by Greg Hettmansberger
The UW athletic calendar might indicate that homecoming weekend is Oct. 9-10, but one group of fans celebrated a week early. That would be the group that nearly filled the Oakwood Village West auditorium, the site for 27 seasons now of the eclectically programmed Oakwood Chamber Players.
Saturday night the unusually staffed ensemble (flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola and piano) kicked off a new round of stimulating programs. Of course, there are virtually no works in the standard repertoire for their full time instrumentation, which probably necessitates their wide-ranging repertoire choices, and the use of guest artists.
Their latest program was no exception, opening with the early Beethoven Serenade for Flute, Violin and Viola, Op. 25. Written in his mid-twenties, this is not yet the work of the man who would roar in his Symphony No. 5, but still had at least one foot (stylistically speaking) in the Classical precedents of Haydn and Mozart. The form itself was a remnant of the mid-18th century, with nary a slow movement anywhere within its six movements. Instead, a younger, more playful Beethoven fills the pages with intimacy and charm, and even a hint or two of the gentler side of the mature Beethoven to come in his “Pastoral” Symphony. Flutist Marilyn Chohaney, guest violinist Laura Burns and violist Christopher Dozoryst balanced the tonal textures and esthetic sensibilities with equal ease.
The next work was the first example of the season of thoroughly obscure repertoire from an exact contemporary of Beethoven, George Abraham Schneider (1770-1839). His Quartet in F Major for bassoon and strings might seem the musical equivalent of empty calories — but who among us doesn’t have our guilty culinary pleasures? Likewise, bassoonist Amanda King Szczys provided ample reason, with her measured phrases, fleet technique and beguiling tone to indulge in this piece. Her accompanying trio (Dozoryst and Burns again, with another guest, Maggie Darby Townsend on cello), provided a sensitively balanced backdrop, and when required, lively dialogue.
The second half opened with a more exotic musical find, “Indian Summer” for string quartet by the Indian composer Pyarelal Sharma (b. 1940). With Laxmikant Shantaram Kudalkar (1937–1998) he composed the scores of approximately 500 “Bollywood” films. “Indian Summer,” in its three brief movements, recalled a number of brief memories, from George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” to the Merchant-Ivory film “A Passage to India.” But of course in this case, Sharma was the genuine article, weaving raga and other Indian music threads into a Western tapestry. Violinists Leyla Sanyer and Burns, Dozoryst and Townsend seemed to fully enjoy this striking diversion, as did the audience.
The evening concluded with the one chamber staple, but even here the work essentially stands alone in the repertoire: Brahms’ Trio for Piano, Violin and Horn, Op. 40. Rarely has a composer come up with a more unique instrumental combination so perfectly wedded to the musical content. Anne Aley’s horn lines often seemed to provide an aural pathway from the summer just passed into the autumn suddenly upon us. From a more practical standpoint, the horn part surely tempts the player into always remaining the focal point of the musical argument, a temptation Aley was careful to avoid. For that matter, Sanyer and pianist Vincent Fuh could also have found stretches where they could argue for their musical preeminence; again, balance remained the order of the night, and in Brahms that is often easier said than done.
One should not imply that this was a note-perfect performance; this music holds real pitfalls for even the seasoned full-time professional. But of far greater import is the fact that this trio of players revealed the heart of the piece at its very heart: in the great third movement Adagio. The entire work was written shortly after the death of the composer’s mother, and the slow movement can seem like a wordless memoriam. Performers frequently opt for a suitably grave pace, but the Oakwood players moved the theme just a bit more quickly enough to transform the funereal into something more lyrically soothing. The finale was all exuberance, and the audience’s response was indeed the same.
This season the regular concert series will take place on selected Saturday nights at Oakwood Village West, but the following Sunday matinees are in a new venue, the Visitor’s Center at the UW-Madison Arboretum. Sounds like a great second home…