Over four days last weekend, I got to soak up more dulcet double-reed pleasure than any fan of that particular family of instruments could hope for. Two separate recitals showcased the common orchestral double reeds: oboe, English horn, and bassoon – and both events featured the Charleston Symphony’s main players.
Friday evening’s recital at First Baptist Church showcased the stunning bassoon playing of CSO Principal Christopher B. Sales. His accomplished collaborator at the piano was Ghadi Shayban: the CSO’s keyboardist and one of Chucktown’s most brilliant young pianists.
In over fifty years of regular concertgoing, I’d never been to a solo bassoon recital: rare beasts, as concerts go. While I’ve long been a rabid oboe fan, I suppose I’d never really taken the bassoon seriously – or fully appreciated its potential as a solo instrument. That is, until last Spoleto, when bassoon-meister Peter Kolkay joined Charles Wadsworth’s exalted chamber series team. Wow. All of a sudden it hit me: this “buzzing, burping bedpost” (as Chris has called it) can really talk – and sing. So much for the instrument’s unfair stereotype as the “buffoon” of the orchestra.
Chris – new to the CSO this season – took it from there. He had already tantalized me with a couple of choice orchestral solos – and in last fall’s benefit concert, where he adroitly delivered part of the Mozart concerto. But here was my chance to hear an entire program of works for just bassoon and piano. And I wasn’t disappointed. Proof positive that you can still teach an old critic new tricks.
First we heard Strange Interludes No. 3, by James Lassen: a fascinating and varied modern piece with regular piano interludes separating exotic, engaging passages that led up to a final, big bluesy riff. Then we were treated to the evening’s only non-contemporary number: Carl Maria von Weber’s Hungarian Rondo. It turned out to be a feast of bassoon virtuosity, with engaging tunes and a wide range of effects.
Next up was the devastating music of William Winstead, one of Sales’ teachers. We heard two of his Four Impromptus: ‘On Loneliness’ and ‘On Doubt’ – studies on the buildup and release of musical tension, as Sales described them in his introductory remarks. They turned out to be studies on the human psyche’s darker side, too – alternating slow, tragic meandering with tense mutterings. Sales made his instrument muse morosely, complain bitterly, and weep here — supported by some atmospheric playing from Shayban (including eerie, plucked-string effects in the second piece). Great therapy.
The recital ended with two movements from the Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, by David Maslanka (who writes only for woodwinds). Based on Bach chorales, the sonata’s slow second movement had kind of a “churchy” sound to it, full of sweet and limpid bassoon “singing” over a ruminative and flowing piano part. The final movement was bright, happy and headlong – with some perfectly synchronized high-speed playing from both artists.
The only downer was the news (out just that night) that Sales has just accepted a new position with Jacksonville’s orchestra – a bigger (and healthier) band. Who can blame him for moving on, given the CSO’s current dire circumstances? But he’s made a difference during his short stay in Charleston – like opening my ears to the full expressive possibilities of his instrument. Chris, we’ll miss you (Scroll down to “From the Bassoonist’s Chair” below: an eloquent guest-blog from him a few weeks back).
Fast-forward four days to Monday – and a lovable concert at the College’s Simons Center Recital Hall from the “Reeds of Charleston”: CSO oboists Mark Gainer (Principal since 1978), Christine Worsham and Nick Masterson on English horn. I’ve been melting to Mark’s wonderfully expressive playing for going on 20 seasons now – and Christine plays often at my church, besides singing with me in the choir (on top of her sweet-sounding oboe, she also owns a lovely, solo-quality soprano voice). I don’t know Nick as well as I’d like – though I’ve often borne witness to his excellent playing with the CSO.
They got started with world-premiere performances of a pair of excellent new works written for this ensemble by distinguished composers that Charleston can claim as their own. I’ve been enjoying their music for years.
Fernando Rivas teaches at Porter-Gaud, writes for us occasionally at the City Paper, and has a very impressive track record as a composer. He contributed One Last Habañera (for Piffe) – written in memory of a once-prominent Cuban bandleader. I really liked its profusion of catchy, sophisticated themes, ranging from languorous to frantic … and its artfully stylized, charmingly syncopated Habañera section. I wish Fernando had been there to hear how beautifully it was played.
Dr. Trevor Weston creates music and passes on his craft to a gaggle of gifted disciples at the College of Charleston. I’m mainly familiar with his glowing, soulful choral music – so I was delighted to hear another example of his instrumental output.
Ditty RAM (based on the composer’s pre-performance comments) recalls the “Aulos” – an ancient Greek double-reed instrument that often accompanied “Dithyrambs,” or often drunken Dionysian revels (Dionysus was the party animal among Greek gods) – as well as in battle. Both scenarios were reflected in the music. The rather martial opening ‘flourishes’ movement employed ancient tonalities, while speculating on what Greek battle fanfares might’ve sounded like over two millennia ago.
The central ‘sinews’ section sounded “stringy,” with skeins of rising and falling notes grabbing and letting go of each other … besides conveying a disoriented, vaguely tipsy sensation. The finale – ‘Aulos Blues’ – seemed an imaginary evening of blues at some ancient Athenian nightspot. Imaginary period riffs resounded (both forward AND backward), amid rhythmic foot-stomps and other evidence of unfettered celebration. Very evocative, very cool.
The evening ended with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Op. 87 Trio in C Major, originally written for tonight’s instruments (though it’s also known in his later transcription for two violins and viola). While it’s an early work, it bears a fairly high Opus number because Beethoven withheld it from publication until later in his career, at a time when he needed money.
The opening Allegro unfolded as a sweet-spirited, nonchalant number that recalled the grace and flow of Mozart – but Beethoven’s more forthright, muscular style was noticeable. The following Adagio offered a lovely, singing melody. The speedy Minuet seemed more of a scherzo than the usual courtly dance – except in the more subdued central section. The energetic final Presto scampered happily, with touches of Haydn-esqe wit and humor. Our artists performed throughout with sweet tone, precision and interpretive unity. Their work in the manic finale was especially acrobatic.
The Reeds of Charleston is just one of many excellent chamber ensembles made up of Charleston Symphony players. Both of these recitals stand as potent evidence as to the many ways in which our wonderful CSO musicians enrich our lives here in the Holy City.