The French Touch - Music@Menlo by Gary R. Lemco

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The French Touch - Music@Menlo by Gary R. Lemco

Post by Lance » Tue Feb 14, 2012 3:13 am

The French Touch at Music@Menlo
By Gary Lemco

WINDS OF FRANCE” provided the Gallic rubric for Music@Menlo’s Sunday, February 12, 2012 concert at The Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, Atherton, California. A star-studded roster of musicians—Alessio Bax, piano; Stephen Taylor, oboe; Peter Kolkay, bassoon; Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; David Shifrin, clarinet; and William Purvis, French horn—proffered five chamber works from various French composers, mostly in the serenade mode, that demonstrated an airy and occasionally lilting sense of ensemble.

Music by Maurice Emmanuel (1862-1938) opened the program, his 1907 Sonata for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano, Op. 11. Hazy harmonies dominated this work, reminiscent of Faure but with excursions into Medieval tonality and Debussy, as we find in some of his piano pieces, those that his premier pupil, the late Yvonne Lefebure, used to champion. The Adagio stood out for its melancholy beauty, while the last movement, Molto allegro e leggierissimo, demanded quick virtuosity from all three principals, with two returns to the folkish material that opened the sonata as a whole, a reference to Emmanuel’s studies with Cesar Franck, the father of French cyclicism.

The most modern work ensued, the Circumambulation for Solo Flute (1993) of Yan Maresz (b. 1966). Ms. Tara Helen O’Connor took a moment both to unravel the sheet music, taking three music stands as it stretched out like a musical taffy; and to explain its aesthetic, which alternates key-click technique with actual pitches. In the manner of a rather percussive etude for flute—and a poor answer to Debussy’s perennial Syrinx—the piece set in motion a steady pulsation interrupted by clicks and short riffs with no melodic extension: Webern gone woodwind. It lasted a mere five minutes, but it demonstrated only O’Connor’s lofty ability to create “effects” in the most superficial sense.

The first half concluded with the 1948 Quintet for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn by Jean Francaix (1912-1997), noted for his user-friendly Concertino of 1934. Like his idol Saint-Saëns, Francaix always relies on his knowledge of classical form to convey successfully his musical ideas, which remain light, lithe, athletic, and witty. Something of Stravinsky’s acerbic influence permeates this breezy work, a kind of boulevardier’s serenade in four movements. The second theme of the first movement, Allegro assai, enjoyed a buoyant airiness that proved a refreshing bit of humanity after the “academic” Maresz piece. After a jaunty scherzo, the third movement gave us a Theme and (five) Variations of some clever invention. The last movement, Tempo di Marcia francese seemed to recall the Algerian March of le maitre Saint-Saëns, here a display piece for every member of the ensemble.

After intermission, festivities proceeded with Jacques Ibert’s smart set of Trois pieces breves for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn (1930). Ibert (1890-1962), noted for his elegant and exotic sense of color, had his musicians engage in whirling figures, a kind of fanfare that had the oboe and clarinet in friendly competition. The Andante set flute and clarinet in motions taken from a Bach invention, and we could well savor the relative sonorities of O’Connor and Shifrin in amiable harmony. The last movement’s varying tempo indications often hinted at Gershwin and Jazz, a concentrated sonata-form that subsumed a quick waltz and a number of passing moments of bravura to its happy conclusion.

The last work of the afternoon, Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn (1932; rev. 1939), represents a major musical contribution from the most talented member of Les Six. Pianist Alessio Bax and bassoonist Peter Kolkay came to the fore, with silky contributions from oboe Stephen Taylor. The model for Poulenc (1899-1963) seems to have been Stravinsky, especially his various works for piano and wind instruments, since Poulenc manages a similar transparency and virtuosity of effect. The French dance hall makes its contribution, but so does the classic chanson, where Poulenc’s lyric gift proves habit forming. The second movement, marked Divertissement, opens slowly but then rollicks forward, irreverent in the manner of Satie or sly Chabrier. When the slow tempo returned, we felt a bittersweet insouciance, like waving goodbye to a dear friend. The Finale: Prestissimo, wanted nothing for execution and panache, the instrumentalists engaged in jazzy and warbling bliss, the ending catching us up short with wistful simplicity. The audience cheered and cheered but could elicit no encore from the appreciative players.

The next Music@Menlo program is scheduled for March 23, 2012 featuring Chamber Music Institute Alumni in music by Debussy, Boccherini, and Dvořák. ♫

Dr. Gary R. Lemco reviews regularly for Classical
Music Guide
. He lives in California.

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