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Unless you are a string or piano player, your choices of mainstream chamber music repertoire are limited. Wind players, especially when a couple of them get together in recital, often have to split up for part of the program and/or perform lesser known works by lesser known composers. If you know the right people, however, you have one more choice: Commission!
That is what happened last night in an evening of chamber music in Hill Hall, when UNC faculty members clarinetist Donald Oehler and pianist Elizabeth Tomlin joined visiting French horn player Kurt Kellan, Professor of Music at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and a long-time friend of Oehler. Kellan and Oehler each took a solo work with piano, dusted off one 19th century trio and premiered a second.
Norbert Burgmüller (1810-1836) is hardly a household name, but during his short life he was compared favorably with Schubert by Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. His Duo in E flat Major for Clarinet and Piano was a grand da capo form that sandwiched an operatic, Belliniesque andante between two long iterations of a more passionate theme and a lot of virtuosic noodling. Oehler's warm tone and Tomlin's sensitive fingers did the most that could be done with this odd piece. It did leave us wondering what would have happened had the composer lived to fulfill his potential. His far more long-lived brother Friedrich still tortures piano students from the grave with his études.
Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) was one of the most influential musical pedagogues of the German late Romantic period and a prolific composer. His music was popular during his lifetime but went into neglect after his death. His Trio in B flat Major, Op.274 for Clarinet Horn and Piano, composed in 1905, is a respectable work, recalling Brahms and Schumann, but with less passion. Kellan had some intonation problems and his high notes tended to be swallowed by the clarinet. A nearly empty Hill Hall resulted in extra echoes that detracted from the overall sound.
After intermission Kellan and Tomlin performed Beethoven's infrequently performed Sonata for Horn and Piano in F Major, Op.17. Composed in a rush for the virtuoso horn player Johan Stich (better known in his Italian transformation as Giovanni Punto), it shows great sensitivity to the capabilities of the natural (valveless) horn but sounds tame on the modern instrument. Kellan again had intonation problems, especially in his attacks.
Then came the pièce de resistance, The Bushwakker Brewpub trio for clarinet, French horn and piano by Canadian composer and principal oboe in the Regina Symphony Orchestra, Elizabeth Raum. Raum is both prolific and accessible, her works including three operas, over 40 chamber pieces, 15 vocal works, choral works including an oratorio, several ballets, concerti and major orchestral works. Her Violin Concerto was premiered in 2000 by the Raleigh Symphony. She is a friend of Kellan, and when he told her that he wanted to team up with Oehler for a concert in Chapel Hill, she responded by composing this delightful, witty work for the occasion. The Bushwakker Brewpub is a pub in Regina, Saskatchewan that apparently combines original brews with equally original names. Each of the five movements of the trio is named after one of its beers:
1. "Stubblejumper" - two crusty old farmers getting together for a beer and an argument. The music is a free-for-all by piano bar player and friends.
2. "Northern Lights" - evokes the eerie northern lights with their random appearance and shifting rhythms.
3. "Screamin' Mosquito Chili Beer" - burpy noises from the horn sound like just that, or perhaps the sound of the pesky bug.
4. "Last Mountain" - the French horn evokes the grand panorama of the Rockies with all the trimmings.
5. "MacGregor's Wee Heavy" - Every Scottish musical cliché in the books and then some.
It goes without saying that the Trio was the highlight of the evening. If they taste how they sound, it may be worth a trip to Regina.