Monday, November 24, 2014

Flowing melodies

Saturday nights may buzz with social energy, but Friday night should be a time when the cares and stress of the workweek are set aside at least for a few hours. The triumphs of the days just past can be savored and good work relished; conflicts and unfinished business perhaps will look better on Monday morning.

Last Friday, I ended the week by stepping into a musical world of peace and beauty - a performance by the Riverwinds Woodwind Quintet at New York University's Maison Francaise in Greenwich Village. (The group's name refers to the fact that several players are based in Westchester County towns on the Hudson River.)
La Maison Francaise, NYU, New York

Occupying a 19th-century carriage house on cobblestoned Washington Mews, the Maison hosted the performance in its elegant cream-colored ground-floor salon.

I'm no stranger to chamber music, but it's been mostly string quartets and chamber orchestras. However, the woodwind quintet - flute, oboe, bassoon, horn and clarinet - isolates those breath-supported voices that transform the very air.

What colors result! In the hands of these Riverwinds players, Sally Frank's sparkling flute, Troy Messenger's piercing oboe, Nicholas Evans' soulful bassoon, Leslie Mantrone's clarion horn and Gary Mayer's singing clarinet wove a tapestry of sweet, delicate music far removed from aggressive strings or percussive orchestral bombast.
Riverwinds Woodwind Quintet
From left, Troy Messenger, oboe; Nicholas Evans, bassoon;
 Leslie Mantrone, horn; Sally Frank, flute; Gary Mayer, clarinet

The all-French program contained wondrous discoveries around every corner. These were a few favorites:

Ravel's four-part Le Tombeau de Couperin was written as a memorial to friends killed in World War I.

The sprightly first movement (Prélude) seems at odds with such a somber subject, but, as Ms. Frank noted, Ravel said, "the dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence."

The first movement of Gounod's Petite Symphonie (there is a sound file on this web page, if you want to listen to it), arranged by Mayer for Riverwinds, begins with a majestic adagio, then swings into an irresistibly bouncy allegretto.

I was not familiar with the work of Jacques Ibert, but who could resist the sunny first movement (Allegro) of three short pieces (Trois Pièces Brèves).

However, the piece that really transported me out of jangly urban Manhattan was Milhaud's Le Cheminée du Roi René, a work with a medieval flavor that references the 15th-century king, René of Anjou. The seventh and final movement is the poignantly serene Madrigal-Nocturne.

Clearly one of New York's more-accomplished wind quintets, Riverwinds created a sublime program that brought the week to a close with harmony and grace.

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