As the Oakwood Chamber Players resumed their twenty-eighth season Saturday night, their first offering of 2011 was a textbook example of the varied and imaginative programming that makes the group a very special local treasure. It was a night for strings, piano and flute, with repertoire that included composers famous and obscure, with even the famous tunesmiths represented by works too often neglected.
The first name on the program was thoroughly unfamiliar: Mel Bonis. Thanks to the spoken program notes of flutist Marilyn Chohaney, we learned that the real name was Melanie Bonis, and from 1858-1937 led a life that outperformed most soap operas for melodrama. A classmate of Debussy and a pupil of Franck, Bonis fortunately never abandoned her gift, ultimately leaving over three hundred compositions.
Bonis’ “Suite dans le style ancient” for flute, violin, viola and piano had a long gestation, the Prelude and Fugette being premiered in 1913, the Choral and Divertissement completing the work in 1928. The earlier movements were gently somber, then bouncy and breezy. After a beautifully blended Chorale, the finale didn’t have quite the sass of Bonis’ contemporaries such as Poulenc and Milhaud. But Chohaney and violinist Leyla Sanyer, violist Christopher Dozoryst and pianist Vincent Fuh gave it all a reading worthy of an overlooked masterpiece.
It is hard to imagine that a lullaby that swings could still be lulling, but a youthful Gershwin produced one in what was originally a student exercise in harmony and string quartet writing. Replete with effervescent harmonics and buoyed by dulcet pizzicatos, his “Lullaby” rarely fails to please and impress. On a first hearing one is apt to ask “That’s Gershwin?” But on subsequent hearings a more likely reaction is “That could only have been written by Gershwin.” I first fell under the work’s brief but potent spell over thirty years ago — and Saturday night was the first time I enjoyed it in live performance. Thanks to violinist Suzanne Beia and cellist Maggie Darby Townsend, who joined Sanyer and Dozoryst, for making it worth the wait.
It has not been that many years since I first heard the “Two Pieces” by Arthur Foote, but I was equally excited to discover the OCP had scheduled this work as well. “A Night Piece” and “Scherzo” were given in the original 1918 scoring for flute, violin, viola and cello (a 1923 version for flute and string orchestra is occasionally heard). Foote (1853-1937) belongs to that generation of American composers who taught when Charles Ives came up through the ranks, and Foote and his contemporaries have for too long been quickly dismissed as mere imitators of the late 19th-century European Romantics.
It is not fair to say that Chohaney “led” the string trio of Beia, Dozoryst and Townsend, for while the flute certainly lends its distinctive timbre, the work’s strength lies in its unity of parts. Chohaney handled all of the “solo” work with elegance, but all four players deserve greater praise for the integration of the overall reading.
In the second half, OCP proved that sometimes it takes three to tango. The 2002 “Trio Tango,” Op. 71 by Miguel del Aguila might seem to owe something to the work of Astor Piazzolla who re-animated the form while paying homage to its roots. But Aguila does more here, producing a unique inner narrative, and even playing with a waltz idea along the way. Fuh, Beia and Townsend immersed themselves in the miniature drams, while never losing sight of the fact that a sly sense of humor was always just around the corner.
Fuh was the one who ultimately was put to the greatest technical tests of the night in Saint-Saens Quartet, Op. 41. With Sanyer now back with Dozoryst and Townsend, the work initially lacks personality, but more than makes up for it as the four movements unfold. By far the longest work of the night, the capacity crowd at the Oakwood Village West Auditorium seemed in no mood to cut the evening short, delivering a long and richly earned ovation.