Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Rose Studio – Valerie Coleman, Darius Milhaud, Henri Tomasi, Pavel Haas & Elliott Carter

Valerie Coleman
Umoja – The First Day of Kwanzaa

Darius Milhaud
La cheminée du roi René, Op.205

Henri Tomasi
Cinq danses profanes et sacrées

Pavel Haas
Wind Quintet, Op.10

Elliott Carter
Woodwind Quintet

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center [Sooyun Kim (flute), James Austin Smith (oboe), Romie de Guise-Langlois (clarinet, basset horn), Gina Cuffari (bassoon) & Radovan Vlatković (horn)]

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 11 November, 2021
Venue: Rose Studio, Lincoln Center, New York City

The Rose Studio Concerts of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) seem to come from another planet than those presented in its sister venue, Alice Tully Hall. For one thing, the cabaret style seating of the Studio accommodates no more than 100 people (versus 1,100 in Tully) and most events are general admission seating. And then there is the programming, with the Studio’s being the far more contemporary and creative. The great majority of works scheduled for its 2021-2022 performances – a mix of masterpieces, novelties and rarities – are from the 20th Century (and the years immediately following it). This was a delightful concert, the first in this season’s Studio series.

The evening opened with a sprightly rendition of Valerie Coleman’s Umoja (‘unity’ in Swahili) from 2001, three minutes of music originally conceived as a Kwanzaa sing-along song and later rearranged into a wind quintet for Imani Winds, the chamber ensemble founded by the composer. The title refers to the unity of home and family honored on the first day of Kwanzaa, but also to the unity at play among the musicians. And that strong sense of unity and harmony among the performers permeated this presentation of the bright, celebratory work, with Radovan Vlatković beautifully executing the joyful horn solo over the steady motor of Gina Cuffari’s bassoon and a percussive accompaniment from the upper winds.

From then, through to the end of the recital, the players were in splendid accord. La cheminée du roi René (The Chimney of King René), the only piece on the program ever previously performed by CMS, enjoyed a particularly warm and graceful outing. The suite is an adaptation of a film score by Darius Milhaud for the 1939 film Cavalcade d’amour (Cavalcade of Love), a story of medieval courtly love set in a 15th-century French castle. Its seven short movements interweave modernist and Renaissance harmonies while displaying a range of moods from melancholy to triumphant. James Austin Smith’s oboe was superbly characterful in the fourth movement sarabande Maousinglade (the name of a village near Aix-en-Provence where Milhaud had a house), and Soonyun Kim’s flute and piccolo solos in the sixth movement Chasse à Valabre (Hunting at Valabre) were unusually radiant.

Henri Tomasi’s Cinq danses profanes et sacrées (Five secular and sacred dances) is a reduction arrangement of his analogously-titled work for chamber orchestra. It is comprised of five separate movements – ‘Dance agreste’ (Rural Dance), ‘Danse profane’ (Secular Dance), ‘Danse sacrée’ (sacred Dance), ‘Danse nuptiale’ (Bridal Dance), and ‘Danse guerrière’ (Warrior Dance) – but there is not a great deal of contrast among them. However, the thirteen-minute piece offers many opportunities for each of the instruments to take center stage, and through the whole of the performance there was a remarkable sense of balance among the different players, with no one member of the ensemble coming across as more important than the others. Whenever solo passages arrived, the sound of an individual instrument appropriately swelled and projected the music, and then disappeared into the accompanying texture as another instrumentalist came in to take the lead.

Next was music of Pavel Haas, a Czech composer who died in Auschwitz in 1944. His rarely performed 1929 Wind Quintet is strongly indebted to his teacher, Janáček. In contrast to the Tomasi, this quirky and vibrant work introduces a highly contrasting series of moods – from the unfettered humor of the enormously engaging third movement ‘Ballo eccentrico’ to the pessimistic solemnity of the final ‘Epilogo Maestoso’. The musicians expertly exploited the strongly individual characters of their instruments, bringing out a kaleidoscopic range of colors and textures. Romie de Guise-Langlois’s solo clarinet in the mysterious second movement Preghiera was particularly notable for its exceptional flexibility of technique and phrasing.

The evening’s final offering, Elliott Carter’s two-movement 1948 Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, was written in 1948, when he was forty years old in a composing career that continued on for five more decades; it qualifies as ‘early Carter’. This audience-centered piece predates the composer’s musical modernism and demonstrates more of a balance of mid-century American qualities: lyricism, sensitivity, clear tonality, and accessibility on impact. As the music is passed around, the CMS players, impressively confident and highly communicative – among themselves and with the audience – infused every note with ebullient energy, maintaining an impressive balance between blending and individual display.

This entire recital, performed with great vigor and stunning virtuosity was an example of chamber playing at its best.

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