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Flutist John O'Brien, with friends Rebecca Troxler, flute, and Beverly Biggs, pianoforte, presented a parlor concert at the Greenville Music House on Sunday afternoon, performing a variety of Classical pieces on the six-keyed flute with continuo. This is one of several concerts in an Early Music Festival hosted at the house. For those who have not yet visited this historic Victorian home-turned-inn, it's hard to imagine a more perfect venue for an intimate, refined chamber concert. Surrounded by John O'Brien's vast collection of antique furniture, art, and, of course, musical instruments, history truly comes alive.
First on the program was Franz Joseph Haydn's London Trio No. 1 in C Major, Hob. IV:1, which immediately established a delightful, timbrally rich balance among the three players, all of whom are obviously very passionate about early music. Playing on Grenser flute replicas, O'Brien and Troxler performed the complex layering between solo voices, accompanied by Biggs on the pianoforte. Biggs had to do arguably the most preparation for the performance: many of the manuscripts written in the Classical era (c.1750-1820) had sparing continuo parts, the performers explained, and required keyboardists essentially to compose their own countermelodies. Haydn's late-Classical work shows off chromaticism, changing dynamics, and complex layering. There were several issues with the timing between the players, who seemed to disagree at points throughout the program regarding entrances and note releases. While O'Brien's sound was mellow and sonorous, Troxler's was rich and bright, but the interplay between them added to the depth of dialogue between parts.
After Haydn, the Trio Sonata in D Major by Friedrich Hartmann Graf' (1727-95) fell a little flat. This composer, not well known, was more conservative in his compositional style. The flutes played in sweet thirds with each other, often delivering broad, heroic melodies together and then repeating them antiphonally (call and response). In the second movement, the flutists utilized more sentimentality and subtle use of vibrato and trills to bring that sparkling elegance to the simple, yet elegant, work.
Finishing the first half of the program, O'Brien introduced the Trio Sonata in C Major, Op. 1, by Johan Fredrik Grenser (1758-94), another little-known composer. His family is known for making flutes for several generations, but apart from the flutes and the compositions themselves, there exists little information about him. The sonata, proclaimed the "hardest [piece] on the program" by O'Brien, was more flowery than the Graf piece, featuring rhythmic contrasts, more part independence, and more adventurous chord changes. The slow second movement's gorgeous dissonances were treated affectionately, and the many exciting key excursions in the third and final movement allowed the flutists to show off their prowess at this difficult instrument, including a short cadenza played with great finesse by Troxler.
Following an intermission, the flutists switched parts, with O'Brien taking the lead on J.C. Baumberg's Trio Sonata in A Major, Op. 1, No. 5 (published c.1779-82). Baumberg's composition seemed greatly influenced by Haydn and Mozart, as it was intricate, difficult, and full of interesting keys, scales, and even more interesting orchestration. The flutes got to play a lot more of their full range, though there were several note bobbles, and the timing was still off in parts, especially, again, with note releases. The sonata was at the edge of the trio's ability level, but there were beautiful minor sections and deft handoffs of melody.
The penultimate collection came from Stephen Foster's The Social Orchestra. First published in 1854, this book sought to provide a variety of combinations for up to four players throughout the country, allowing the masses to access music to play from home with whatever instruments were available. This lovely collection provides a quaint snapshot of popular classical music in the 19th century. For this concert, the performers chose Franz Schubert's "La Serenade" (as it is described in the book), selections from Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia, and three quadrilles, the third of which was by Foster himself. The Schubert movement featured sonorous echoes between flutists that evolved into lush harmonies, with a much more active piano accompaniment. In Donizetti's melody, conversely, all three performers came together to create one rich melodic line. The quadrilles were jaunty, fun, and catchy, especially Foster's more Americana-inspired melodies. They provided a nice break from the other, more highbrow, selections on the program.
This refreshing set made the final Haydn "London" Trio No. 3, in G Major, sparkle with renewed energy. Biggs's piano lines were deliberate but polished, and the two flutes kept their lively dialogue flowing throughout. There were a few more rhythmic jolts, a couple of violent high notes that had to be forced out, and an overbalance of Troxler over O'Brien, but overall they were true to the refinement of Haydn's time. The second movement, one of the more popular Haydn pieces in flute literature, was tender but with moderation and lovely cadenzas, and the third and final movement, while much faster than probably intended, was polished and full of rich colors.
Concerts at the Music House are transportive, and when performers take the time to present historically-informed performance, elegant interpretation, and warm hospitality, the effect is of stepping directly back in time. This is the closest to an authentic Classical parlor concert that one can possibly get.
The Music House's summer festival continues through July 22 and then resumes on August 12. For details, see our calendar.