Pan Harmonia has been providing Western North Carolina with chamber music since 2001. Each year sees an expansion in its venues, an increase in the number of performers, and a continued dedication to top-quality music by composers both familiar and less-well-known. Over the past two years, the relaxed and intimate Altamont Theater in Asheville has been used for “Second Sunday @ 5” concerts, and on November 10, an audience of over eighty almost filled the space for the nineteenth such concert.

Entitled “A French Feast for Winds,” the concert included two works for the woodwind quintet consisting of Kate Steinbeck, flute, Cara Jenkins, oboe, Fred Lemmons, clarinet, Rosalind Buda, bassoon, and Michael Brubaker, French horn. Also on the program were a trio, a sextet and a septet that added (as required) Brian Hermanson, second clarinet, Susan Cohen, second bassoon, and Ivan Seng, piano.

The concert opened with a Trio for piano, oboe, and bassoon by Francis Poulenc. The three-movement work made good use of all instruments and was dispatched with authority by the performers. Ms. Jenkins briefly displayed a harsh upper register in the first movement – I suspect a momentary double reed problem. The harshness disappeared well before the first movement’s Presto ended, and did not reappear all evening.

I found “Variations on a Lullaby Theme” by local composer Bryan Burkett (whose bio is included here) to be a failure. The theme is “Marie’s Lullaby” from Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, a work that I dearly love. Why then did I dislike the Burkett composition? Twelve-tone music can be a didactic exercise in numerology. (A strict “serial” composition uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale equally and all twelve intervals equally in what is known as a “tone row,” and this can be a rather dry exercise.) Berg was one of the most successful serial composers, and he made the technique a part of his arsenal of compositional techniques in producing music with heart and soul. Burkett seems to have taken Berg’s music, removed or obscured the soul, and reconstituted it as an intellectual exercise.

Much more successful was Darius Milhaud’s seven-part suite “La Cheminée du Roi René,” premiered in 1941 at Mills College, where the French composer had moved at the beginning of World War II. The suite of “medieval miniatures,” as one source describes it, was based on film music that Milhaud had written for a medieval romance that was part of a 1939 French film. The listener hears the pastoral sounds of the French countryside, the flourishes of a juggler, the galloping horse in the hunt, and is finally put to bed with a Madrigal-Nocturne. The music is simultaneously typical Milhaud and reminiscent of the 15th century. The five players demonstrated excellent rapport, with a highlight being the intimate collaboration shown in the fourth movement sarabande. This was ensemble playing at its best.

Following intermission was a Vincent D’Indy septet for flute, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and French horn. Entitled Chanson et Danses, Op. 50, the first movement, “Song,” had dense harmonic structure, reminiscent at times of “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” by Wagner. The second movement, “Dances,” which at moments sounded oriental, challenged the players with syncopation and rapid tattoos, but these artists managed the challenge with aplomb in a beautiful performance.

The final work was Divertissement, Op. 6, written for flute, oboe, 2 bassoons, French horn, and piano by one of my favorite less-known composers, Albert Roussel. Roussel served in the French Navy for years before becoming a full-time composer and spent much time in what is now Vietnam, then the French colony of Cochinchina. The Divertissement evokes the sense of a steamship voyage to Indochina, with the thump-thump of the engines and a lovely accelerando led by the piano at one point. It left the audience with a pleasant sense of the beauty of music well performed.

I will remark, as I have in the past, that while the brilliant tone of gold-alloy flutes works in orchestras, the Abell flute that Kate Steinbeck plays, made of grenadilla wood, has a superior tone for chamber music. This modern wood flute blends with other woodwinds in a way that cannot be equaled. It is part of the allure of hearing a concert from Pan Harmonia.

Pan Harmonia’s offerings continue on November 14; for details, click here.