Anyone in show business will tell you that humor is the toughest sell. Tougher, even, than classical music. So when the Toledo Symphony planned a program of humorous classical works for its third Blade Chamber Concert series, the outcome was anyone's guess.
And if last night members of the symphony didn't exactly have the audience rolling in the Toledo Club aisles during "In Jest," the themed concert was no lead balloon either.
In fact, amid - or perhaps in spite of - the jokes came some exceptional small ensemble music-making.
One standout in the program was the final work, a Cliff Notes-style version of Richard Strauss' symphonic tone poem "Till Eulenspiegel," arranged by Franz Hasenohrl for violin, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and double bass.
The clamor promised in opening remarks by hornist Emily Price Dietz was honest, if tasteful. But the real effect was extreme competence, dazzling effects, and a truly one-for-all level of ensemble playing. Merwin Siu, Jocelyn Langworthy, Rudi Heinrich, Dietz, and William McDevitt gave this summation all due respect and added their own brio.
Another high point - and local premiere - was Opus Number Zoo, a 20th work in four parts by Luciano Berio performed by flutist Amy Heritage, oboist Kimberly Bryden, clarinetist Georg Klaas, bassoonist Heinrich, and hornist Emilie Sargent.
Performing meant more than blowing one's horn; each player chimed in with lines from four contemporary fables written by Rhoda Levine in 1951. Berio's light serial music and the spirited delivery of lines almost but not quite obscured the deeply disturbing messages contained in Barn Dance, The Fawn, The Grey Mouse, and Tom Cats.
Here too, a strong sense of interdependence and exquisite individual playing by all five musicians maintained the credibility and power of the piece.
The program opened with a Mozart trio for piano (Valrie Kantorski), viola (Ellen Craig Archambeau), and clarinet (Chelsea Tipton II). Deceptively simple sounding, with sprightly melodies passed back and forth among the trio in three movements, it challenged the players to maintain clarity and balance without seeming to raise a sweat.
This first-time performance set a high bar for the evening and gave symphony fans a chance to see resident conductor Tipton on a different sort of hot seat.
The second Mozart work, A Musical Joke, comprised violinists Kirk Toth and Naomi Guy; violist Valentin Ragusitu, cellist Martha Reikow, and bassist McDevitt, with hornists Sandra Clark and Sargent as antagonists. In this third local premiere of the evening, the idea was a burlesque of a town band in which musical errors are compounded by other diversions. After the horn players finished wrangling about apparent wrong notes in the opening movement, they settled in for tea and chat, while the string quintet soldiered on.
It was a charming bit of theater, although it seemed at times both strained and uncertain.
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