Ensemble Monterey, November 4, 2013

HARMONIES OF AUTUMN

By Scott MacClelland

In the mind’s ear, as in nature itself, the harvest season speaks in strong tones of red, orange, brown and gold. What better way then for Ensemble Monterey to open its 2013-14 season than with Mozart’s Gran Partita, the greatest “serenade” for wind instruments ever written. The word partita originally implied variations on a theme, but in Baroque practice it became synonymous with the suite of dance movements that spread from its French origins throughout Europe. In Mozart’s time serenades, cassations, notturnos and divertimentos were casually interchangeable, their French dance movements often replaced with classical sonata movements, variations, rondos, etc. If composed for winds, they were suitable for playing outdoors.

Such works were designed as classical background music; as such not unlike the fare offered by commercial classical radio. Yet, in Mozart’s case, they often rose to the unforgettable—indeed, inescapable, like Eine kleine Nachtmusik—because of the composer’s seeming inability to write second-rate music. (For the record, Mozart composed at least 45 such works, 24 of which were for wind ensembles.)

With this concert, director John Anderson has chosen a new Monterey-area venue, St. Philip’s Lutheran Church in Carmel Valley, an intimate room with lively acoustics. Too lively, it turned out, for the program-opening Suite in B-flat, Op. 4, by the young Richard Strauss. A Mozart-lover, Strauss wrote for the same complement as his idol (13 winds plus one double bass) but sustained dense textures at length where Mozart typically alternated the full ensemble with cameos of fewer players. Moreover, the four horns simply played too loud for the space. (Anderson succeeded in toning them down for the Mozart, to much better effect.)

Yet, as young as Strauss was at the time—19 or 20—he does display flashes of his mature self. The gavotte (yes, this was also an exercise in his knowledge of the Baroque as the commission from Hans von Bülow expected) contains mischievous predictions of Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. And the final fugue, using an ungrateful fugal subject, also imagines Till, and even anticipates the composer Paul Hindemith.

basset-hound-howard_34698_990x742The 50-minute, seven-movement Mozart serenade contains just about everything in the composer’s magic box up to the time of its composition, circa 1781, including opera buffa bits. Thanks to clarinetist Anton Stadler, the instrument, and its sibling basset horn (right, in a Hallowe’en costume), had ingratiated itself with the composer. Flutes, oboes and bassoons fill up the complement. The horn was no less a partner for its esteemed ability to blend with woodwinds. The lineup of movements makes plain the light overall character of the piece, including minuets and trios, theme and variations, a seductively expressive adagio, and a mini-serenade all its own in the Romance movement. In concert, however, it’s impossible to relegate this fabulous music to the background. It leaves the listener wanting more.

Ensemble Monterey’s next concert, in early February, will include works by three living Americans—Joseph Schwantner, John Wineglass and Stephen Tosh—and one dead Frenchman, Albert Roussel.