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“Theme concerts” are interesting when the theme is compelling and the relationships between the works performed reveal new insights into both the works and the theme itself. But a theme as broad as “A Bouquet of Music” serves little more purpose than as coat rack to conveniently sort and store an abundance of vignettes related by titles more than by theme or structure. Nonetheless, this concert, part of the 2013 Carolina Summer Music Festival and performed at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, coinciding with the current exhibit Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life, allowed the large Sunday afternoon audience to hear works which are rarely heard.
The concert opened with Two Insect Pieces ("The Grasshopper" and "The Wasp") for oboe and piano by Benjamin Britten, written in 1935, but unpublished in his lifetime. It is one of several works Britten composed featuring the oboe: the Phantasy Quartet, Two Insect Pieces, Temporal Variations, and the most often heard work for solo unaccompanied oboe, Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, Opus 49.
Oboist Robin Driscoll, Artist-Faculty member of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and UNCSA faculty pianist, Robert Rocco, both clad in fuchsia shirts and iridescent silver ties, presented these two amusing works with their characteristic leaps and buzzes.
French composer, Jean Françaix, is best remembered for his colorful and witty writing, often featuring wind instruments. Françaix’s l’Horloge de Flore (The Flower Clock) was originally written for solo oboe and orchestra; the piano reduction was performed admirably by Mr. Rocco, but perforce lacked the color and expressivity of the orchestral original. Consequently, the seven variations, each representing a plant whose flowering time must work like clockwork, were somewhat monochromatic, despite the brilliant technique and lush expressivity of oboist Driscoll.
(For flower-lovers, the flowers depicted along with their blooming times are Cestrum diurnum (3 a.m.), Catananche caerulea (5 a.m.), Selenicereus grandiflorus (10 a.m.), Nyctanthus arbor-tristis (Noon), Ipomaea bona-nox (5 p.m.), Pelargonium triste (7 p.m.), and Silene noctiflora (9 p.m.). Readers might enjoy Googling these names to see images of the flowers.
Next we were treated to a nosegay of songs, two by American composer Richard Hundley (1931- ), an arrangement by Benjamin Britten of “The Last Rose of Summer” and the “Flower Duet” from Lakmé by Léo Delibes. The lovely mezzo-soprano voice of UNCSA faculty member Janine Hawley was attentively accompanied by Robert Rocco (whose inopportunely-opened piano obscured the diction of the voice). Ms. Hawley was joined by soprano Catherine Park to end the first half of the concert with the delicious and delicate “Flower Duet.”
The entire second half of the concert was consecrated to a collection of musical vignettes by UNCSA composer Kenneth Frazelle, many of which were written as whimsical greetings to friends and each bearing the name of an Appalachian wildflower. He has collected ten of these vignettes into a collection called Wildflowers, which he premiered in 2005. This performance was exquisitely played by the brilliant young pianist from Asheville, Ivan Seng, who received his Master’s Degree from UNCSA.
One wants to hear these pieces a number of times as familiarity aids comprehension. And apart from a few immediate gestures and a recognizable quotation or two, this collection is not immediately accessible although pleasantly agreeable on first hearing. "Slender Lady’s Tresses," written for just one hand (and pedal) was a soft and pointillist opener. "Fringed Polygala" was loud, lilting and filled with unexpected rhythms. "The Birdfoot Violet" was followed by the spectacularly angular "Flame Azalea," a tango to rival the best of them. "Indian Pipes" were brooding, low and dark, while the "Fire Pinks" were rapid, staccato, and loud. Here one had to admire the brilliant virtuosity of pianist Seng who plucked far-flung octaves like target-practice made simple! The stately slow tempo of the "Blue Lobelia,", one of my favorite movements, revealed a jarring tritone. My other favorite, the jazzy snazzy "Viper Bugloss" built up to a loud chord which masked a snippet borrowed from a 19th century Romantic composer – I guessed Schumann, Frazelle corrected me with “Chopin!”
The concert could have ended satisfyingly after "Viper Bugloss," but the composer preferred a quieter ending, perhaps because the entire set is meant to be the middle movement of an even larger composition. "Whimsical Columbine" was next, followed by the tranquil "Deptford Pink," seeming to just fade away at the fifth. The readers might enjoy Googling the names of these wildflowers, too.
The work was warmly received and was followed by a question and answer session at which it was revealed that Frazelle will find a musical idea anywhere, anytime, but prefers to work it out at the piano. Finally, he will work on instrumentation and orchestration away from the piano lest he be bound by the nature and character of that instrument.