By Ted AYALA
Turning away from the overripe romanticism that had formerly held the reigns on music – a romanticism which was to a large extent invalidated in the eyes of many by the mechanical horror wrought from World War I – composers of the 1920s instead found their inspiration in the classical era of Haydn and Mozart. With Igor Stravinsky leading the way, composers of the time were drawn to 18th century order and discipline – albeit tweaked with a very modern sense of irony.
Francis Poulenc’s “Trio for Piano, Oboe, and Bassoon,” which was played on Sunday by members of Pacific Serenades at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church, was emblematic of that time. Classical melodies and cadences whirled about giddily with youthful insouciance, spiced with a heady voluptuousness that teeters away from the Rococo drawing room and into the smoky dank of a Paris cabaret.
That yearning for classical order and civilized musical discourse was also grasped at by Stephen Cohn in his “Bellscape” for winds and piano, the 110th work commissioned by Pacific Serenades. But where Poulenc explicitly based his music on classical form, Cohn instead is drawn to an inner elegance, the idea of elegance rather than its outward manifestation.
“My own idea in this composition is to carry forward this type of [civilized] dialogue into the 21st century,” he said in a brief introductory preamble that explained the piece’s roots in Mozart’s “Quintet for Piano and Winds.” “I wanted to spend a bit of time with Mozart.”
Beginning with a lonely, rising scalar motif, winding itself tightly throughout the piece, which then is answered with a chorale in the winds, “Bellscape” was a piece of luminous, if frosty, beauty that recalled Samuel Barber in a twilight mood. A fascinating, if somewhat inscrutable, work.
Mozart’s Quintet, around which Sunday’s program gravitated, made an appearance, its radiant, sparkling joy conveyed effortlessly by the Pacific Serenades players.
Opening the program was Camille Saint-Saëns’ late “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano,” a piece heavy with nostalgic yearning for the world that Poulenc and his contemporaries sought to bring down. The melancholy of the work gives it an autumnal glow, streaking it with a wistful sadness that never descends into darkness. The past is gone, the work seems to say, but its memories remain to cherish and haunt us.
The musicians assembled by Pacific Serenades were uniformly excellent, brimming with technical virtuosity that was carefully tethered to a mature and sensitive musical vision. Unifying the program was pianist Joanna Pearce Martin, who serves as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s principal keyboardist. Her warm playing and careful attention to coloring and shading of harmonic modulations were a pure delight. In the Poulenc and Mozart she could be rambunctious and impish, producing a lustrous, sparkling tone.
Her colleagues – Jennifer Johnson (oboe), Gary Gray (clarinet), Judith Farmer (bassoon), and Richard Todd (French horn) – were equally brilliant. Gray’s clarinet playing poured over the listener’s ears like molten chocolate, seducing the listener with his pliant expressiveness and poignant vulnerability.