The spirit of serendipity and whimsy hovered over the EMF’s July 19 chamber music program, given in Dana Auditorium. It was a sort of Yin-and-Yang mix of brass and strings. The guest artists were cellist Matt Haimovitz, who has gained fame for breaking away from traditional venues on the circuit, and trombonist Blair Bollinger of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who serves on the faculties of the Curtis Institute of Music and Temple University.

Francis Poulenc’s Sonata (1922), for horn, trumpet, and trombone, with its insouciance and elegant, humorous wit, was the perfect “curtain-raiser.” The first movement opens with a folk-like melody played by the trumpet above the darker brass, followed by a slower, singing melody taken up by each in turn. A sassy tune played by the horn leads to a joke – a wrong-note ending. The second movement is dominated by two lullaby-like themes. A unison horn and trumpet open the impudent last movement. The radiant trumpet part was played by Mark Niehaus, the fleet horn, by Leslie Norton, and Bollinger was the flexible trombonist.

Bollinger seemed to have limitless technique in “El Toro,” for unaccompanied bass trombone, by David Sonnenberg (b.1978). The composer is ending his fifth year as Festival Manager for the EMF. Before playing the piece, Bollinger commented that the subject of the piece “must have been one mad bull.” It features a wide dynamic range and unending, driving energy. Hearing such an apparently unwieldy instrument spit out wads of notes at a fast clip countered my disbelief.

Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and not Verdi’s Falstaff, was the operatic source for “Falstaffiade,” Op. 134, by Dutch composer and conductor Jan Koetsier (b.1911). Originally for tuba and four horns, its popularity led to many different arrangements including one for four trombones, as played on this occasion. It is a delightful fantasy with a theme and variations from the opera. The bass trombone and his colleagues “dug down” for a series of really low notes – bordering on the mimicking of a foghorn. With his bass trombone, Bollinger certainly took on the basso profundo role. Terry Mizesko, Gregory Cox, and John Ilika were his colleagues.* At one point, all four players staggered about, miming the “drunken” quality of the music of that particular variation.

Strings and brass met in Charles Small’s “Conversation,” if only by way of a transcription, for it was composed for bass and tenor trombones. Bollinger took the low-lying part while cellist Matt Haimovitz took the higher lines. According to Steven Ledbetter’s program note, a past reviewer described the piece as “two neighbors schmoozing and arguing over a back fence.” There was nice give-and-take as each took up the melodic lines in turn and at times came to cross-purposes.

A scheduled work – “Gordun,” by Rumanian composer Adrian Pop – arrived too late for performance, but in its place, Haimovitz played “Omaramor” (1991), by Boston-based Osvaldo Golijov. Much of the composer’s music draws on the dual influences of his Argentine birth and his Jewish heritage, freely mixing tangos and klezmer. His “Omaramor” is a very free fantasy on the song “My Beloved Buenos Aires” by the near-mythical tango singer Carlos Gardel, who died in a plane crash in 1935. On his superb website, Golijov says “the cello walks, melancholy at times and rough at others, over the harmonic progression of the song, as if the chords were the streets of the city.” Haimovitz brought out the playful aspects of the piece while sustaining a warm, full tone.

The “find” of the evening was the Cello Sonata by György Ligeti (b.1923). I am used to the composer’s post-1956 style, after he had fled the tyranny of communist Hungary. For example, “Atmosphères” (1961) – used in Kubrick’s film 2001 – features a homogeneous and static handling of orchestral clusters, and his Cello Concerto (1967) and the Double Concerto (1972), for flute and oboe, feature extensive use of microtonal intonation. In prefacing remarks, Haimovitz characterized the Sonata as an early student work. The first movement (1948) was an unsolicited piece Ligeti gave to a woman cellist with whom he was in love. Haimovitz said she “wasn’t a very good cellist,” so it went unplayed. In 1953, he paired this with a newly-composed second movement, designated for another woman cellist – “a much better player with whom he wasn’t in love.” However, the communist government forbade its performance, and it lay unplayed for some forty years. Why this occurred was not immediately evident as Haimovitz brought an extraordinarily supple bow arm, full rich tone, and precise intonation to the rather post-Romantic-sounding piece. His double stops were breathtaking. There was an unusual type of pizzicato – with a lingering “wow” or drawn out twang – that I had never heard before. This is a welcome addition to the solo cello repertoire.

The concert ended with a piece written by the young Brahms in his sunniest mood, the Sextet No. 1 in B-flat. The musicians were violinists John Fadial and Jennifer Richard, violists Jamie Hoffman and Jennifer Puckett, and cellists Beth Vanderborgh and Marc Moskovitz. From the opening statement of theme, Vanderborgh’s warm, full cello tone was a recurring delight. Both violists were new to me; their strikingly large instruments projected robustly – not always true of this inner voice- and with radiant timbre. The violins blended beautifully. There were several Triad connections – husband and wife Fadial and Vanderborgh are members of the Greensboro Symphony, and Moskovitz’s father, David Moskovitz, was the GSO’s Concertmaster during the Peter Paul Fuchs era.

For a list of the EMF’s concerts, click here [inactive 11/05].

*Edited/corrected 7/24/05.