May 13, 2014
BY MARK SATOLA
Loud thunder, frequent flashes of lightning, high winds, torrential rain and at one point a tornado warning (announced from the stage at intermission) — none of this overwhelmed what was a near-perfect concert Monday by a large woodwind ensemble from the ranks of the Cleveland Orchestra, augmented by some talented friends.
The last concert of the Rocky River Chamber Music's 2013-14 season, the program also featured the premiere of a new work by Cleveland Orchestra assistant principal oboist Jeffrey Rathbun.
In terms of air time, Mozart dominated the evening, which began with an uncredited transcription of the overture to "The Abduction from the Seraglio" for wind octet, with oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons in pairs.
Suites from Mozart's operas were being made while Mozart was still alive, especially in Bohemia, by such competent journeymen as Wenzel Sedlak. The transcription played Monday night was well done but peculiarly brief, ending after what seemed like a minute and a half (the overture as usually heard lasts about five minutes), which left the audience unsure whether to applaud; it fell to clarinetist Daniel McKelway to announce that that was, indeed, all, folks.
Jeffrey Rathbun is a prolific composer of unusually attractive music, in which comprehensible forms convey multidimensional emotional narratives that fully access modern harmonic and contrapuntal methods — which is a lofty way of saying that however polytonal or dissonant his music gets, it never fails to make an immediate connection with the listener.
Rathbun's "Rocky River Music" for wind octet was commissioned by the Rocky River Chamber Music Society and dedicated to the memory of Marianne Mastics, well-known local pianist and a driving force behind the society. Its language is harmonically pungent and complex, and its counterpoint ingenious, especially in the opening movement, "Danger," where the musical thought is assembled in modular "cells," with pairs of instruments creating characteristic shapes that interlock into a tense narrative exemplary of its title.
The second movement, "Humanity," finds Rathbun in a more expansive mood, warm but still harmonically complex; while in the high-spirited finale, "Fearless," the contrapuntal interlock of the opening movement is combined with a bright major-key clarity and a good measure of swagger.
In centuries past, new works were often encored; a repeat performance of "Rocky River Music" would certainly have been welcome.
The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, Mozart's Serenade No. 10 in B-flat, "Gran Partita," for 13 players (12 winds, plus double bass). While Mozart plumbs no great philosophical depths in this work, he has here given us his most entertaining serenade, full of rich sonorities and inventive and playful scoring.
Mozart upped the ante from the usual wind octet by adding two more horns, for a total of four, and augmented the clarinet timbre by bringing in two basset horns, the deeper-voiced siblings of the clarinet. The four single-reed instruments were particularly sweet in the first trio of the second movement, Menuetto.
The ensemble's tempos were relatively fast, so that even the Adagio proceeded at a good clip. Oboist Rathbun and clarinetist McKelway played with shapeliness and fine balance in this movement, which plays out as a sort of double concertante for oboe and clarinet. In the fast section of the otherwise dreamy Romance, bassoonist Barrick Stees was nimble and articulate.
Given the quick tempos in play throughout the work, one wondered how the quicksilver rondo finale would be rendered. The musicians in fact took it at such a fast pace that some of Mozart's trickier passages were almost blurred, but not quite, and the total effect was one that could only result in the enthusiastic ovation that swept the hall almost immediately.