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The Zéphyros Woodwind Quintet - flutist Jennifer Grim, oboist James Roe, clarinetist Michael Aaron Bepko, bassoonist Douglas Quint and hornist Patrick Pridemore - came to town together with veteran pianist and raconteur Charles Wadsworth. The group showed that you can pull off with aplomb a whole concert of mostly 20th century music for piano and woodwinds without a single transcription.
The star of the afternoon was Wadsworth, who for half a century has been one of the prime boosters of chamber music through his work with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and with the Spoleto Festivals first in Italy, then in Charleston. Wadsworth introduced and embellished the music with his stories - some pertinent, others not pertinent and some impertinent - about the works performed. His playing was distinguished by a wonderful sense for balance with the other instruments and explains why he is so sought after as vocal accompanist and chamber music partner.
Zéphyros performed six works, devoting half of the concert to music for winds by Francis Poulenc. Poulenc was the black sheep of an affluent family of pharmaceutical manufacturers, the forerunners of today's French chemical giant, Rhône-Poulenc. Probably through his mother's intercession he managed to avoid the business and received a life-long stipend from his father that freed him from the worries of making a living. He was a member of what was known in the 1920s as le groupe des Six , six young French rebel composers, disciples of the iconoclastic Erik Satie, who had as their uniting credo the belief in artistic freedom, the right to express themselves in their own personal way. They resisted what they considered the "phony sublimity" of the Romantic and Impressionist styles, which were the vogue in Paris at the time.
Most of Poulenc's chamber music is urbane, sophisticated and witty, representing what he called "Parisian folklore, a mélange of city sounds, songs, smell and texture." His Trio for Piano, Oboe & Bassoon is a good example, with the two outer movements portraying the city's hustle and bustle, much in a style later used by Leonard Bernstein to portray New York in On the Town and George Gershwin to characterize Paris in An American in Paris . Oboist Roe, who has an exceptionally beautiful and stable tone, brought out the shifting moods of the music. But the resonance of the oboe occasionally overpowered bassoonist Quinn.
A very different side of Poulenc emerged with his Elegy for Horn and Piano, composed in 1957 in memory of horn virtuoso Dennis Brain who was killed in a car accident at age 37. The Elegy is Poulenc's only attempt at serial music, an attempt he quickly abandoned after introducing the tone row in the opening bars. The work, dominated by the horn, is an angry protest at the senseless death, gradually coming to terms with it and resolving into a gentle conclusion. Pridemore's playing was versatile and expressive, although he had occasional gurgling "condensation" problems in the chilly hall.
The ensemble demonstrated marvelous precision and balance in Poulenc's Sextet for Piano and Woodwinds that harks back in mood and structure to the Trio. Flutist Grim and oboist Roe, in particular, demonstrated outstanding technique and sensitivity to the music.
The program also included the seldom heard Summer Music for Wind Quintet Op.31 by Samuel Barber. Barber once remarked in an interview: "It is supposed to be evocative of summer - summer meaning languid, not (loudly clapping) killing mosquitoes." And he always warned: "Don't play it too slowly." Zéphyros followed his instructions with a lively but relaxed performance. The work is a showpiece for the oboe and Roe again demonstrated his outstanding musicianship and technical ability.
The two other pieces on the program are better forgotten. The concert opened with Camille Saint-Saëns's Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Piano, a trivial and boring work that somehow never manages to work its way out of the tonic. All the ensemble's efforts could not bring it to life. The other was film and TV composer Lalo Schifrin's La Nouvelle Orléans for woodwind quintet, a 1987 work ostensibly portraying a New Orleans funeral. The opening is a jumble of dissonance followed by a pallid imitation of New Orleans funereal jazz.
Despite the seriousness of parts of the program, Wadsworth kept his commentary light, especially in announcing an encore before the final work ("you'll have to listen to it whether you like it or not, so you better clap"), the gavotte from the Sextet for Piano and Woodwind Quintet by Ludwig Thuille, a late 19th century French composer.
Contributors to the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild's endowment fund had a musical bonus at their annual fund-raising event on Saturday evening: a series of irreverent and autobiographical musings by Wadsworth, more Poulenc (the Sonata for Flute and Piano played by Grim and Wadsworth) and a "shameless" plug for the upcoming Spoleto USA festival in Charleston this May.