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.)