Michael Collins will no doubt bring pleasure to thousands later this week when he plays Mozart's great concerto for basset clarinet with the Charlotte Symphony on consecutive nights at Belk Theater. Yet it would probably be exaggerating to say that hundreds were in attendance when the esteemed virtuoso performed another pair of concerts earlier in the week on the fourth floor of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art – one for a lunchtime crowd and another after work. Poetic justice would have decreed that at least an equal number should bear witness when Collins, toting two other clarinets, headlined a program that not only included a complete Mozart clarinet trio but also a solo Stravinsky suite and generous samplings of works by John Adams and Max Bruch. Joining Collins were pianist Bruce Murray, who pinch-hit personably on most of the hosting, and violist Rosemary Furniss. There were a couple of links between the two pairs of concerts: Collins is playing both programs and Christopher Warren-Green, the Charlotte Symphony's musical director/conductor, is united in holy matrimony to the woman who wielded the viola.
Furniss' hand was certainly perceptible in the choice of repertoire, since she collaborated on Mozart's "Kegelstatt" Trio and a selection of Bruch's 8 Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano at a Davidson College concert in September 2013. These sweet trios framed the two more raucous works that Furniss sat out. All three trio members had their moments to shine from the opening Andante of Mozart's E-flat gem. Furniss introduced the first subject at the beginning and its return at the end of the movement, answered by Murray, who laid the groundwork for Collins' first entrance and then beamed with joy as soon as he heard the clarinetist's first notes – and with good reason. The waltzing 3/4 sway of the ensuing Menuet was instantly evident, especially since Collins himself swayed a bit with the melody while Furniss sawed an agitated countermelody. Nor was Murray idle here, at times playing two strands of accompaniment at the same time. Collins dreamily led into the concluding Rondeaux, hitting the high notes effortlessly, and Murray's responses from the keyboard grew more elaborate. Interplay was quite delightful as Murray and Furniss led off successive rounds. At a certain point, Collins' answers gave way to an outright takeover, with delicious filigree that dipped into the lower range of the instrument. Staccato passages near the end, when the trio chimed in together, were brimming with charm.
The first of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo was actually a mellow, brooding thing, ideally suited for showing how much better-suited the clarinet is to the Bechtler space than a grand piano. Following this Molto tranquillo, the second piece was quick, raucous and squawking. Collins himself called attention to the hall midway through, pausing for a moment and waiting until the echo almost died away before flinging himself into that latter half. The third piece was no less fleet and raucous, but it had more of a circular, chasing feel rather than jumping around helter skelter, ending with an emphatic tweet that Collins clearly relished.
It was Collins who premiered Adams' Gnarly Buttons in 1996, and he chose the middle movement of the piece, the shortest yet most signature of the three. "Hoe-down (Mad Cow)" would normally be associated with horses, according to the composer's album notes, but it takes on its altered perspective as a nod to his "British friends who gave the first performance during a time of quarantine." Recorded with the London Sinfonietta, the album cover features a wide-eyed animal that could serve as the perfect poster child for the infamous mad cow disease. It's the most challenging of the three movements, but as Collins pointed out in his intro, in distilling the 11-piece accompaniment to the piano, the arranger had probably shifted the burden of difficulty to Murray. Indeed, Murray poured forth fistfuls of notes during this merry frolic. Interspersed with his hoe-down romping, Collins had the most minimalistic figures, which occasionally sounded like a boogie-woogie bass pattern. Clearly enjoying himself and Murray's trials, Collins had time to point out the most important ingredient that this reduced version had to sacrifice – the sound of the lowing cow from the orchestral version. He mouthed the moo when it came around.
Scored for viola or cello (Furniss split her part with cellist Alan Black in her previous go-round), Bruch's 8 Pieces are mostly dark and melancholy, so the four movements selected were altered from their intended sequence, leaving out the final Moderato and ending instead with the penultimate Allegro vivace, the only segment of the suite in a major key. The overtones of Murray's introduction to the "Nachtgesang" actually emulated a clarinet's sound, but there was no mistaking Collins' true entry, floating in on high and dipping into darkness. Furniss' nocturnal viola intertwined with the clarinet, before and after an exquisite Collins monologue, forming an ethereal frame. Launching the brief Allegro con moto, the viola came in darkly before Collins echoed it from above, but the most characteristic of the Bruch pieces was "Rumänische Melodie," with Furniss achingly setting the tone, at times reminiscent of Sarasate's firelit Gypsy ruminations and the keening of Jewish cantorial music. Collins and Murray were at the forefront of the Allegro vivace, but Furniss was very expressive in the accompaniment, fomenting the augmented intensity when frolicsome passages veered suddenly into turbulence. Throughout the concert, I had an up-close view, less than 10 feet from Collins when he took his final bows. Nor were my seats reserved: any one of the thousands who may marvel at Collins' musicianship this Friday and Saturday night could have snatched up the same opportunity on Tuesday, at a fraction of the ticket price.
For information about the upcoming performances with the Charlotte Symphony see our calendar.