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Ensembles that mix strings and winds can have more interesting repertory than groups consisting of woodwinds or brass only. When the tour of Ensemble Wien-Berlin, a woodwind quintet, cancelled, I knew that their replacement, Concertante, would be sure to bring a rewarding program for their April 9 concert in the (alas) dry acoustics of the vast Page Auditorium on the west campus of Duke University. Concertante was founded in 1995 by a group of Juilliard School graduates who wished to pursue their musical collaboration beyond graduation. With their rich pool of keyboard, string, woodwind, and brass players, they can perform a wide spectrum of repertoire from sonatas, trios, quartets, and quintets to seldom-programmed nonets. One of the founders, violinist/violist Ara Gregorian, is a faculty member at ECU's School of Music. CVNC has reviewed his Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival, where many Concertante artists are regular guests. Others have been members of the Caramoor Virtuosi, reviewed during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in 2000 and 2001. Still others have been members of the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, which has toured our state. Two famous works – the best-known septet and octet in the repertory – formed Concertante's program at Duke.
Beethoven waxed hot and cold about his Septet in E-flat, Op. 20. It was published in 1802 and was an instant hit. At the time he wrote to his publisher, "This septet has pleased me greatly," and after its successful premiere on the same program as Haydn's Creation, he told composer Johann Dolezalek, "This is my Creation!" Over the years, as his fame grew, he came to consider it an inferior work, one that is full of good tunes but plumbs no depths. Following a sensational reception for the septet in London in 1815, he told Charles Neate, "That damn work; I wish it could be burned!" Its six movements and style reflect the tradition of "background" music such as Telemann's Tafelmusik or the many divertimenti, serenades, cassations, and Harmoniemusik (wind band music) composed by Haydn, Mozart and others.
The Concertante musicians for the septet were violinist Xiao-Dong Wang, violist Rachel Shapiro, cellist Plesser, double-bassist Kurt Muroki (who anchored the middle in more ways than one), clarinetist Jon Manasse, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, and Eric Ruske, French horn. While the angst of the human heart is never hinted at, the work fairly bubbles over with some of Beethoven's best melodies. The performance had the ideal blend of individual expressive freedom within the constraints of close ensemble. A partial shell helped project the sound, but Page's cold acoustical glare robbed the strings of some of their tone and warmth. This was also true for the bassoon; the wonderfully-focused clarinet and the tightly controlled horn were least affected.
It was a rare and very appropriate juxtaposition of programming to pair Beethoven's Septet with the beloved Octet in F, D.803, by Franz Schubert. As related in Word Pros' fine program notes, amateur clarinetist Count Ferdinand von Troyer in 1824 commissioned Schubert to compose a piece modeled on the Beethoven. While he retained the divertimento style and six-movement format of the septet, he added a second violin part. The aforementioned seven members of Concertante were joined by Ara Gregorian as the second violinist. With its extensive repeats, the Octet can seem an unending bore unless played with a light touch and imaginative musicianship. The Concertante players succeeded on most counts with lively give-and-take, most especially in the friendly sparring between first violinist Wang and clarinetist Manasse, whose tone was wonderfully concentrated. For part of the first movement, Ruske wrestled – unusual for him – with a recalcitrant horn, but he soared gloriously in the movement's final bars. Time seemed suspended in the endless melody of the first slow movement, ideally paced and phrased. The second slow movement was one treat after another as each variation was unveiled. The initial, dark mood of the finale was soon banished by the high-spirited, opera buffo-like second theme.
I hope area presenters will schedule Concertante for future programs. With their ability to field programs ranging from duets through nonets, they can add welcome variety to any chamber music season. In the meanwhile, chamber music lovers ought to consider sampling Gregorian's Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival at ECU.