Chicago Chamber Musicians find depth and variety in generous French program

Mon May 09, 2011 at 8:31 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The overall mood was sunny at Sunday night’s Chicago Chamber Musicians concert in Evanston, an appropriate atmosphere for a Mother’s Day whose weather at least hinted that the worst of winter was over. 

But the survey of mostly short, 20th century works by Jean Francaix, Poulenc, Milhaud and Andre Jolivet was not simply a study in French flightiness. This program, scheduled to be repeated Monday at the Merit Music School in Chicago, showcased CCM’s formidable wind players. They fully plumbed the shadows that often lurked beneath the music’s giddy surface. 

Mathieu Dufour, CCM’s resident flutist and principal flute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1999, was in the spotlight for three of the evening’s six works. Though nursing a painful shoulder, he played with the verve, color and technical command that has made him one of the CSO’s most dazzling principal players. 

In the opening piece, Francaix’s Five Little Duets for flute and harp, Dufour’s restless but lyrical line jumped and twisted against the constantly shifting, dark shimmer of Alison Attar’s harp. The second of the five pieces was a faintly melancholy waltz, with Attar strumming its clearly defined rhythms while Dufour’s full-toned flute wandered overhead. When Francaix’s mood lifted, however, Dufour erupted into short, heady flights, urged on by Attar’s richly colored, exuberant harp. 

CCM celebrates its 25th anniversary next season, and one of its hallmarks has always been remarkably cohesive ensemble playing. It’s one thing for a long-established string quartet to operate with a kind of mental telepathy onstage. It’s another for an ensemble of more than a dozen players whose instruments include strings, winds, brass and piano.  

The sensitive blend of voices was particularly clear in Poulenc’s high-spirited Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. The interplay between Michael Henoch’s lean, bright oboe and Dennis Michel’s heavier, soft-edged bassoon unfolded like an animated conversation between two close  but very different friends. In the merry first movement, stirred up by pianist Meng-Chieh Liu’s commanding chords, the short oboe and bassoon phrases raced and tumbled over each other. Settling into the slow movement, bassoon and oboe traded ideas, one gently finishing the other’s thoughts. Poulenc had Mozart and Haydn in mind when he wrote this piece, and the finale flashed by, its classically elegant outlines spiced by syncopated, 20th century rhythms. 

The playful mood continued in Poulenc’s three-movement Sonata from 1922 featuring hornist Gail Williams, trumpeter Charles Geyer and trombonist Michael Mulcahy. Their phrasing was crisp, but the instruments sounded exceptionally mellow. This was amiable rather than rambunctious play.  

Milhaud’s Suite for clarinet, violin and piano was positively antic. Violinist Jasmine Lin let loose with aggressive, rollicking fiddling, and Larry Comb’s clarinet offered some comically wistful doodling. In the final movement Liu’s piano turned lavishly romantic.  

In Jolivet’s Sonatine, Dufour and Combs explored darker, more mysterious realms. The opening movement had a trance-like quality, and even in the more uptempo final movement,the entwined flute and clarinet melodic lines hinted at disturbing undercurrents.  

The concert ended on a somber note, with Jolivet’s Chant de Linos, a 1944 work for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello inspired by ancient Greek funeral rites.  The rites mixed dance as well as song, and Jolivet’s  piece shifted abruptly from frenzied outbursts to brooding laments. At times Dufour’s flute whirled defiantly away from the stern, clipped strokes of the astringent strings played by Lin, violist Anthony Devroye and cellist Clancy Newman.

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