WILMINGTON, NC – Chamber Music Wilmington – arguably the region’s premiere chamber music organization – closed out its 2023-24 season with a performance by the very fine Poulenc Trio. The concert took place in the equally fine Beckwith Recital Hall at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the premiere recital hall in the region, which hosts many dozens of performances each season in its acoustically near-perfect setting.

With three CDs to their credit, the Poulenc Trio has been concertizing for twenty years. They form the unusual trio combination of piano, oboe, and bassoon. Reed groupings have gained visibility more recently, and the Poulenc Trio has contributed to this with its concert tours and substantial commissioning activity, averaging approximately one new work each year, including works with orchestra. With this, they have greatly expanded the repertory for their instrumental combination. The trio members are Irina Kaplan Lande, piano, Aleh Remezau, oboe, and Bryan Young, bassoon. Oskar Espina-Ruiz, the Artistic Director of Chamber Music Wilmington and superb clarinetist, participated as guest performer in several of the pieces, including the standout encore.

The first work on the program was a 1926 trio by the ensemble’s namesake, the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). It began with a serious section whose sounds resembled bells. But Poulenc tends to be irrepressible, and a more cabaret-type atmosphere soon took over. There was more expressive playing in the second movement and a perky third movement to conclude the piece.

The playing of the trio was tightly matched in inflection of phrases and in entrances. With top-level playing by all the members, special attention is still owed to the bassoonist. That instrument often carried bass lines. They were played with the greatest of care in shaping of the phrases and also with a very full, lush tone. The expressive capabilities of the bassoon, often more associated with humorous punctuations, were manifold here. The bassoon lines were complemented by the phrasing of the oboe. The two created counterpoint and dialogue in fine interaction. The piano always balanced beautifully; that instrument’s lines were phrased with equal attentiveness and meshed tightly in entrances with the winds.

Arrangements of three Poulenc songs for trio followed. The first song, “Les chemins de l’amour” – the paths of love – was a highlight for this listener. Poulenc can sometimes be sentimental – his cabaret leanings – but he can also rise to aching expressivity, as in this song. The tone in the ensemble was very lush, the counterpoint finely shaped. The points of return had the most expressive rubato, and the very gently-played waltz pattern in the piano deserves special mention.

The second song, “C” was more brooding. The third, “Toreador,” was more lilting than one might expect given the title. Not surprisingly, there are some Spanish sounds. And then Poulenc, sometimes liking to disabuse his listeners of too much seriousness, ends the song in cute fashion.

The half ended with a piece by Viet Cuong, a young composer with whom the trio has worked before, and from whom they have commissioned music. This crowd pleaser, mostly in a direct tonal language, is titled “Explain Yourself.” It is a humorous exploration of the use of multiphonics – special effects sounds. The humor is in clear homage to Poulenc, his lightness and wittiness.

Some detailed explanation from the composer’s notes preceded the performance, which helped the audience to immediately be in on the musical jokes. The composer skillfully wove the “standard” parts together with the different joking sections, and the performers helped make it funny. It’s not easy: there are complicated rhythms, which were carried with complete aplomb by the trio. The audience loved it; new music can be fun.

The commentary on the pieces was given throughout by Young, the bassoonist. It’s standard nowadays to introduce the audience to the music, and it is an excellent practice. The spoken presentations were nicely delivered, and in this piece they also came with some humor.

The second half brought on Oskar Espina-Ruiz, the clarinetist. He joined the trio’s pianist and bassoonist in Glinka’s Trio Pathétique in D minor. It is unusual for the biggest piece to be located directly after intermission. But it made sense, in allowing the more characteristic double reed music to begin and end the program.

This is a relatively youthful work, written while the composer was still in his 20s, and also before he had embraced the Russian nationalism which has come to embody his influence as a composer. It is also a fairly conventional piece, except for its unusual instrumentation. It was well-played. Ruiz integrated beautifully with the other ensemble members. These are not musicians who regularly play together; but from the matching and synchrony of lines in the winds and the character of partnership in their physical movements, one would not have known that. A rather ordinary piece gained a good deal of expression and subtlety in these artistic hands.

The rest of the program was mostly of lighter character. Five Pieces for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon, by Jacques Ibert, was next. It’s a short set in a fast-slow-fast grouping – not in any hectic fashion; the quicker movements are easy-going and jaunty rather than virtuosic. The longest is the lyrical fourth section. In that part, the oboe and clarinet had a particularly pleasant conversation. The fifth movement showcased the group’s clarity of line and phrasing, with everything finely coordinated and matched.

The program was carried off by the concluding Fantasy on Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algieri. It is by turns lyrical – always expressively put forth by the winds – virtuosic, entertaining, and utterly Rossini. The arrangement and the performance were skillful and formed an upbeat ending to the top-notch program.

But in a way, the concert did not end there. All four players returned eagerly to the stage to encore with “Chau Paris” by the Argentine master of tango, Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). It is perhaps more accurate to describe Piazzolla as a master whose style happens to be tango, in all its colors and nuances. The title alludes to his actual biography, with the piece having been written in response to his departure from Paris at an important moment in his life.

Lande at the piano had its biggest solo section of the concert here, opening the work with a dramatic, impassioned passage which showed off her full tone and expressivity. The beauty of line and phrase highlighted earlier came to the fore again, with special mention perhaps once more to be accorded the bassoonist, who had a passage where he especially stood out. There were sharp rhythms too – this is dance-style music, after all. At nearly six minutes, twice the length of a typical encore, this was a substantial, wistful, passionate ending to a most gratifying musical experience.