Hidden Valley Masters Festival — Robert Walters and Judith LeClair

Robert Walters, English Horn & Judith LeClair, bassoon

Does it gets any better? We enjoyed a warm balmy evening, an intimate audience and another opportunity to hear two fabulous principal players of the New York Philharmonic. English hornist Robert Walters and bassoonist Judith LeClair were back with us again to share the limelight at Hidden Valley’s Masters Festival — not only to present concerts, but also to attract gifted young woodwind players who come from long distances to spend a week receiving instruction and mentoring from the featured players, plus also an opportunity to participate in master classes. 

As a special feature in tonight’s concert, one of the gifted young festival participants, Cornelia, (aka “Nellie”) Summers contributed to the evening’s program with her own arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite for solo bassoon and piano, written specifically for Judith LeClair.

One thing you can always count on in concerts during the Master Festival is that you are going to be hearing some unfamiliar music for unusual combinations of instruments. Additionally, a lot of it will be transcriptions, since the repertoire for English horn solo and bassoon solo is very small.

Sure enough, the opening work on the program was Romance, Op. 2a, by Sibelius, performed by LeClair and the very gifted pianist Teddy Niedermaier. Although this was originally a work from the violin repertoire, this version sounded quite idiomatic for the English horn and featured some lovely playing from both musicians.

The second work on the program, Variations on a Theme by Josef Haydn by Hendrik Andriessen, featured a theme from an early piano sonata by Haydn. This theme was transformed into rather a substantial work featuring some French influence from Debussy, but ultimately emerging with some very striking chromaticism into a fascinating work that demonstrated Walters’ unique sound and skillful navigation through many thorny passages. This work was as much for the piano as it was for English horn, and pianist Niedermaier impressed us with his easy mastery of a complex and difficult score, plus also producing a rich tonal palette and some lovely phrasing.

The closing work on the first half of the program was Rapsodie by Debussy, a work Mr. Walters informed us was borrowed from an alto sax piece composed for a woman who suffered from asthma and found that playing the sax alleviated its symptoms. It is a lovely piece and was very nicely performed by Walters and Niedermaier.

The second half of the concert began with a Suite for English Horn and Bassoon by Alan Hovaness. Often we are accustomed to hearing three-movement works that are like a sandwich consisting of two fast movements with a slow movement in the middle. Not so from Mr. Hovaness, who in this work gave us a sandwich of two slow movements with a fast movement in the middle. And, what an interesting fast movement it was, for it seemed to have Gaelic influences, almost like an Irish Jig. The slower movements were dark and serious. We need to hear more Hovaness.

Zsolt Balogh & Judith LeClair

The next portion of the program featured the wizardry of pianist Zsolt Balogh and Judith LeClair in the Sonata for Bassoon and Piano by Charles Koechlin, a work with a distinctly French sound, — at times dark and mysterious, but with a spritely and rhythmically satisfying final movement.

The program ended with Nellie Summer’s clever arrangement of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. This familiar work managed to sound fresh once again in a performance that was totally involving. LeClair was challenged by some fast moving and incredibly complicated passages for the bassoon, in which it was fun to watch her scrambling successfully at the speed of light and never seeming to stop to take a breath. I enjoyed the show — it was sort of like watching an elephant tap dancing. Pianist Balogh is a marvel. His playing was totally masterful and charming. His collaboration added immeasurably to the success of the performance.

It was a great evening.


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