North Carolina Museum of Art, Sunday, November 7: The Sights and Sounds on Sunday concert series at the Museum set itself a tall order, trying to coordinate the music with the current visual art exhibit. This is often difficult to achieve, but not with the current exhibit of Matisse, Picasso and the School of Paris. On Sunday, the Mountain Chamber Players – flutist Rita Hayes, clarinetist David Kirby, bassoonist Carol Lowe and pianist Katherine Morgan Palmer – were joined by guest artists oboist Cara Fish, horn player Michael Brubaker and bassist Craig Brown, for a program of French wind music from the late 19th to the late 20th century.
In the last century, French composers wrote a lot of music for winds, but still, to make for a varied program, you have to resort to some transcriptions. The program opened with Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane, composed in 1887 and scored for a small orchestra with an optional chorus part that is frequently omitted since it adds little to the delicate and nostalgic mood of the piece. This is one of those generic works that get transcribed for every instrument and instrument combination, although surprisingly most work quite well. Mark Popkin, bassoonist on the faculty of the North Carolina School of the Arts, transcribed it for woodwind quintet, giving all five players a chance at the lovely melody; but flutist Hayes stood out with her warm tone and beautiful phrasing. Palmer’s transcription for woodwind quintet of a short vocal Madrigal by Vincent d’Indy was next on the program, but left little impression.
A browse into Left Bank music shops yields a veritable mountain of moldering music – most of it forgettable – written by generations of teachers at the Paris Conservatoire for the annual instrumental competitions. An exception is Claude Debussy’s Rhapsody for Clarinet and Piano, composed in 1910 for the annual wind competition at the Conservatoire, where he served on the governing body. Like all such competition pieces, it was meant to test the virtuosity and musicianship of the competitors and explores the full possibilities of the clarinet. It still tests the virtuosity and musicianship of clarinetists, and Kirby gave a dazzling performance.
Charles Koechlin was an outstanding teacher and composed volumes, but little of it is performed today. His 15 Pieces for Horn, Op.180, some of them for four natural horns, were composed in 1942 and are favorite still competition pieces. Brubaker tackled two of them, Nos. 7 & 14, but had intonation difficulties with his upper range and his tone was harsh. This was followed by Henri Dutilleux’s Sonatine for flute and piano, composed in 1943. Hayes and Palmer showed outstanding balance, and Hayes again demonstrated her warm tone.
The first half of the program ended with a transcription for flute, clarinet and piano of “Sous le Dôme épais” the famous “Flower duet” for two sopranos from Leo Delibes’ Lakmé. It sounded much better without the mawkish text.
Jacques Ibert was one of the most prolific and eclectic French composers of the last century, leaving behind works in nearly every musical form. His approach to composition could best be summed up in his own words: “All systems are valid, provided that one derives music from them.” He adopted a certain style only when it suited his purpose for the composition at hand. Consequently, he never joined any of the movements so popular in France in the 1920s and ‘30s. His delightful Cinq Piéces en Trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, composed in 1935, are full of fun. The first one sounds like village band music. Fish, Kirby and Lowe got into the spirit of these pieces, especially the two romantic slow movements.
In 1975 jazz pianist Claude Bolling composed a tremendously successful Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano for classical flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. Hayes and Palmer played its second movement, Sentimentale, with the roles reversed: Hayes, the flutist, is the jazz aficionado of the two. But no matter, their performance simply sizzled, with Craig Brown, on the double bass, joining them.
The program ended with probably the meatiest work in this fun afternoon, Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano. It was said of Poulenc in the 1920s that his idea of a day in the country was a stroll down the Champs-Elysées, and every street sound of Paris, from the raucous to the sad-sentimental, can be found in this exuberant music, and could be heard in this performance. Unfortunately, five wind instruments plus piano were a little overpowering in the small museum auditorium.
Since the performers gave oral program notes, we once again missed any explicit connection between the music and the NCMA exhibit. While we can’t expect all musicians to be art historians, it might be helpful if the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild had a board member or advisor who could help coordinate even a superficial connection. In this case, slides of works from the period would have been a nice accompaniment for the music. for example one of Matisse’s “Jazz” paintings with the Bolling.