A program built around Pan, the "nourisher" of flocks and herds is no easy task—messing about with deities is not for the timid! But those fortunate enough to attend the latest offering from the Gallery Players of Niagara feasted on a wide array of sustenance from the infrequently visited repertoire for flute, oboe and piano.
The goat-god’s surrogate for the initial offering was Jean-Michel Damase in the form of his 1961 Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano. No doubt the composer was aware of Pan’s storied ability to “cause groups of people to be seized with uncontrollable fear.” No worries: guest artist and oboist extraordinaire, James Mason forewarned the consonance-dependent throng that in the opening measures “you might be worried” and that pleasant tunes and chords would soon reward those who braved the cacophony.
The “Molto moderato” did have a dissonant bite and harmonic progressions that would fail most conservatory exams, but soon gave way to a Poulenc-hued pastorale motif that went through its own metamorphosis from “Oh When the Saints” to “Danny Boy.” While the oboe and flute (Douglas Miller) interplayed with perfect balance and conversational aplomb, guest pianist Anya Alexeyev provided discreet and thoughtful support. Wonderful was the colour of the unison wind line as the piano moved the proceedings along before all disappeared with quiet ethos.
The dotted rhythms of second movement were instantly charming—animé on the road to animation. A dash of Shostakovitch was well received as was Mason’s free-flowing legato that effectively pulled his lines off the page. The last “adieu” with its unifying endnote satisfied greatly.
The “Allegro scherzando” was a heady study of dry vs. long, complete with capricious car horns to move some of the less worthy notes out of the path. The busy winds were snared in a couple of traps before the ominous pedal from the keyboard calmed the music to a delicate close.
In his early remarks, Miller opined that the Trio could have ended here, however Damase had reassembled his favourite bits into an additional movement of review. Some amongst us could only conclude that Pan’s Latin root pascere “to graze” must have been taken to heart as the second feeding sank the sated listeners before poaching the “Allegro con spirito’s” farewell, rather than finish the meal with a bang.
Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphoses After Ovid (a 15-book collection of transformation plays) is a musical and technical tour de force that leaves the oboe truly seul for its six sections. Mason’s traversal featured his ever-appealing flexible tone, well-built phrases and embouchure/reed control that personified Bacchus’ love of the grape without losing a drop! Mason also had the courage to offer a wide dynamic range, even at the expense of solid gold tone.
Yet, how he arranged for a light plane to fly by Rodman Hall just as his Arethusa flew from the love of Alpheus must remain a mystery for the gods.
Following the break, the indefatigable oboist returned for the Herculean task of Schumann’s Three Romances, which have tested the mettle of wind players no matter in which form they appear. From the opening bars it was immediately clear that Mason and Alexeyev were at one with the music, their phrasing, rubato and weight on the same page. Only a few pearls of harmonic subtext were left to harvest; there was amazingly little fatigue in evidence by the time these essays disappeared into the mists of melodic bliss.
Miller’s solo contribution soared far above the clouds thanks to his decision to render the reverberation requirements of Robert Evan’s Thoronet by employing digital wizardry where no lofty ceilings flanked by massive stone walls exist. The resultant homogeneity of his stellar tone engaged the audience from first breath to last, artfully demonstrating the power of well-crafted sound as the end of this means.
Following the much-anticipated unveiling of a pair of reupholstered stools, the concert closed in the musical salon of the seldom-heard Madeleine Dring. Truly a party piece, the music paid more tributes to other composers than a John Williams score. In the “Andante semplice,” the composer managed to conjure up an aural image of how Rachmaninoff might have sounded without lessons.
Here, the performers made the music sound better than it actually was, quashing the need to invoke the wrath of any Greek deity with regards to the artistic capabilities of the multi-disciplined composer. JWR