Music for Winds Gets Going in Chamber III

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Monday’s third chamber program marked the start of an emphasis on music for multiple wind instruments. This is something that usually happens only once or twice a decade at Spoleto — it’s not easy to round up a bunch of wind players who are all good enough to play up to Spoleto standards. But before we got to that kind of music, we were treated to some classic old Viennese tunes, including the Dornbacher Ländler by Joseph Lanner, the first Viennese waltz-king (he preceded the famous Strauss dynasty). All seven of them almost made me cry. You see, I spent the “wonder years” of my youth in Vienna, where I was blessed to cut my musical teeth. I’ve even been to what used to be the village of Dornbach, (now a suburb of Vienna), whence these little gems come.

A Ländler, strictly speaking, is not a waltz. It's more of a bumptious Austrian country dance-form in three-quarter time, with a strong OOM-pah-pah beat. Austrian alpine dancers that perform for tourists in Lederhosen often do their thing to Ländler, and you often hear them played by musicians in Vienna’s taverns and parks. You can even hear one in The Sound of Music. Just about any Austrian composer you can name (Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mahler, etc.) used them often in their own compositions. Geoff Nuttall joined fellow violinists Livia Sohn and Jennifer Frautschi (a series newcomer this year) plus Anthony Manzo on double bass to deliver these delightful little trifles with energy, affection, and genuine Viennese lilt. Thanks, guys — you gave me back a little piece of my childhood: pure nostalgia.

Then it was on to an early jewel by Ludwig van Beethoven: his Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op. 16: a work that followed hard on the heels of similar works by Haydn (with whom he had studied) and Mozart — though Ludwig never failed to leave his unique stamp on any of his creations. This performance’s array of wind artists included nobody who is new to the series — but they’ve never all been here at the same time before. There was clarinet guru Todd Palmer, a perennial series regular; young oboe master James Austin Smith was back for his second year running; and French horn virtuoso Eric Ruske and Bassoon-meister Peter Kolkay were back after several years away. Thanks to them, we’ll be hearing several choice chamber masterpieces for winds over the next eight series programs — some from composers you’ve probably never heard of.

But as for the here and now, the four gentlemen I’ve just named — with the peerless collaboration of pianist Pedja Muzijevic — delivered the finest performance of Beethoven’s quintet you could ever hope to hear … anywhere. They were that good.

I loved the way the wind players traded off the assorted themes, tossing them back and forth in happy abandon — and Pedja’s piano was the glue that held them all together. You could tell they were all having a blast.

As host Nuttall told us, the following pair of works offered, in effect, much the same music — but in versions that were a couple of centuries apart. Italian Baroque composer Domenico Gallo wrote, among many other things, a pert piece in the “trio sonata” form, but it was mistakenly attributed to Gallo’s better-known predecessor, Pergolesi. But no matter who wrote it, 20th-century giant Igor Stravinsky picked it up, fell in love with the melodies, and based his famous ballet, Pulcinella, upon them. Famous cellist Gregor Piatigorsky later suggested that he arrange a cello and piano suite from the ballet, and the result was the Suite Italienne. And, by golly, we got to hear both pieces.

We heard Gallo’s Trio Sonata No. 1 is an unusual configuration. Melodic duties were discharged by Nuttall and his better half, Livia, on violins. But the supporting continuo part (usually harpsichord and cello) was performed here by Musijevic at the harpsichord, with the bass line delivered by Kolkay’s solid and expressive bassoon. Sheer delight.

But multiply that delight a few magnitudes when cello princess Alisa Weilerstein and piano prince Inon Barnaton took the stage for Stravinsky’s updated version. Having been there when they teamed up several times in recent Spoletos, I’m here to tell ya that no two chamber players I’ve ever heard together can generate their level of electric rapport and excitement … and they did it again here.

It was fascinating to hear how Stravinsky added his unique harmonic and rhythmic “bite” to Gallo’s melodies. And – in the speedier, more intense sections, Weilerstein put on quite a show, seeming to attack her hapless instrument as if it were her adversary rather than a voice. For a lovely young woman, she sure knows how to “manhandle” a cello. She broke several of her bow’s horsehairs, but, in the third section, one of her cello’s main strings snapped, forcing a pause in the action while she scurried offstage to replace it, leaving Mr. Barnatan perched on his piano bench.

Things could’ve turned awkward at that point, but who should come to the rescue but former series director Charles Wadsworth (still a regular series attendee), who initiated a droll conversation with stage-bound Barnatan from his regular Dock Street balcony box seat. Pretty soon, anecdotes of embarrassing classical stage mishaps were bouncing back and forth. Even the audience got involved: one lady in the back chipped in a story about the time cello god Yo-Yo Ma fell out of his chair during a performance. Everybody loved it, but we shut up quick when Alisa re-emerged with her newly-strung cello, and our brilliant pair polished the piece off with their usual energy and crackling chemistry, prompting a screaming standing O.

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