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Classical review: SCMR’s ‘Mozart and Pärt in Harmonie’

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Mozart lavished his musical imagination on wind instruments as part of the orchestra, but he also wrote some terrific works for the unassuming octet known in the 18th century as the Harmonie ensemble – pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns. (If you add a flute, it’s also the wind section of the classical-era orchestra of Mozart and Haydn.)

Fans of the movie “Amadeus” will remember that hearing Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 made Salieri realize that Mozart was indeed loved by God. The Society for Chamber Music in Rochester did not perform that sublime piece on Sunday afternoon, but the eight excellent wind players, gathered from the RPO and Eastman did, center their program on another remarkable Mozart work for winds: a Serenade in C minor.

It is difficult to believe that this emotionally complex and contrapuntally elaborate work was originally background music — as was most Harmonie music. However, this is entertainment of a high order. The stern air, symphonic proportions, and the C minor key of the first movement have a Beethovenian feel. The whole work, a model of imaginative writing for winds, is also a model of concision, suggesting great emotional depths in a relatively short span (about 25 minutes).

The program note for the Serenade made much of the music’s sober character, describing the opening movement as “taut and tense” and the minuet (a harmonically adventurous canon) as “somewhat angry.” The actual playing was much more suave than those words suggest. The work emerged not so much angry, but sober and perfectly balanced — Classical, if you like.

This Mozart serenade was prefaced by one of Arvo Pärt’s most haunting short pieces, 1977’s “Fratres” — usually played by strings, in this case arranged for winds. Part chant-inspired and part Minimalist, it sounds haunting and mysterious in any arrangement, and after a slightly hesitant first few measures) made an appropriately serious introduction to the Mozart. The winds were joined by Don Hunsberger – the longtime Eastman Wind Ensemble director – playing the simple but crucial drum part.

The second half of the concert, cut down considerably from the originally announced program, began with some more Mozart. A wind octet arrangement of the overture to “Don Giovanni” did not sound nearly as grand as the orchestral original, although bassoonists George Sakakeeny and Matthew McDonald’s quick-fingered renditions of what were originally rapid string figurations were impressive indeed. The previously announced “Magic Flute” overture was replaced by a neatly done arrangement of Papageno’s aria (“‘The Magic Flute’ without the flute,” as SCMR co-director Erik Behr put it).

Beethoven was represented by an early work, an agreeable rondino which featured a couple of elegantly played horn duets by Stephen Leifer and Nikolette LaBonte, and the concert concluded with a brief Octet in B-flat by Mozart’s friend, Josef Myslivecek. This Czech composer’s music was much admired by Mozart, and his charming work was played with spit and polish by the ensemble. But I think it is fair to say that including Myslivecek and Mozart on the same program is an excellent example of showing the difference between talent and genius.

The octet also included oboists Erik Behr and Anna Steltenpohl, and clarinetists Kenneth Grant and Andrew Brown, and all eight musicians played mellifluously in solos and in ensemble. The concert sounded great in the Lyric Theatre, which has become one of Rochester’s indispensable performing venues. This large room, with its high ceiling, wooden floors, and resonant acoustic, was an ideal space for music originally intended to be performed outdoors.

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