For its final concert of the winter season, Music@Menlo put on a “Clarinet Celebration” on Sunday at the Menlo-Atherton Center for the Performing Arts. All seven works on the program were lively and cheerful, the perfect repertoire for a miniature festival, and the performers were determined to do them all justice.
The star of the show was Romie de Guise-Langlois, a clarinetist from Quebec who first appeared at Menlo in 2012. A slight woman in a striking green dress, she played with a conscientious air. Occasionally her instrument would emit a few sounds that I’m not sure were intended. Generally, though, the fluidity and grace of her work were outstanding.
The several pieces she performed included two trios accompanied by violinist Arnaud Sussmann, a Menlo regular, and the tireless and self-effacing pianist Hyeyeon Park.
One of these trios was Bartók’s unsubtly-titled Contrasts, co-commissioned by Benny Goodman as one of that jazzman’s first ventures into the contemporary classical clarinet repertoire. Bartók gives the clarinet plenty of exacting work, from a cadenza in the first movement covering the instrument’s entire range to wild folk-music gyrations and car horn honks in the finale. Meanwhile the violinist gets to play bowing and plucking at the same time. Even the pianist gets a few solos. All three performers were vividly on point throughout this attractive yet demanding music.
The other trio was the Suite from Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat (The Soldiers Tale). A far more enjoyable work without the full version’s enervating narration, this piece was the most enchanting of the entire concert. Sussmann’s cutting, bow-heavy tone was good on such angular music, Park kept the dance-like rhythms pumping, and de Guise-Langlois played with consuming energy and drive.
De Guise-Langlois played one other piece with Park, Leonard Bernstein’s early Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Composed just after Bernstein completed his formal education, and before his sudden conducting fame, it has an earnest, academic air to its slow sections. The Coplandesque fast parts give hints of the Bernstein to come, yet compared with Bartók’s Contrasts, written a couple years earlier, it’s hesitant. In this work the composer was still figuring out how to be Leonard Bernstein. The performers gave him such help as they could.
That was hardly all. There was another clarinetist on the program: David Shifrin, whose lengthy credentials include the honor of being de Guise-Langlois’s teacher. Clad in a dark suit and solidly planted on stage, Shifrin joined Sussmann and Park to undertake Paul Schoenfield’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano. This formal title conceals an uproarious, ripping piece of klezmer riot, something that will surprise noone who knows Schoenfield’s similar string and piano trio, Café Music. Particularly in the opening movements, Shifrin stomped all over his colleagues with the power and volume of his playing. Wailing minor-mode melodic lines, flexing bent notes, and rolling glissandi poured out of his clarinet. Particularly in the opening movements, Shifrin stomped all over his colleagues with the power and volume of his playing.
The richest and most beautiful sounds of the concert came when the two clarinetists played together.
In Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Two Clarinets, the only piece on the program without piano accompaniment, de Guise-Langlois on a clarinet in A and Shifrin on one in B-flat traded off repeated figures like two wheels rotating at different yet complementary speeds. Like Bernstein’s, this is an early work giving hints of the composer’s upcoming development: in this case, Poulenc’s grace and wit.
For Mendelssohn’s Concert Piece in D Minor, Op. 114, de Guise-Langlois played a basset horn, a longer and deeper-sounding member of the clarinet family bearing a turned-up bell so that something can hear it besides the floor. Her instrument and Shifrin’s B-flat clarinet made nimble swirls of different sonorities together in Mendelssohn’s pliant and supple lines.
The concert concluded with a divertimento, Il convegno, by the Italian opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli. Here two B-flat clarinets sang in lyrical harmony together in the manner of an operatic duet, adding giant swirling flourishes at the end. It was a delightful piece. Memo to Ponchielli, back there in the 1850s: Write more chamber music!