Compared to the wealth of chamber music for string ensembles and piano, wind instruments have been woefully neglected in receiving any substantial repertoire from the canon of major composers. Aside from a handful of mixed-ensemble works, woodwinds are left to the trite and unfulfilling world of 18th-century quintets. Thankfully, the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble opened their concert season at the Baryshnikov Arts Center with a pair of the most recognizable [and moving] pieces for wind ensemble, György Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet and Mozart’s Serenade No. 10, “Gran Partita.”
Striving to make the opening concert an “event,” as the pre-concert remarks noted, the program chose to alternate between the Ligeti and the Mozart throughout the evening. Unfortunately, despite the desire to amplify both works’ jovial nature, artistic management failed to realize that two of the Ligeti movements are incredibly dark and anxious, not coalescing at all with the genial and fluid nature of the Mozart. Additionally, some odd lighting concepts and a set design that looked like Bourbon Street the morning after Mardi Gras seemed pointless and distracting. Thankfully, the St. Luke’s players were in top form, delivering substantial accounts of both works with conviction and style.
Ligeti transcribed six movements of his piano work, Musica ricercata, for wind quintet, each serving as two-minute miniatures that subsequently grow from using only four notes of the chromatic scale to the full 11. Despite the limited tonal means, Ligeti creates music of incredible diversity that ranges from placid pastoral sounds to elegiac and mournful sorrow. Spreading the six movements out throughout the program provided some unnecessary difficulties for the five players—with moments of poor intonation from the flute [who, to the player’s credit, had to sit silently for 20 minutes at a time as the Mozart was performed] and general lack of clarity and attack during some the complex rhythmic movements.
In direct contrast to Ligeti’s fleeting landscapes, Mozart’s serenade blossomed with rich sound from each of the 13 players. Written at the request of Anton Stadler, Mozart’s clarinet muse, there were many potent solo moments from the principal clarinet, with Jon Manasse elegantly rising to the occasion throughout. Not only did his colorful, expressive tone sing above the group when needed, it also served as the foundation of the ensemble sound, helping to homogenize the disparate collection of timbres involved.
Particularly in the famous Adagio [remember the eloquent description delivered by Salieri in Milos Forman’s Amadeus?], Manasse—along with principal oboist Stephen Taylor and basset hornist Pavel Vinnitsky—took turns in the spotlight, collectively making a poetic statement out of a series of melodic fragments.
Given the serenade’s massive length of 40-plus minutes, Mozart expounds on a series of ideas: brusque country waltzes [made particularly engaging by the decisive articulation of double bass player John Feeney], a delicate Romance, and a complex set of theme and variations. In the latter, Mozart moves in and out of major- and minor-key moments with ease, building intricate rhythms out of an otherwise hummable tune.In the most breathtaking moment of the evening, however, one particular variation removed all sense of definable rhythm from the proceedings, with horns, clarinets, and basset horns providing an atmosphere of sound that ceased to be music and was more akin to the sound of the Earth’s natural hum; it was a moment of pure stasis and beauty, lasting for a few heavenly seconds before the next melody emerged.