Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: Richmond Chamber Players

Aug. 4, Bon Air Presbyterian Church

All-anybody programs – those devoted to music of a single composer – should be approached with caution, in my experience. Most composers have a style, tone of voice and bag of technical and expressive tricks that didn’t change radically over their creative lives; two hours’ exposure to that one voice, even in works with varied formats and performance configurations, all too often becomes monotonous.

Under the new management of violist Stephen Schmidt and his wife, Holly Rose Schmidt, the Richmond Chamber Players took that chance with a program devoted entirely to music of the French composer Francis Poulenc in the opening concert of the ensemble’s Interlude 2013 series. (This year marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death.)

Poulenc, actually, is a safer bet than most for all-in treatment. He was one of the most versatile composers of the 20th century – brilliant in theatrical music and song, cogent and craftsmanlike in more abstract forms – and one of the most appealing in the wit and playfulness that pervades his music. He had good taste in role models (Mozart and Stravinsky, mainly), and a classical sensibility that served as a brake on excess. Not much of Poulenc sounds to have been wrenched from the soul, and not much goes on for too long.

The Chamber Players’ program centered on Poulenc’s works for winds: the sonatas for flute (1956) and clarinet (1962), and the irresistible Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, written in 1926 when the composer was a mainstay of Les Six, the up-and-comers of new music in Paris.

Added to this mix were the “Suite française” for cello and piano, a 1950s reworking of a 1935 piece for wind ensemble; “The Story of Babar the Little Elephant” (1940-46) for narrator with piano; and a sampling of Poulenc’s solo-piano music.

Carl B. Schmidt, a leading scholar and editor of the composer and his music (and father of Stephen Schmidt), narrated “Babar” and provided spoken introductions to the program. Sandrine Erdely-Sayo, a French pianist based in Philadelphia, accompanied the narrator, flutist Mary Boodell, clarinetist Jared L. Davis and cellist Neal Cary, and played the solo piano pieces. John Walter, the pianist who formerly led the Chamber Players, joined oboist Gustav Highstein and bassoonist Martin Gordon in the Trio.

Walter, Highstein and Gordon handled the Trio with refinement, balance and, most gratifyingly, the timing and expressive sensibility of gifted comedians. Erdely-Sayo played one of Poulenc’s last works, an improvisation in memory of the great chanteuse Edith Piaf, with an uncanny balance of witstfulness and solemnity, and stressed animation and color in “Three Pastorales,” one of the composer’s earliest works (and maybe the spikiest-sounding nature evocations I’ve ever heard).

Flutist Boodell and clarinetist Davis audibly savored the technical challenges and expressive opportunities of the sonatas; Cary coped sonorously and tunefully with the often low-riding cello part of the “Suite française.” Carl Schmidt was an avuncular storyteller in “Babar,” and informative without getting too deeply into scholarly weeds in his introductions.

The Richmond Chamber Players’ Interlude 2013 series continues with concerts at 3 p.m. Aug. 11, 18 and 25 at Bon Air Presbyterian Church, 9201 W. Huguenot Road. Tickets: $20. Details: (804) 217-1705;