By Philippa Kiraly
One of its biggest audiences ever filled the little Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford Monday night, for the last of Simple Measure’s Fire-themed concerts. (We had Earth earlier this season, the Air group take place in April, the Water ones in May.)
It’s possible part of the draw was the return visit to Seattle of Alex Klein, the brilliant Brazilian oboist who taught at UW in the 1990s, then became principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony until he contracted focal dystonia, a neurological condition which caused weakness and unreliability in two of his fingers.
It’s good to hear him play again, apparently as superbly as ever. Now, he said during intermission, he uses those fingers more as a saxophonist would.
What was clearly apparent is that Klein has never lost the musicianship, the lip, the breathing which were always part of his performance skills.
Simple Measures’ format is geared to bring the audience into the musical process. Excerpts from a variety of works take up the first half, and complete works come after intermission. Artistic director and cellist Rajan Krishnawami as well as the other musicians in casual dress roam around before the concert and during intermission, chatting. They tell the audience stories about the pieces before playing them and ask questions about how people felt about them after.
Monday’s eclectic selection included the lively third movement from Malcolm Arnold’s Quartet for oboe and strings; two sections from August Klughardt’s 1880 “Schilflieder” (Reed Songs) for oboe, viola and piano, on fiery passion for a ghost; William Bolcom’s “Aubade for the Continuation of Life” for oboe and piano, portraying feelings about nuclear holocaust; several of Britten’s “Temporal Variations” also for oboe and piano, likely antiwar written as they were in 1936; and the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor for violin, cello and piano, stoking the fires of romance.
Fascinating choices all, the Bolcom particularly resonated long afterward, with its sense of stark, empty, beautiful landscape with just a hint of hope and greenery three-quarters of the way through, and then back to austerity.
Later, we were treated to a very early work of Britten’s written at age 19, his Phantasy for oboe and strings, and Mozart’s entrancing Quartet for oboe and strings in F Major (in which the mischievous composer played irreverent musical jokes on the oboist Friedrich Rahm).
Fantasies are notoriously freely shaped, but Britten lets it get too sprawly here, despite some clear intimations of his genius to come.
As well as Klein and Krishnaswami, the musicians included pianist Mark Salman, violinist Artur Girsky and violist Mara Lise Gearman, the latter two both of the Seattle Symphony. Gearman’s playing was notable for the rich depth of her lower register, the tone warm, smooth and luscious as she drew it out without pushing. During the electrical storm portrayed by the piano in the Klughardt, complete with thunderous rumbles, Salman tended towards overwhelming viola and oboe, though it could have been hard not to.
However, there are few quibbles for what was a well-designed, well rehearsed program in which the players seemed closely attuned to each other.
Klein came back to Seattle specially for these four Simple Measures concerts of which Monday’s was the last. Let’s hope he will return again.
In the April group of concerts, Air-themed, clarinetist Sean Osborn joins Krishnaswami and his colleagues for music inspired by airborne creatures, and there will be avian artwork to see as well. Tickets can be bought at simplemeasures.org.