turn out to be even more delicious than the main