The evening was rescued by a brilliant performance of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s well-known Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70 (“Souvenir de Florence.”)
The oboe has been my favorite wind instrument ever since I heard Jean Sibelius’ “Swan of Tuonela” as a boy. Peggy Pearson is one of its leading exponents. Hence I was looking forward to the opening night of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Thursday at Hannaford Hall of the Abromson Community Education Center.
I sincerely hope that the audience was not as disappointed as I was. Pearson’s tone and technique were as sound as ever, but the vehicles chosen to represent her instrument left something to be desired. Perhaps they were too far removed from the source.
The opening work on the program was Igor Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite, arranged for oboe, strings and piano by Pearson and Elizabeth Brown, a flautist and composer.
Here we have four degrees (at least) of separation. Stravinsky wrote the “Pulcinella” ballet music, based on works by Giambattista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Then is was an eight-movement suite for chamber orchestra of 33 players, which has since become quite popular.
The fourth removal is Pearson’s adaptation of the Brown arrangement. After a while the original material gets a bit thin, and it sounded that way. There were some nice passages, but the overall taste was plain vanilla.
An equal puzzlement was the world premiere of “Air and Angels,” by Harold Meltzer (b. 1966). It was commissioned by Winsor Music, where Pearson is artistic director, and dedicated to her. They should have asked for their money back.
Meltzer is known for his coloristic pieces and subtle instrumental shadings, but there is a difference between reticent and tongue-tied. The oboe became the viola of a string quartet, carefully avoiding any virtuoso display of technique or the oboe’s unique timbre.
The score is supposed to illuminate American poet Kenneth Rexroth’s take on John Donne’s poem of the same name, which is already a masterpiece of metaphysical obscurity. Rexroth’s set of eight poems does nothing to clarify it, and whatever relationship the music has to the poems remains equally obscure. For what it’s worth, Donne thinks that man is angel and woman equally transparent air, or is it the other way around?
The last two movements of the work, up-tempo, with a driving rhythm, were entertaining, but an oboe cadenza somewhere would have been nice.
The evening was rescued by a brilliant performance of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s well-known Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70 (“Souvenir de Florence.”) The musicians started slowly but were soon inspired by Tchaikovsky’s rare humor and got into the spirit of the thing, ending in a break-neck gallop, which earned a standing ovation.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: