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On September 29, the virtuosi - distinguished wind players from the NC Symphony and Peace College pianist Milton Laufer - took their places before the rich fruitwood décor furnished by the lovely organ case in Kenan Recital Hall, the wood tones setting off their semi-formal attire. The published works-list in the handsome, oversize program leaflet, devoid of notes, was, alas, altered, as announced from the stage.
The program opened with the "Trio pathétique," in d minor, for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, by Mikhail Glinka (1804-57). Laufer explained that Glinka was a composer of opera and that this work is reminiscent of opera construction. He predicted, for instance, the first movement's very expressive and fluid line, in the A section, moving to the orchestral blend of the second theme, and returning to the bel canto A theme. Without a score, it was difficult to know where the movements began and ended, but the work was indeed melodious and fluid and totally enjoyable. Clarinetist Michael Cyzewski and bassoonist Vic Benedict, virtuoso players, conversed musically while Laufer assertively never let it be forgotten that he was a part of the trio - in other words, he did not play the role of a subtle accompanist. On my first hearing of this work, the effect was indeed pleasing.
The other work on the first half of the program, Summer Music, Op. 331, by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), is among the few great wind quintets. Apparently the legendary Karl Haas of public radio fame asked Samuel Barber to write it. Hornist Andrew McAfee described it as beginning languidly, slowly, and intimately, followed by flute and clarinet breezes. I cannot improve on that description. McAfee turned the work into virtual program music by sharing his own interpretation of it: a man with his pipe, sitting on the front porch with his memories, finds them nullified by mourning sounds as the horn and the oboe (Michael Schultz) offer melancholy remembrances of old times. There is anger, and a vibrant theme wipes out the horn, implying, "You're old, slow, lazy!" Then a dream of youth "gets shot down by the bassoon and the clarinet." A soaring theme in the horn part recalls the prime of the protagonist's life. Finally, the flute (Mary Boone) introduces a theme that the others emulate to bring the work to a close. The overall sense of the work, as given, was doleful, bittersweet perfection!
After intermission, flutist Boone introduced Camille Saint-Saëns' (1835-1921) Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs, for flute, oboe, clarinet, and piano. In addition to music, the prolific composer, a Renaissance man, also wrote poetry and plays and studies in botany! Fond of Saint-Saëns' Christmas Oratorio , I have noticed since the '50s that other music by Saint-Saëns has been gathering more and more attention and no longer sits on the music shelf. I enjoyed Boone's description of how this particular work became a hit on Saint-Saëns' annual Russian concert tours, previous to which the Russians had not heard woodwinds as virtuoso concert instruments. Laufer's lively, inspired piano runs, in the background, supported outstanding work by Schultz, in a solo statement, followed by a lovely soft response from Cyzewski. Boone was always complementary, but apparently the flute's role is not to call attention to itself.
Francis Poulenc's Sextet in C, for wind quintet and piano, involved the total complement of musicians: Boone, Schultz, Cyzewski, Benedict, McAfee, and Laufer. McAfee explained that Poulenc and other members of Les Six used to poke fun at classical composers, and he alerted us to watch for tongue-in-cheek mocking of Mozart sonatas, popularly known as "From an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room." The wistful parody continued to be enchanting in its playful way. Laufer, never the submissive accompanist, claimed his position as a full member of the virtuoso ensemble. It was a splendid finale completing a rewarding evening. This gem-like concert was experienced by an appreciative but not SRO audience. That the program was at once deep, excellent, and admirable was summed up by my CVNC colleague, Marvin Ward, who commented, as he prepared to leave, "We have just witnessed a five-star performance." Agreed!