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Pan Harmonia is the high standard bearer for the production of excellent concerts performed by area musicians under the artistic direction of Kate Steinbeck. Assembled for this singular concert in the Porter Center of Brevard College were flutist Kate Steinbeck, clarinetist Fred Lemmons, bassoonists Rosalind Buda and Susan Cohen, trumpeters Brad Ulrich and David Ginn, trombonists Mark Britt and Greg Love, and pianist Ivan Seng. The program consisted of remarkable wind octets by Australian composer Paul Stanhope and Igor Stravinsky, each with the same scoring, and for which Miller Asbill served as conductor and, as required by the Stanhope octet, percussionist. The octets were complemented by two trios by Eric Ewazen and Philippe Gaubert with differing instrumental ensembles. The concert was supported in part by a grant from the N.C. Arts Council.
Gathering together for rehearsal such a large ensemble of very busy professional players who have "day jobs" (some of them outside of music) must have been extremely difficult, and clearing out two concert dates for this program, even more challenging. The technical demands of the Stravinsky alone are legendary, which is why we seldom get to hear the piece live. All of this would seem to accumulate into a strong head wind going into such a performance, yet this group of seasoned professionals handled it with aplomb and grace, and despite the fact that the hall was very warm.
Opening the program was the North Carolina premiere of Apollo, a wind octet Stanhope composed in 2000 as a dual tribute to Stravinsky and to Peter Platt, a professor at the University of Sydney who loved Stravinsky's works. The title is a reference to the Apollo space program and the few years that the lives of Stravinsky (d.1971) and Stanhope (b.1969) overlapped, and also to the "Apollonian" (neo-classical) style of Stravinsky's writing. While retaining Stravinsky's scoring, Stanhope folded in a bongo part (played by Asbill) as an opening and closing gesture, adding "a ritual element to the piece which is intended to mark the passing of another great individual." Another borrowed element is a fragment lifted from the second movement of Stravinsky's octet, from which all the pitch material of the piece is derived. As Stanhope states, "In a sense it is music behind a mask: objective, detached and whimsical." Lasting about eight minutes, the piece sounds superficially like Stravinsky – the dry wind sounds playing tight motives in shifting meters interlaced with ostinatos pushed relentlessly forward with only a few slow tempo sections – although all this unfolds in a single movement. The use of brass mutes enhances the array of timbres already present within such a colorful ensemble. Lacking, however, were Stravinsky's great formal devices, particularly the use of refrain and fugue. The ensemble gave this intriguing work a crisp and nuanced performance.
Just before and after intermission were two trios. The first was Philippe Gaubert's (1879-1941) Trois aquarelles for flute, cello (played by Buda on bassoon), and piano. Composed in 1915, just eight years before the Stravinsky octet, it is in a different sound world altogether. Accessible, light, and airy, the opening movement "Par un clair matin" featured the lyrical arching of Steinbeck's flute in duet with the bassoon, the parts frequently doubling one another. The second movement, "Soir d'automne," has an undeniable melancholic character which is abandoned in the third movement, "Serenade." The rippling figures in the piano of the first movement return in the third to provide a shimmering sonic back canvas for the beautiful melodic exchanges by the two solo instruments.
The second trio was Ewazen's An Elizabethan Songbook, a four movement suite originally written for mezzo-soprano and tenor voices but transcribed for trumpet, trombone, and piano by the composer at the suggestion of trumpeter Chris Gekker and trombonist Milt Stevens. Inspired by four Elizabethan poems, these pieces were wonderfully interpreted by Ulrich and Britt. In "Come Away, Come Sweet Love," the players blended perfectly in counterpoint, mirrored phrases, and occasional homorhythms. The dance-like character of "There is a Lady Sweet and Kind" was emphasized with jaunty, catchy rhythms, only to close in a well-timed maestoso. "Weep You No More Sad Fountain" begins softly, then flowers into more expansive music before ending quietly with the piano alone. "Jack and Jill, They Think no Ill" was the entertaining closer with its folksy charm and irrepressible spirit.
Last on the program was the heavy weight of the evening, the Stravinsky Octet for Winds, in three movements. Like every other piece on the program, the performers stood. The opening Sinfonia begins innocently enough with a slow introduction before its launch into a bustling march with a complex interplay of parts. Thanks to the clear articulations of the players and the excellent acoustics of the concert hall, all the lines could be clearly heard. The second movement, a variation set based on its waltz variation and which segues into a Finale, features a refrain of what the composer called a "ribbon of scales" which introduces each of the variations in turn, ending with a fugue played in instrumental pairs, one of the most formidable in the chamber music literature. Many times, there were eight different planes of activity vying for one's attention. The demands on each player are enormous, such as the vicious licks that come out of nowhere. There is constant exposure as the texture thins. Rhythmic accuracy in such a piece of shifting meters and tempi is a must. The writing is so intricate that there are infinite ways it could all go wrong. It never did, as these marvelous professionals demonstrated the highest levels of musicianship to bring this amazing concert to a close.