ANDREW DRUCKENBROD – GUEST CRITIC
If you ran into any surly percussionists this past week on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution, chances are you can blame the programming. With the Amphitheater hosting a Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra concert Tuesday highlighting the wind players, followed by the vocal ensemble Chanticleer Wednesday and then an evening devoted to string instruments Thursday, it’s easy enough to see why. One hopes an all-percussion concert is planned soon: these musicians know how to wield sticks, after all.
The benefit to the audience was obvious, though, as the concerts brought a raft of diverse works to the Amp stage. At its onset, COVID-19 closed concert halls and canceled performances. But as it continued, it also upended many conventions and advanced innovations that should remain. The most prominent are the inventive ways in which the performing arts embraced video and online content. As the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra has shown this season, however, classical music might need soloists and warhorses less than we think.
Faced with uncertainties, the CSO and Music Director Rossen Milanov programmed a season without many “big names.” Most of the offerings are shorter, require fewer musicians and occasionally are off the beaten path. Just as refreshing is the lack of guest soloists, placing the focus on the musicians who call the Amphitheater home — who are just as captivating.
Both streams coalesced Tuesday evening at 8:15 p.m. in the Amp, with two wonderful ensemble works rarely heard in an orchestra subscription series: Antonin Dvořák’s Wind Serenade in D Minor and Richard Strauss’ Serenade in E-flat Major. It was fun to see the wind section of the orchestra get top billing, and it was a joy to hear these gems played with such élan.
The concert might have begun with the piece that showed how profound a wind ensemble can be, Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Serenade No. 10. But we still got Mozart in the form of the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, arranged for winds by a contemporary of the composer. It turned out to be the perfect opening. It was fascinating to hear how little it captured the ebullience of the original. Simply plugging in different instruments doesn’t do the trick. Despite admirable delicacy, it sounded like a music box version of the overture. This only heightened one’s appreciation for what Strauss and Dvořák created when expressly writing for winds. Pervading their works are exquisite duets and sly duels, contrasts of timbre and dynamics, orchestration and part-writing that give space to each instrument.
While written as a teen, Strauss’ compelling Serenade only nominally qualifies as juvenilia, and Rossen let it unfold masterfully. The slower pace permitted rich phrasing by the players and allowed the piece to build to a full bloom following its main themes. The horns capped this with a mahogany tone. After an expressive rendering of the airy solo oboe transition, the development saw the musicians deftly giving way to each other, with the bassoons urging everyone along. The horns reprised the theme with smooth and almost congenial cohesiveness. Throughout, the flutes, oboes and clarinets offered sumptuous lyricism.
In the Dvořák, Rossen again was in no hurry, which lent the opening march an apt stateliness and let the oboes and clarinets float above the others. The players blended well — even when the second movement pitted clarinetist and oboist against each other in friendly, “Anything you can do, I can do better” competition. Rossen crafted the swings of dynamics and emotions in the third movement so that the music swelled when called for but receded for the plaintive detour before the boisterous finale brought the opening march magnificently back.
We then turned this past week to the renowned all-male Chanticleer, one of the great success stories in the music industry. Formed in the late 1970s in the early days of the period music movement, the group originally focused on compositions from the medieval and renaissance periods. But as the popularity of this music grew, the ensemble wisely branched out, becoming one of the most versatile musical groups performing today. Wednesday’s concert put this on display with a program covering centuries of song, from the sacred and secular to the serious and silly.
The repertoire that put the group on the map was well represented with pieces by Monteverdi, Byrd, Agricola and Lusitano. Splendid as the acoustics of the Amp are, it is not the ideal venue to hear this music, lacking as it does the resonance of a cathedral or enclosed hall. In particular, the characteristic blossoming of the countertenors was often clipped. But the precision of the singers cast off as many overtones as could be collected and the sound was glorious. One could follow any individual line and cadences were impeccably tuned. Equally supportive of contemporary composers, Chanticleer presented a remarkable new work by Ayanna Woods. Her “close[r], now” shimmered as pointillist falsetto and pulsing harmonies swirled amid snatches of text taken from a newspaper article from the depths of the pandemic explaining why concerts were unsafe. James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn” and Augusta Read Thomas’ “The Rewaking” showcased the singers’ superb intonation by casting them into intricate progressions. Works by Lajos Bárdos and Béla Bartók brought rhythmic vitality.
A tender rendition of Burton Lane’s classic “On a Clear Day” pulled at heartstrings, forming the first panel of a triptych with an arrangement of “SUNRISE” by MICHELLE and Byrd’s “Laudibus in sanctis.” The silliness came with lighthearted and occasionally animated onomatopoeia of bird song, bird noises and strange utterances, with Clément Janequin’s celebrated “Le chant des oiseaux” at the center. The concert ended on a good footing with a beatboxing rendition of Richard Evans’ bossa nova “Journey to Recife.”
Thursday brought Timothy Muffitt to the podium to lead the CSO strings. As conductor of the Music School Festival Orchestra, he knows the Amp well. From the precision of Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony” to the profundity of George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings” to the lusty bowing of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, Muffitt focused on clarity of sound to carry the details to the back seats. This constrained some of the robust sections of the Dvořák, but served the contemplative and delicate elements well. The violins rained beauty in the second movement waltz, the fourth was sumptuous and the cello section offered several lyrical solos throughout. The orchestra matched the cohesion of a string quartet for the emotional tapestry of the Walker. Muffitt kept the introspection of the piece from slipping into a lament and the personal nostalgia of Britten’s Sarabande from sounding too precious.
Andrew Druckenbrod is former classical music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He studied musicology at the University of Minnesota and is an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh.