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On a chilly St. Patrick’s Day at Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild presented the latest in their Sights & Sounds on Sundays series, “Contemporaries of Rodin” by the Symphony Winds in the Museum’s East Building. Comprised of members of the North Carolina Symphony, this woodwind quintet is made up of Michael Cyzewski, clarinet, Mary Boone, flute, Victor Benedict, bassoon, Sandra Posch, oboe, and Rachel Niketopoulos, French horn.
Niketopoulos’ husband Chris Caudill, who is also a French horn player, introduced the works, all by French composers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The wind quintet, Caudill explained, was very much a French invention. The addition of flute to the ensemble came around the early 19th century, and many composers turned their attention to composing new works for this “odd” combination.
First on the program, composed by Jacques Ibert, was Pièces Brèves for wind quintet. “Bright, happy, and a little bit sassy,” as Caudill explained, the Pièces opened with a full, balanced sound that was clearly a result of years of playing together in the NC Symphony. Despite not having a conductor, the quintet presented a light, lilting sound with highly technical passages that were at once demanding and smooth.
Ibert was an eclectic composer but is typically thought of as a representative of Impressionism, a movement in music related to the visual art movement of Monet and Rodin. Preceding today’s concert was a free docent-led tour of the Museum’s Rodin collection. The docent discussed the Impressionists, who focused more on general shapes, how the light hits them, and emotional response. This was in response to a nineteenth-century affinity for classical Greek sculpture and art: idealized, larger-than-life figures with no imperfections. Sculptor Auguste Rodin challenged this trend by sculpting figures with intended – and sometimes unintended – imperfections, like his “Man with a Broken Nose.”
Similarly, Caudill explained, composer Jean Françaix had a modern, rebellious streak. His Quintet for Winds No. 1 is “goofy,” with everything from the French horn making “raspberry” noises, to flashy runs that Caudill described as tantamount to “scaling Everest or K-2.” Françaix’s work, like Rodin’s, is, as one member of the docent-led pre-tour observed, full of “bumps and lumps,” or general shapes and ideas rather than strictly outlined melodies, forms, or shapes. The four-movement quintet is not serious music by any stretch, but is truly beautiful in the way the individual idioms of the instruments are used to create a lovely whole sound. It served as a reminder of the solo talent present in these Symphony players, and also how they work together to create a blend of ensemble that serves the entire orchestra well.
Looking back in history, Darius Milhaud’s La Cheminée du Roi Rêne (sometimes translated as "The Hearth of King Rêne") reflects on the French king from the Middle Ages, but in a cutting-edge way. Milhaud uses stately melodic ideas in harmonies that were unorthodox for his time in the late nineteenth century. The seven movements of the work depict everything from a sun-warmed meadow to juggling, jousting, and hunting, yet the programmatic writing is complex, throwing around solos, changing moods at the drop of a hat, and combining traditional music theory from the Middle Ages – such as modal harmonies – with angular pieces of melody that follow right along in the theme of being rough and imperfect.
The final work and the pièce de résistance, was Francis Poulenc’s Sextuor for piano and wind quintet. Kent Lyman, professor of piano at Meredith College, emerged to play the strenuous piano part that the composer, a fantastic pianist, wrote for himself. Lyman was certainly prepared for the challenge; in fact, he was so determined to play the part to the best of his ability that he came armed with his score on an iPad with a pedal mechanism he used to turn his pages! The rest of the ensemble stuck to their sheet music, but conquered Poulenc’s demented, bipolar sextet with great flair. It’s no wonder that Poulenc was known as a true enfant terrible, or terrifying child! Poulenc, having just reached an epiphany after the death of a close friend when he composed the work, shows his characteristic sarcasm and cleverness, but the Sextuor often “changes on the dime,” according to Caudill’s verbal program notes. Indeed, the light, silly, almost circus-like feel gives way to deeper, sometimes haunting moments.
The Symphony Winds gave a delightful concert, and it is a testament not only to their individual abilities but also to the years of Symphony experience under their belts and their unique relationship - having played together under the same conductors, that make them play almost as if with one mind. Today’s concert was not for the faint of heart and was not always the most refined and idealized, but undeniably beautiful in a quirky way.