Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Mason House Hosts a Magnificent Seven

l-r: Jonathan Davis, Susan Greenberg, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Bernadine Blaha, Judith Farmer,
Gernot Wolfgang (composer), Amy Jo Rhine, Sérgio Coelho.


Los Angeles Wind Sextet play Blumer, Ligeti, Poulenc, Schubert, Wolfgang, Schubert, and Falla

With seven performers playing seven works artfully distributed across its two halves, the penultimate recital in the 10th anniversary season of the uniquely convivial Mason House Concert series fielded as much variety in repertoire and instrumental resources as one could wish for in a single evening, and all introduced with her usual wit by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano (right).

The seven players comprised the six members of the Los Angeles Wind Sextet—Susan Greenberg, flute; Jonathan Davis, oboe; Sérgio Coelho, clarinet; Amy Jo Rhine, horn; Judith Farmer, bassoon; and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano—together with the Canadian pianist Bernadine Blaha, who joined Mr. Fitz-Gerald in the second half in two pieces for piano four-hands.

Todd Mason.
While that second half included no fewer than three “lollipops” (to use the term appropriated by the late great Sir Thomas Beecham) the first half comprised two more substantial works, the first of which in particular I suspect was unfamiliar to most if not all of the capacity audience gathered in composer host Todd Mason’s state-of-the-art living-room-into-concert-room conversion in West LA. And while each was a product of the 20th century, they were as different from each other as could be imagined—the one comfortably Romantic, the other fiercely Modernistic.

First up was the Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, Op. 45 written in 1921 by Theodor Blumer (1881-1964), well known in his day as a conductor but now almost entirely forgotten as a composer. Subtitled “Originalthema mit Veranderungen,” Blumer’s Sextet could very well function as an introduction for novice listeners to theme-and-variations as a musical form, being one of those sets where the theme is not only strongly shaped but remains clearly discernible in its variations—unlike some that leave you scratching your head as to where on earth the tune’s gone.

Theodor Blumer.
Blumer’s theme—first heard on Ms. Greenberg’s flute—is amiable, expansive and immediate. After the first half’s marked repeat, the much longer second half comprises a miniature development (with the theme spread around the five winds), and then a recapitulation in which the main melody transfers to the horn.

Listeners are kept comfortably on track in each of the succeeding variations by their sticking to this structure, though Blumer straightaway broadens textural variety and expressive range by allotting Variation 1 to the piano alone, which had been silent during the statement of the theme. Variation 1 is dubbed “Improvisation,” which exactly suited the wayward delicacy of the piano writing and Mr. Fitz-Gerald’s playing.

Indeed, each variation has a subtitle that signals its nature. All six instruments share the carefree dance of Variation 2Capriccio,” while in Variation 3Pastorale” the winds enter sequentially over tranquil, reflective piano chords. In the expert hands of these players Variation 4Slavischer Tanz” was a merry whirl and then, over Debussyan keyboard ripples, Ms. Rhine’s horn intoned Variation 5Romanze,” the sentimental heart of the work. Variation 6Humoreske” was mostly jaunty tiptoeing, before all concerned let rip in the dazzling contrapuntal Finale, marked Lebhaft, sehr locker (Lively, very relaxed).

György Ligeti.
Unlike the forgotten Blumer, György Ligeti (1923-2006) is still a relatively familiar composer—an influential avant-gardist whose work, however outré sometimes in inspiration, remains vivid and communicative, often with a mordant sense of humor. This was evident in his Six Bagatelles for Woodwind Quintet, which he extracted in 1953 from his piano cycle Musica ricercata.

Across their overall fast-slow-fast-fast-slow-fast sequence, the Bagatelles deliver a virtuoso work-out for each of the five players, with extremes of dynamic, pace, and pitch constantly deployed. All this was delivered with maximum commitment and intensity by the LA Wind Sextet, with Ms. Greenberg’s flute (switching sometimes to piccolo) or Ms. Rhine’s horn often taking the expressive lead.

After the interval the wind players had a breather while Mr. Fitz-Gerald and Ms. Blaha (above) played the two pieces for piano four-hands. Poulenc’s Sonate pour piano à quatre mains FP 8, written in June 1918 when he was not yet 20, is brief even by the composer’s usual standards of concision, with its three movements all over within six minutes or so.

Francis Poulenc.
Though Dr. Brown-Montesano had noted in her pre-concert talk that in 19th century domestic music-making the four-hands medium was particularly useful for discreet romantic interaction, Poulenc’s Sonate affords precious little opportunity for this, its first and last movements being mostly concerned with jagged, insistent rhythms and quicksilver figuration. Fitz-Gerald and Blaha dispatched all this with vigor and élan, though to me their way with the second movement, entitled Rustique and marked Naif et Lent, seemed a little matter-of-fact.

Their other joint contribution was the first of the evening’s “lollipops.” Schubert’s Marche Militaire No. 1 in D major, Op. 51 (D. 733) No. 1, is definitely one of those “oh, so that’s what that is!” tunes, but on this occasion it came liberally and unexpectedly garnished.

In 1974 the prolific and long-lived English composer John Gardner (left) produced a version of the march that in four minutes or thereabouts cleverly weaves in numerous musical quotes, from Colonel Bogey to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to Beethoven’s Ninth. If you want to share the fun that set the Mason House audience laughing, go to YouTube here (and to sample Gardner’s own impressive music, try the first movement from his Symphony No. 1).

This cornucopian program of goodies even fielded a living composer in the person of Gernot Wolfgang, who was indeed present for the performance of his Ghost Train for flute, bassoon and piano. This was commissioned in 2013 by the concert series Chamber Music Palisades, and brought CMP’s Artistic Director Susan Greenberg back to the platform, together with Ms. Farmer and Mr. Fitz-Gerald.

Gernot Wolfgang (right) is a prolific composer of both jazz and concert works, and Ghost Train has its feet in both camps; the title references the jazz technique of “ghost notes”—softer and played with less emphasis than others in a phrase. The work’s exploratory propulsiveness across its sectional, 11-minute span made it an intriguing listen that invited re-hearings.

Finally came the other two “lollipops,” bringing back the LA Wind Sextet's full muster. Emmanuel Chabrier’s orchestral rhapsody España exists in numerous transcriptions, but here I did feel that the loss of its kaleidoscopic color, the percussion-tinged rhythms, and warmth of its main theme on horns and cellos, was not altogther compensated by the pungency and clarity of winds plus piano.

Manuel de Falla.
On the other hand, these instruments felt idiomatically appropriate for the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s 1915 ballet El amor brujo (Bewitched Love), in no way under-serving its tremolando shudders and the brilliant ferocity of its main theme. As in the orchestral original, this was played on the oboe, Mr. Davis (as first amongst six expert equals) giving it all the sinuous charm plus hint of menace that it needs.

Altogether this was another memorable feast at the Mason House, and not only aural but also of comestibles, thanks to Ethel Phipps’ wonderful catering. The last concert in the series, and already sold out, will bring the Zelter String Quartet on Saturday May 11 to play Beethoven’s and Korngold’s Quartets Nos. 6 and 2 respectively, as well as Todd Mason’s own Second String Quartet


Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, April 20, 2024.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Blumer: Superstock; Ligeti, Poulenc, Falla: Wikimedia Commons; John Gardner: composer website; Gernot Wolfgang: composer website.

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