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.