In a performance dedicated to the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester presented a cogent (though far from comprehensive) overview of French music Friday night, focused on woodwinds. Titled "Colors of France," the program was the first in a series devoted to notable composers of various countries and regions around the world, with Germany and Russia upcoming.
French classical music is known for its tendency toward warm lyricism and lush harmonic texture, as opposed to the often heavier orchestration of German Romanticism or even the unabashedly florid melodic beauty of the Italians. The chamber music players assembled here - all but one are members of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra - concentrated on compositions that brought out the natural beauty of their instruments. In the chamber ensemble selections, the combined sound of different instruments in harmony exuded a lovely charm and clarity that is quintessentially French.
The evening began in complete darkness. Flutist Rebecca Gilbert imbued Claude Debussy's light and airy "Syrinx" with an earthy sound full of mythic mystery. The result was somehow both rooted and ethereal.
Next was "Sarabande et Menuet" by the all-but-forgotten Vincent d'Indy. If the Sarabande showed off the players' compatibility of tone, the Menuet was evidence of the players' abiding chemistry and camaraderie. Their blend as an ensemble featured nimble, understated, and artful melodic phrasing. Ultimately, it was the group's sense of timing, a natural synchronicity, that gave the music its resonance. W. Peter Kurau's French horn was especially impeccable here, though his grand and luxurious sound faltered during a moment of sloppy intonation in Camille Saint-Saëns's "Romance."
One of the highlights of the night was oboist Erik Behr's rendition of "Pièce en forme de Habanera" by Maurice Ravel, accompanied by pianist Chiao-Wen Cheng. Behr's simple, direct tone emphasized the exoticism of Ravel's music, and he evoked a strong sense of freedom, even while exhibiting expert control in his phrasing. Cheng was an ideal accompanist, asserting her presence when appropriate and blending into the harmonic fabric when the oboe melody took the fore.
In Paul Taffanel's Wind Quintet in G minor, it was the exquisite blending of instruments that was most impressive. Matthew McDonald's rich, resonant low tones of the bassoon provided great balance to the higher, untethered, and pure sounds of the flute and oboe. The interplay between instruments during the Adagio, in particular, was intuitive and inspired.
Though the overall sensibility of the concert was earnest and serious, Francis Poulenc's Sextet for winds and piano was jocular, even mischievous. Behr's playing was consistently astonishing. His shaping of phrases brought out the natural drama of the phrase in a way that drew listeners into the moment. His ability to pull us into the music was the evening's most consistent triumph.
If this concert was any indication, fans of chamber music will find that the Society's "musical world tour" this season is a trip worth taking.