Dallas — The Basically Beethoven Festival, under the auspices of the Fine Arts Chamber Players and the festival's artistic director Alex McDonald, ended its summer season at Moody Performance Hall with a “Paris Connections” concert that included several seldom-heard chamber pieces written for flute and strings—not a combination we usually experience, and surely the reason for their less frequent performance. And what a shame that is! More commonly, the flute is paired with other wind instruments, and strings with members of their own instrument “family.” The flute sound is so different from that of the strings that the combination might easily come off sounding more like a concerto for flute, rather than a grouping of different but equal instruments. In the hands of guest flutist Margaret Fischer, this effect was minimized by her artistry and unfailing sense of ensemble.
Fischer opened with Baroque music by François Devienne (1759-1803), his Duo no. 5 for flute and viola. Violist Lauren Menard joined Fischer to perform this sparsely scored work. Devienne was a flutist and bassoonist, and one of the first faculty members of the Paris Conservatoire. He wrote a lot of music for those instruments in an effort to expand the limited repertoire available at the time.
Devienne’s duo is a charming example of Baroque counterpoint. Menard and Fischer approached this piece with a laudable unity of concept, playing with clarity supplemented by lovely phrasing and precise ensemble work. The flute part, being kept mostly in the middle to low register, makes it hard even for an excellent flutist such as Fischer to project over or match the rich tone of the viola. But that was probably, at the time, the best strategy Devienne could devise to use the frequently out-of-tune instruments he had available.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was up next with his Flute Quartet in D major, K. 285. Fischer and Menard were joined by violinist Lucas Aleman and cellist Una Gong. On hearing, it’s hard to believe Mozart didn’t care for the flute, though understandable in that the flute of his time was far inferior to the modern instrument. But Mozart needed money, always, and the commission to write a series of pieces for flute must have been most welcome. As in the preceding work, Mozart kept the flute mostly in the midrange, and for the same reason.
The highlight of the quartet was the beautifully played slow movement, which uses the flute as a vocalist and the strings as a guitar with pizzicati throughout. The operas Mozart would later produce are foreshadowed in this movement, and Fischer proved an admirable vocalist. The last movement gave Aleman a solo turn on the violin, and he clearly loved it. A little more enjoyment from the others would have helped the whole performance.
Next was a most interesting piece, in that Maurice Ravel wrote it in large form, as a sonata, but for a very small ensemble—a single violin and cello. Ravel’s unparalleled orchestration abilities were really put to the test writing for such a miniscule grouping, but once settled into Ravel’s soundscape, it became clear to the listener that the addition of any more instruments would be intrusive. Returning violinist Aleman and cellist Gong gave this work a superb performance, in spite of Gong’s trouble tuning her instrument. Both players have great technical abilities, but it was their accurate realization of Ravel’s frequent use of contrasting and concurrent (but differing) rhythmic patterns that kept the performance on its toes. The second movement asks for some rough and raucous playing, and the pair delivered it with gusto. Their aggressive performance of the music was reminiscent of the some of the brutal passages of Bartok and Prokofiev, but with an overlay of French au jus. While both musicians were excellent, it was Aleman who stood out.
The program closed with another intriguing oddity of the Impressionist era, Claude Debussy’s Six Epigraphes Antiques. For the piece, Fischer was joined again by Aleman, Menard, and Gong. The history of this work is a bit complicated. Originally written for ballet, and for an odd collection of instruments, Debussy made some four-hand arrangements for piano, and even planned a version for orchestra that remained incomplete at his death. Since then, these six selections have been extracted and re-worked by a variety of well-known musicians, including the virtuoso flutist Bernard Chapron, who created this fine arrangement.
All six epigraphes (the French word translates as an inscription/dedication/motto, perhaps on a building or a literary work) are relatively short and unmistakably Debussy. In fact, the opening solo flute passage is very similar to the opening of his gossamer L'Après-midi d'un faune.
The entrance of the strings is surprisingly rich and resonant coming from only three players. Different string techniques are used, including a nervous tremolo that sounded like a disturbingly dark wind. Each of the instruments has its own featured moment, all of which were beautifully played. In their hands, these solo passages seemed to rise out of the structure rather than stepping forward to taking a solo stand. Alas, all too soon the brief pieces ended and the spell was dispersed, all of it ending with a single soft pizzicato.
The afternoon began with a performance by the featured “Rising Star” musicians. Throughout the festival these young musicians, on the path to major careers, have acquitted themselves very well. Violinist Anais Feller and pianist Ella Tran rose to the occasion to give an excellent reading of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8, op. 30 no. 3—a work that is equally taxing for both players. The piano slightly overpowered Feller’s sound, which might have been helped by closing the piano’s lid. Overall this was a reflective performance, almost dispassionate. The last movement was rushed to the point of creating ensemble troubles, and the performance limped to the ending. But these are common errors made by young musicians, and a minor issue here.
There was a slight disturbance during the Beethoven, apparently an interaction between two members of the audience about the scattered applause being heard between movements. After the performance ended, artistic director Alex McDonald returned to the stage to reassure everyone that audiences at Basically Beethoven concerts are encouraged to applaud whenever they wish.
Good for him.