This reviewer had the opportunity to hear three of Western North Carolina’s leading woodwind performers present a recital of lesser known repertoire by a variety of 20th century composers. Flutist Kate Steinbeck, clarinetist Brian Hermanson, and bassoonist Rosalind Buda, all part of Pan Harmonia, performed a diverse selection of music from the last century that provided them many opportunities to display artistry on their respective instruments. In the hands of a skilled musician, all three instruments are capable of expressing a wide range of moods through their expansive ranges and myriad of colors, and each performer did an expert job illuminating the varied oeuvre of the evening.
The location of the performance, the lobby of UNC-Asheville’s Lipinsky Hall, was an initial disappointment. Upon hearing the respective performers tune up, however, it became clear that the resonant acoustics of the room were conducive to the intimate chamber setting of only three performers, and with a meager audience of a dozen in attendance, provided a more casual atmosphere in the context of this smaller space. The flute, clarinet and bassoon are instruments that are like a fine wine – they are most enjoyable to listen to when their respective audial nuances are observed. Unlike a fine wine, however, one does not need to be a connoisseur to appreciate these nuances for they are immediately apparent when a truly skilled performer can bring them to life.
Three Observations, by New England composer Mabel Daniels, proved to be one of the highlights of the evening. The first movement, “Ironic,” was characterized by an aggressive dialogue that allowed each player a brief moment in the spotlight. As the melody was passed from Steinbeck to Hermanson, and finally to Buda, it became clear each performer had paid special attention to unity of interpretation, each melodic gesture an echo of the previous player’s. By contrast, all three musicians illuminated the distinction in timbre between their respective instruments in the second movement, “Canonic,” providing a different color for each statement of the repeating theme. The final movement, cleverly morphed into the syllogism “Tangonic,” as a means of maintaining each movement’s suffix and showcased the dexterity of each performer. Hermanson and Steinbeck executed the 32nd note flourishes with rhythmic precision, spitting the rapid runs into the air with fiery passion while Buda’s powerful and sensuous tone provided a robust Argentinian ostinato.
For the second piece the trio took a trip across the Atlantic, performing British composer John Rutter’s American Miniatures. The composer, best known for his choral works, was featured here in an atypical context, having written a duo for flute and clarinet using the blues and ragtime as musical forms. Hermanson catered to one of the clarinet’s attributes, gently singing barely audible pianissimos in a beautiful pentatonic cadenza infused with bluesy tinges. Steinbeck’s hauntingly dark tones from the lower register of her instrument echoed melismatically over Hermanson’s walking bass-inspired countermelodies in the closing section in this short but effective movement. The two musicians captured the jazz-like aesthetic of the piece marvelously, superimposing an improvisatory mood over the pre-composed work – at certain moments, they convincingly sounded like two jazz soloists engaging in an emotionally charged call and response. The second movement was a peculiarity in that it transferred aspects of ragtime, a genre traditionally associated with the piano, to the sparse orchestration of flute and clarinet. In spite of Steinbeck and Hermanson’s skilled execution, the piece ultimately proved an ineffective arrangement, as the two woodwinds were unable to fully capture the thick harmonies and rumbling left hand stride of the piano. All too often, emulation of other instruments by woodwinds gets lost in translation, with the omission of notes and register changes proving ineffective in communicating the original musical intent. That being said, Hermanson did an expert job of mimicking these pianistic attributes through his conscious delineation in color between the bass pitches of the left hand and chromatic passing tones in the right hand.
Buda joined Steinbeck and Hermanson for Robert Muczynski’s Fragments, a composition that provided all three players the opportunity to display the varying and often disjunct moods expressed between all five movements. The lyrical side of their playing was especially notable on the second movement, “Solitude.” The post-impressionist harmonies and hypnotic pulse of the three winds at the beginning of the movement perfectly captured a sense of isolation. The trio effectively melded into a singularity of tone with a somber and rich timbre reminiscent of the warmth and mystery of a 16’ bourdon stop on a pipe organ. By contrast, the third movement, “Holiday,” provided a brief escapade showcasing the performers' respective dexterity, notably Buda. The final movement, “Exit,” was clearly influenced by the modernist ostinati of Stravinsky’s music, with all 3 players engaging in a rhythmic E.S.P. as they flawlessly executed the visceral rhythms with declamatory accuracy.
Perhaps the most unusual selection on the entire program was the duet for clarinet and bassoon, Arne Dich’s “A Doggie’s Day.” A children’s piece featuring narrator, it was performed first without narration, and then with narration provided by Steinbeck. In both instances, Hermanson and Buda played with uncompromising finesse. The work featured Buda’s technical prowess, showcasing her control over extended melodic passages, wide register leaps, and rapid arpeggios. While an excellent vehicle for displaying her chops, “A Doggie’s Day,” was severely deficient in musical substance. While effective in a children’s show, it proved to be a distracting detour in the program, saved only by Buda’s virtuosity.
The final work of the night was Charles Koechlin’s aptly titled, Trio, a 3-movement work Steinbeck described as epic, going through moods of “haunting, sublime, and athletic.” This was a fitting conclusion to the evening, as the tripartite composition displayed the trio’s ability to project with symphonic tendencies in a chamber setting. The opening movement, “Lent,” provided some of the most beautifully executed moments of the entire concert with Steinbeck and Hermanson embracing the wide and dissonant sonorities of the melancholy counterpoint with an emotionally charged lyricism. In the “Moderato,” the exposed melodic lines and dirge-like insistency of the melody provided a contemplative journey for the listener, similar to the chills one experiences hearing Gregorian Chant. The last movement, “Allegro con moto,” was actually a fugue, transposing the subject of the fugue from the G minor Bach violin Sonata (S. 1001), into the parallel major key. The virtuosity of ensembleship was immediately apparent, as each player brought out the subject with lucidity, while performing every melodic gesture with great care and attention, no matter its place in the contrapuntal hierarchy. The unrelenting tempo and onslaught of 16th notes in the work can prove to be a daunting task for all but the most accomplished woodwind performers. Pan Harmonia, however, surpassed this difficult challenge executing the insistent ornamentation with a grace and clarity that made the otherwise technically demanding passages sound completely effortless.