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On its Sights and Sounds on Sundays series at the NC Museum of Art, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild honored composer Robert Ward in a performance of two chamber works, a world premiere of the Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet, commissioned by Durham resident George Chandler, and his First String Quartet from 1960. Best known as a composer of orchestral and vocal works, Ward made his latest and uncustomary foray into chamber music with specific performers in mind: the Ciompi Quartet and Duke artist-in-residence, oboist Joseph Robinson. The five musicians ended the program with Arthur Bliss' Quintet for Oboe and Strings of 1927.
Let us admit from the start that it is daunting task to review a concert of three completely unfamiliar works – especially three meaty ones, for the Bliss was unfamiliar to us as well. What we can say with confidence is that Robert Ward, the dean of North Carolina composers, bears comparison with another octogenarian, Giuseppe Verdi. Instead of resting on their laurels – or for that matter, resting at all – both composers used their considerable powers to create profound compositions that stretched the boundaries of their usual musical language.
Academic musical training so focuses on analysis of pure music that we often forget the humanity behind it. Ward conducted an illuminating pre-concert lecture that gave not only information on the notes themselves but also – more importantly – insights into extra-musical emotions and events that influenced his creative process. Composed during a relatively happy period in his professional and family life, the String Quartet reflects Ward’s state of mind in its playfulness and transparency. In the Oboe Quintet, by contrast, he spoke of how he felt compelled to express his fears for the future of the world and the grim “repercussions of these times,” the legacy we are leaving our children and grandchildren. He spoke of the first movement as expressing “...depression and a kind of anger at times...“ with a second theme of ”determined hopefulness.” He did not have to specify further for the audience to understand his references.
The Oboe Quintet has four movements, two weighty outer movements surrounding a “Dreamlike” adagio reflecting “memories of happier times” and a lighter folksy scherzo. The seriousness of the underlying themes that informed the work as a whole precluded for Ward an upbeat Classical finale after which “...everyone goes home happy.” The fourth movement, in fact, is a reworking of an orchestral movement written in 1940 that reflected the certainty and menace of the war that Ward was convinced the United States would eventually join.
Since Ward’s Quintet also fills out the meager repertory of post-Baroque chamber works for oboe, the Ciompi and Robinson took the opportunity to dust off Bliss' difficult and intense work for the same forces. Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) was one of the leading British composers between the two World Wars, but by the 1940s his late Romantic style was considered passé and his music suffered neglect. Only in the last decade, with the return to more consonant music, has much of it been revived and recorded. On a commission from music patron Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Bliss composed his Quintet for Oboe and String Quartet in 1927 for oboist Leon Goossens, the most famous oboist of the day.
As most British composers of the period – Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arnold Bax and Frank Bridge to name a few – Bliss made heavy use of the folk music of the British Isles. In the Quintet, particularly in the slow movement, the original themes sound decidedly Irish, as does the lively Finale in which Bliss quotes an Irish tune, Connelly’s jig.
The work’s rich string sonorities sound almost orchestral, while the oboe part – particularly in the final movement – is a lung and tongue buster, its concluding high F a little allusion to Mozart’s Oboe Quartet. It’s not really cool to talk about a work as “difficult” when reviewing a pro like Robinson, who spent two decades as principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic; let’s just say he had a bracing and successful workout.
You can hear Ward’s new quintet again with commentary by the composer, on Thursday February 22 at 6:00 PM, at Kirby Horton Hall, Duke Gardens, Duke University, Durham. See our Triangle calendar for details.