The Poulenc Trio, presented by the Friends of Music at Queens at Queens University of Charlotte, waited until the second half of the program to play the piece for which this fine group from Baltimore is named. While each work on the varied program was truly delightful, the Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano by Francis Poulenc was the focal point, one of just two pieces performed that had actually been composed for the instruments on stage.
Poulenc was one of "Les Six," a group of composers named in 1920 by critic Henri Collet in an article entitled "The Russian Five, the French Six, and Mr. Satie." The French Six were quite different in their compositional styles and were not even all French (Honegger was Swiss), but they did share an antipathy both to German Romanticism (particularly Wagner and Richard Strauss) and to Debussian Impressionism. Poulenc's spirit – his preference for clean, clear writing, his fondness for traditional harmonies, his humor, and, of course, his love for the wind instruments – seemed to hover happily throughout the concert. Certainly, there was no German heaviness, no thick chromaticism to be heard on this night.
The concert opened with the Trio Pathétique by Mikhail Glinka, who was to the Russian Five what Monsieur Satie was to Les Six, the inspiration for the anti-German Russian nationalism of the "Mighty Handful." Written in 1827/28, one hundred years before Poulenc would write his trio, the Trio Pathétique was originally for clarinet, bassoon, and piano. The brilliant keyboard passages, played with sparkling effervescence by Irina Kaplan, and the expressive and lyrical wind writing early on established the sound world that the evening would inhabit. Oboist Vladimir Lande and bassoonist Bryan Young, like Kaplan, have quicksilver facility to spare, but it was with the long and lovely phrases that they won the hearts of the listeners. Especially Young, whose liquid bassoon recast that instrument from the bumbling Grandfather of "Peter and the Wolf" or a lonely foghorn, to a character sometimes ardent, sometimes sweet, if occasionally overshadowed by Lande's resonant oboe.
The "Concert Fantasy on Themes of 'L'italiana in Algeri'" was a lively 19th-century arrangement of Rossini's opera tunes by the principal oboist and principal bassoonist of the Paris Opera. Music for the stage – and screen – continued in two arrangements of selections by Dmitri Shostakovich, a Romance from the score to the film The Gadfly and "A Spin Through Moscow" from the 1950s operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki. The Romance, a lilting Neapolitan love song (The Gadfly takes place in Italy), furthered the Italian theme of the Rossini, while the operetta scene depicted a busy, crowded cityscape with an almost moto perpetuo technique. Lande and Kaplan, both natives of St. Petersburg, no doubt have an affinity for this rarely-played music. In fact, Lande told the audience that Shostakovich had actually been his mother's "babysitter." Lande's grandparents were both musicians, and his mother went to school with Shostakovich's son. On certain days, the composer would pick up both children from school and bring them to the Shostakovich home for a snack and a game of charades!
After intermission came the Poulenc, a wonderful work – the composer's first true chamber piece – composed in 1926. Although dedicated to Manuel de Falla, the piece owes much more to Stravinsky, whose Neoclassicism was a strong influence on the young Poulenc. The first movement opens with a sort of mock pathos (the insincerity of it is betrayed by a rather comic descending arpeggio in the bassoon) that soon shifts to a light and cheerful presto. The second movement starts with a rich bassoon melody that could almost fool one into thinking it was a cello. The final movement has rhythmic vitality and an obvious sense of humor, created by repeated motives that offset the phrase lengths and seem to be teasing the listener. Once again, the mellow and beautifully shaped melodies on Young's bassoon were especially striking.
The trio followed with the only other piece composed specifically for their particular ensemble, the third movement of André Previn's Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano (1994). Titled "Jaunty," the five-minute movement is in fact as eclectic musically as its composer, whose career has ranged from jazz to Hollywood to serious concert music (as composer, pianist, and conductor). It begins with an angular, oddly metered, but lighthearted romp, but becomes an emotional and stylistic collage, easily transforming from jaunty to yearning. A Gershwinesque, "Lady Be Good"-like riff gives way to a plaintive, nostalgia-filled tune reminiscent of Copland's Our Town or "Laurie's Song" from A Tender Land. This is the one piece, perhaps because of Previn's own predilection for the piano, that featured the piano in a consistent way. The audience was eager to hear it, as the instrument – an extraordinary Steinway – is brand new and was having its debut that night. Certainly, Ms. Kaplan did the work justice, but a full recital on that instrument alone will give better indication of its sound and quality. One had little opportunity on November 6 to experience, for example, the full range of its bass register.
Two pieces by Astor Piazzolla closed the concert: "Oblivion," a slow and sad tango that stretched languid phrases of such length that one had to marvel at the wind players' breath control, and "Otoño porteño," the "Autumn" of the Argentine's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which the trio played with a little less vigor than is customary.
The well pleased audience was rewarded with an encore, an unknown but delightful piece by Charlie Chaplin from his film Modern Times called "Lavish Entertainment." It was a fitting conclusion.