The final concert of the Gallery Players of Niagara’s 2005-2006 season was a picture-perfect snapshot as to why this ensemble deserves public support and funder assistance. In a stroke of programming brilliance, the first half’s three slight works set the table for one of the chamber repertoire’s finest trios. But let’s be sure, while the French horn is not a regular participant in the music-with-piano catalogue, its contribution to dozens of other one-player-per-part works is considerable.
The program opened with Franz Doppler’s Nocturne, a tasty confection of wee tunes and impressive, near-excessive embellishments. Pianist David Louie immediately set the tempo and tone before slipping into the background to support his colleagues. GPN Regulars Julie Baumgartel (violin) and Douglas Miller (flute) dashed through their many obligatos with zest and style—the natural foil to special guest Derek Conrod, whose mellow, sunny French horn tone—in turn—mirrored the unseasonably warm sunbeams just a few feet away.
Jan Bach’s (most certainly no relation to the famous Lutheran tribe) contributions from two of his Four 2-Bit Contraptions for flute and horn, allowed Conrod to provide both stand-up banter and bar-stool artistry. In “Calliope,” the fearless Miller served up both the easily forgettable tune and the waltz’s “chunk-chunk” with commendable style and grace. With a melody reminiscent of “Bringing in the Sheaves” (and Charles Ives lurking in every bar), “Gramophone” skipped ahead with loony, muted abandon and by the end was—literally—up to scratch.
Reworking a masterpiece is a dangerous and daunting task. More a musician who happens to play the flute, than a flute player, the circular-breathing Miller’s love of Schubert’s E-flat Major Impromptu (D. 899) inspired him to fashion this magnificent “perpetual motion” essay from its usual solo into a duo. Moving everything a tone higher completed the “tampering” but for those of us who believe that composers hear tonalities rather than choose them, the ear was startled with more than just the obvious change of colour. For his part, Louie (whose own right hand must have been wondering why it received such a light sentence) matched Miller’s conviction. Surprisingly, the finest moments came not from the whirlwind of endless triplets, but the more impassioned insistence of the second subject. Like Beethoven’s “Spring” Sonata (cross-reference below) the result is an intriguing take on a familiar friend that will add extra reverence for the original when next its acquaintance is made.
The performance of Brahms’ “horn” Trio was an ideal way to cap the popular series. Filled with passion, reckless energy and sublime reverence (once the slightly uneven opening “Andante” completed its especial journey), the remaining movements left the enthusiastic audience clamouring for more. Conrod’s interventions (at times echoing the eerie magic of Op.17, where Brahms mixes a pair of horns, harp and women’s chorus to stunning effect) grew in intensity with every line; only a drier staccato—to match Baumgartel’s arid spiccato—could have improved the outcome.
From the first burst of the playfully gruff “Scherzo,” through the pensive, thoughtful “Adagio mesto” (a homage any mother would relish, intriguingly foreshadowing the radiant Second Symphony to come), to the headily syncopated, pedal-rich “Finale,” Louie took charge and never let go. He dove in immediately, inspiring his more than willing collaborators at every phrase, breath and transition to dig far beneath mere notes, making time stand still as the art was greedily savoured by all.
Happy to report that there’s more to come, for The Brahms Cycle Continues in 2006-2007. Can’t wait for another helping! JWR