LeClair & Walters Master Classes

LeClairBy Scott MacClelland

‘QUADRUPLE YOUR PLEASURE with double-reeds times two,’ might have been a selling point for Friday’s concert, the third in this year’s Masters Festival at Hidden Valley Music Seminars. Bassoonist Judith LeClair, principal at the New York Philharmonic for 36 years, and Robert Walters, solo English horn (cor anglais) for the Cleveland Orchestra since 2004, entertained the students from their two master classes, plus a good-sized crowd of local fans, in a short but fabulous program in the intimate barn-setting in Carmel Valley.

LeClair’s class attracted seven, while Walters’ brought along five. But for two from Korea in LeClair’s class, the others came from all over the USA. The two master teachers played one piece together, the modal “medieval” Suite for English horn and Bassoon of 1937 by Alan Hovhaness. Otherwise, Walters’ partner was pianist Teddy Niedermaier while Zsolt Balogh accompanied LeClair, both excellent and sensitive musicians.

Walters took the opening set, with a brief and very early Romanze by Sibelius written for his violin-playing self. A short set of variations on a menuet from a Haydn piano sonata composed in 1968 by Hendrik Andriessen followed. It was a rare treat for a couple of reasons. The Haydn original, which opened the piece alone, was clearly based on its harmonic structure and not a melody per se, which, Walters said, was what gave Andriessen his opportunity to superimpose the melodic line for the cor anglais. (I later asked Niedermaier if he knew which Haydn sonata it came from and his choice turned out to be incorrect. He did mention the Hoboken catalog number XVI, and while I believe it does come from a sonata in that collection I was unable to pin it down.)

Walters explained that finding cor anglais literature was a challenge, hence his practice of playing arrangements of works composed for other instruments of the alto register. But he made no apology for playing the alto-saxophone rhapsody by Debussy. It is well known that Debussy wrote the piece for the commission, not the pleasure—or lack of it—at hearing it played on the alto sax. Yet it is quite a good piece and a pleasure to hear on the alto oboe.

After the Hovhaness duet, LeClair introduced the bassoon sonata by Charles Koechlin, a prolific French composer (1867-1950) who deserves far more appreciation than he has ever gotten—at least outside of France. (His 90-minute Kipling-inspired Jungle Book symphonic poems is a favorite in my library.) The 10-minute sonata exhibits some of the Middle-Eastern exoticism heard in several others of his works.

Lastly came five movements from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, originally arranged for cello and piano by Gregor Piatigorsky, later approved by the composer, as Suite Italienne. This arrangement was made by LeClair’s master class student Cornelia Sommer (see photo, with LeClair and Walters) and gave LeClair a devilish workout. The blistering fourth movement, Gavotta con due variazioni, caused LeClair to both sweat and hyperventilate, but she held it together like the master musician she is. (And, she had the rest of the week’s master class to take revenge, if so inclined.)

Pianist Jura Margulis


By Scott MacClelland

JURA MARGULIS has been playing annual piano recitals at Hidden Valley off and on for about 15 years. To that end, and thanks to a warm relationship with Hidden Valley’s Peter Meckel, Margulis brings with him an international career as a concert artist, well-known to major symphony orchestras and festivals worldwide. Moreover, he is a sought-after competition judge and administrator.

For his Hidden Valley concert last week, he served up six sonatas—originally for harpsichord—by Domenico Scarlatti, an atonal Poeme of 1914 by Alexander Scriabin and the sprawling early Sonata in F Minor of 1852-3 by Johannes Brahms. Margulis spoke eloquently about these works before starting to play them.

In considering the Baroque giants, JS Bach and George F Handel, one should recognize that Scarlatti, their exact contemporary, and then working in Spain, was at the forefront of the coming Classical style. There are similarities, especially between Scarlatti and the keyboard and instrumental music of Handel, yet Scarlatti seems to have a clearer idea of what was on the horizon. (He also had contemporaries in Spain, like Antonio Soler, who likewise fell in line.)

Like Handel, Scarlatti’s sonatas are all in binary form (AABB) and rooted in dance. The first of them, in F Minor, at nine minutes the most expansive and circumspect in nearly romantic expression, was followed in turn by shorter ones in mostly more animated character. Three of the six are among the best known (most popular?) of Scarlatti’s sonatas: the E Major with its trumpet-like fanfares, and the two in D Minor. The second of them, played last, fast and furious got a virtuosic aggression that was Beethovenian, a truly long distance vision. The G Major sonata was also fast and the second E Major both danceable and joyous.

There is a lot of interpretive latitude in these pieces and Margulis said he was not going to try to imitate the harpsichord. Indeed, here and elsewhere, he displayed both a fluid grace and a sharply percussive touch that sometimes might have been better called for in a larger venue than the intimate Hidden Valley ‘barn.’

Scriabin’s Poeme “Vers la flamme” (Toward the flame) was written just before the composer’s death from sepsis at age 42. A simple melody is soon encrusted with atonal harmonies and intense tremolos that rise to an ecstatic climax bringing to mind some of the piano music of Olivier Messiaen. But there was order not chaos in the piece as might have been the experience of anyone not familiar with it.

By the age of 20 Brahms had already composed his first three piano sonatas—before he first met Robert Schumann, the composer who would have the most far-ranging influence on the younger man’s music. The three sonatas, Opp 1, 2 and 5, are astoundingly ambitious; together they take an hour and forty minutes to perform. In them one hears—and feels—the tension between romantic excess (Dionysus) and classical restraint (Apollo) underpinned by startling rhythmic originality. We may thank one Eduard Marxsen, Brahms’ piano teacher, for reinforcing these qualities and stressing classical architecture to his gifted pupil.

Of the three sonatas, the third, at fully five movements, comes in at 40 minutes. I don’t remember if it was ever played here before, hence this guide: The first movement charges in with Allegro maestoso that then alternates with discursive reflection. The following Andante espressivo features a broad, songful melody and melting harmonies. The Scherzo, symphonic in the Lisztian sense, parries off against a gentler trio. The ensuing Intermezzo follows a funereal cadence. The Finale features a soaring, sturdy theme and lapses briefly into a fughetta. Brahms displays remarkable mastery over these elements, even as his later artistic personality has not yet come into full bloom. But his use of ‘call and response’ couplets—a hallmark of his mature style—is frequently evident.

This performance by the commanding Mr. Margulis made me wish I had attended his previous concerts at Hidden Valley. From the familiar faces in the audience, and their response, I could tell I was the new kid.