Judith LeClair & Robert Walters at Hidden Valley

By Monica Mendoza

MORE SURPRISES and hidden gems were uncovered at the latest concert, Monday evening, in Hidden Valley’s Masters series. Instead of just one musician being featured, this particular concert offered the talents of two, Robert Walters on the English horn and Judith LeClair on the bassoon. In addition, two talented accompanists helped to bring the music to life.

Masterclasses are about training the next generation of musicians and music lovers, and the first pieces presented by Walters in his masterclass concert were written by his father, also named Robert Walters. Pianist/composer Edward “Teddy” Niedermaier provided accompaniment. This lovely and metaphorical ‘passing of the torch’ from father to son could not have been more appropriate for the setting. Titled On Being Alone and Lullaby, these two compositions deserve to be staples of English Horn repertoire.

What happened next was, in Walters’ own words, “a rare occurrence in nature.” He was speaking of a composition for two English Horns and piano, a true rarity. Composed by Josef Suk (Antonín Dvořák’s son in law), Intermezzo: Die blinden Spiellente was a one of the highlights of the evening. Walters was joined by fellow English horn player Thomas Moore, and their tones had two distinct qualities, but they blended together seamlessly like the two hands of a pianist. Within the acoustics of the room, the piece had an ethereal, fairy-tale quality to it.

Walters’ final piece of the evening was a Sonata for English horn and piano, composed ten years ago by none other than Teddy Niedermaier on a commission from Hidden Valley. It is always a privilege to hear a composer discuss their works, and Niedermaier spoke briefly about his composition, a piece with the idea of a romantic style sonata with contemporary harmonic sensibilities.

After a brief intermission Judith LeClair came onstage with pianist Zsolt Balogh, who was celebrating his birthday that day. The first piece that she presented was a romantic era composition by Eugene Jancourt (famous for “not that much,” LeClair jested). Jancourt may not be a composer that any of us have heard of, but the piece presented, Solo No. 2 Op 52, had all the drama and emotional intensity of an opera overture. Not only was it highly expressive, we were also treated to a show of the technical mastery LeClair has over her instrument.

The penultimate piece of the evening was an arrangement of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Flute and Piano. As a flutist myself, when I saw this item on the program I was quite intrigued, and was looking forward to it. It is difficult to take a piece written for one instrument and transfer it to another, but for the most part it worked. Poulenc’s witty style of composing suits the bassoon, often nicknamed the ‘clown’ of the orchestra. The only place where I feel it fell short was at a critical spot in the third movement. In the original, this is a place where the tension is at its highest, with the flute repeating a fragment of melody, each time a half step higher. This ramps up the stakes, so to speak, because it pushes the limit of the flute’s range. In this transcription for bassoon, this section was placed in the middle of the instrument’s range, and therefore lacked that urgency. That being said, it was a treat to hear this piece through a new lens, especially with LeClair’s terrific playing.

The final piece was an arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, featuring three students from the bassoon masterclass, with LeClair, Emmali Ouderkirk and Soo Yeon Lee on bassoon and Jeffrey Wasik on contrabassoon. It was the perfect end to the evening, and it was lovely to see the pride that LeClair has for her students. After the past few concerts in the Hidden Valley Masters series, I am looking forward to the next recital on July 2nd, featuring Emil Khudyev on clarinet.

 

Elaine Douvas oboe recital

By Monica Mendoza

HIDDEN VALLEY Music Seminars lies deep in California wine country, so it seems appropriate to me to describe oboist Elaine Douvas’ playing the way one would describe fine wine. Her sound filled the room and had a warm, oaken quality. Throughout music history, the oboe has been entrusted with many now-famous solo lines. However, Douvas’ recital at Hidden Valley on Monday was like looking at the oboe through a magnifying glass.

The first work on the program was Oboe Concerto in B-flat by George Frederic Handel. Though the program indicates that it was written in 1740, Douvas explained that it is more likely that he wrote it earlier in his life, around the age of 34. Though it only clocks in at a mere seven minutes, this piece showcases many of the essential skills that make a great oboist. Her breaths were taken in strategic places, and were so quick and efficient that they were nearly invisible. I didn’t notice any breaths until late in the piece when I realized I should try listening for them, which is a testament to Douvas’ extraordinary breathing technique. Another skill displayed was her ability to vary her dynamics greatly. In the second movement, the oboe enters on a middle F, which sounded so softly that it almost seemed to have no beginning at all.

After Douvas presented the Handel Concerto, a guest artist named Liam Boisset came onstage to perform an adaptation of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 5, “Spring”. This sonata is prominent in violin repertoire, so I was quite curious to hear what it would sound like on the oboe. The feel of a piece is often different when it is arranged for another instrument, and while it was indeed different, Boisset played it as if it was written for the oboe. He hit high notes effortlessly and his breaths were placed strategically. It makes sense that Boisset displayed the same strengths as Douvas; the program explained that he spent time studying under her.

Lasting a little longer than twenty minutes, the “Spring” Sonata is a taxing piece to perform, especially on the oboe, which takes much control and energy, and Boisset sustained both until the very end. Something special that added to the performance was that for the “Spring” Sonata the barn doors of the Hidden Valley recital hall were opened, flooding the audience and performers in the last light of the day.

After a short intermission, Douvas returned for Drei Romanzen by Robert Schumann. These three short romances were written for Schumann’s wife, Clara. He wore his love for Clara on his sleeve, and he wrote some of his most enduring vocal pieces for her as well, like a wedding present. Though not as technically challenging as the Handel or Beethoven, Drei Romanzen shows the tender aspect of the oboe that has enchanted composers throughout the musical eras. These pieces also required much communication between the oboe and the piano, and the accompanist Zsolt Balogh (who gives his name as “Joel” at Starbucks, as we were told in an interlude between pieces) did a tremendous job both here and throughout the concert.

The final piece of the evening was a double concerto. Originally composed for oboe and violin, both Douvas and Boisset performed JS Bach’s Concerto in C minor. Douvas performed the original oboe part while Boisset tackled the violin part. I noticed that the oboe part has more lyricism, while the violin does a lot of very quick runs and arpeggios.

The duo performed with a lot of energy in the outer Allegro movements, displaying much technical facility. The Adagio movement sounded almost like an operatic duet, and the two oboes blended their sound so well that it sounded like one oboe was somehow playing both lines. It was one of the finest moments of the concert. In the end, the audience was brought to their feet and gave a well-deserved ovation.

Hidden Valley’s 2018 Masters Festival will continue with Judith LeClair (bassoon) and Robert Walters (English horn) on June 25th.