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Discovery Night

May 15, 2007

The Avedis Chamber Music Series at San Francisco's Legion of Honor has rarely drawn the kind of packed house it did on Friday evening, or more enthusiasm for the results. The occasion featured pianist Jon Nakamatsu with the Stanford Woodwind Quintet, who offered two light and popular French works embedded between a crossover Cuban work and a grand sextet by a forgotten Austro-German master. Paquito D'Rivera's Aries Tropicales (1994) opened the proceedings by the Stanford Quintet, followed by Francis Poulenc's zesty Sextet (1939) for piano and winds. After intermission, the winds played Jacques Ibert's Trois Pièces Brèves (1930), and with Nakamatsu, the remarkable Sextet in B-flat Major, Op. 6 (1888), of Ludwig Thuille, a seriously talented composer and teacher whose music largely sits in the dust bin these days. Quintet members included flutist Alexandra Hawley, oboist James Matheson, clarinetist Mark Brandenburg, horn player Lawrence Regent, and bassoonist Rufus Olivier.
Thuille (1861-1907) was born in the Austrian Tirol, and studied organ and piano in Innsbruck before heading for Munich to study with Joseph Rheinberger, eventually succeeding him as a professor at the Königliche Musikschule. He remained there until his early death in his mid-40s. (Among his students was Ernest Bloch.)

Early on, Thuille became a friend of Richard Strauss, yet Thuille avoided the kind of modernisms then afoot in the music of Strauss and Mahler. He generally stuck to the solid principals of classicism you hear in the music of Brahms and Rheinberger. To an unsuspecting audience, you could easily pass off Thuille's sextet as a composition by Brahms — good Brahms. The major difference is that Thuille does not let in those little hints of Hungarian modality so typical of Brahms.

The four-movement piano-wind sextet is usually mentioned even in thumbnail biographies of Thuille. Solidly made, it manages to overflow with ingratiating melody after melody without once sounding trivial. The one little surprise is the gavotte third movement, which replaces the expected scherzo.

It's a charm machine that fits this ensemble to a T, especially with Nakamatsu's virtuosity always at the ready and able to cope with the demanding piano part. If Thuille's sextet lacks much in the way of individual profile, it still remains a strong, utterly enjoyable composition of worth. I am grateful to those involved for bringing it to light.
Sophistication and Wit
Poulenc's sparkling sextet is really a mini-chamber concerto, noted for its vim and wit. Here and there the piece makes little winks toward the composer's two-piano concerto. Whenever I hear it, it somehow brings to mind visions of Poulenc riding a bicycle while sipping a fine claret. The allegros are that breezy.

Played with zest by the Stanford Quintet and Nakamatsu, the sextet rose above its jokes and into the realm of sophisticated elegance. As a subtle touch, the group played Poulenc's lyrical moments while avoiding the sentimentality that can easily give away the piece's music hall origins. This was musicianship at its zenith.

Ibert, on the other hand, is an odd case. He's a composer who wrote quite a lot of music that was once basic repertoire around the world but that has somehow fallen over a cliff. Musicians seem to have forgotten the effectiveness of his orchestral Escales and Bacchanale, his Flute Concerto, or the sarcastic Divertimento. Ibert's only chamber work to be actively played seems to be the Three Little Pieces for winds.

It's impossible to hear such music and remain in a bad mood. As to the performance, the music was like mother's milk to the Stanford Quintet, sounding almost as if it had been composed specifically for it.

The one disappointment of the evening was the opening "Tropical Airs" by D'Rivera. Born in Cuba in 1948, he became a jazz and Latin music virtuoso on clarinet and saxophone. He managed to defect in 1980, settling in the United States, where he quickly became a major player on the national pop scene and won eight Grammy Awards, so far.

But as a crossover composer, D'Rivera's flaws outmatch his virtues. His 20-minute, six-movement suite never seemed to reach Go. Structurally weak, the music meanders from small ideas to ordinary cliches. And those elements were pockmarked with pointless little riffs that added to the general feeling of aimlessness.

For a musician with D'Rivera's credentials to shrug off a task like that rather startled me. Of course, the fact that it was not as neatly prepared as the other three works didn't help matters. They're fine musicians, so they had noticed the lack of point in performing Aires Tropicales.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.