In her 40-year career, Carol Wincenc has played the flute as a soloist and in orchestras, but her most prominent and favorite work is in chamber music, leaning toward the contemporary. So it was no surprise that, to celebrate what she calls her Ruby anniversary, she designed three separate concerts of chamber music, each introducing a commissioned piece—or two.
She was also introducing Les Amies, her trio with violist Cynthia Phelps and harpist Nancy Allen, principals at the New York Philharmonic. The second program, at New York’s Morgan Library on February 22, had its own surprise: no matter when or where the composers lived, the music sounded French, from a Bach sonata arranged for flute and harp to premieres by Thea Musgrave (Scottish) and Andrea Clearfield (American). It all slid in with Ravel, Devienne, and, of course, Debussy. The apt French name, Les Amies, was no surprise at all.
Musgrave’s deeply colored Sunrise, with a low broad alto flute closely followed by viola and supported by harp glissandos, had a comforting French timbre (we’ve been in this world, and it conjures beautiful ice dancing). Sunrise made a smooth change from the Bach E-flat sonata arrangement where too much was going on in the harp for the room’s sound decay; what came out sounded like a furry marimba.
In Ravel’s enchanting Sonatine, a piano piece idiomatically transcribed for flute, viola, and harp by harpist Carlos Salzedo, the flute leads the viola, while the harp is plucked in the languid middle movement and stroked in the animated finale. According to Steven Ledbetter’s lucid program notes, Ravel—composer of the Introduction and Allegro, after all—was delighted with Salzedo’s arrangement.
After intermission it was all originals, beginning with the premiere of Andrea Clearfield’s appealing, open-hearted ...And Low to the Lake Falls Home. Commissioned for Wincenc in memory of her musical parents and their Irish-Slovak heritage, it was inspired by two poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and three of Adolf Heyduk.
Even when depicting plangent lines of mourning in Hopkins’s “What would the world be, once bereft, Of wet and wildness? Let them be left”, Clearfield moves her music forward with confident tonal optimism, while Heyduk’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, a text set by Dvorak, has a simple ending in thirds. Moods are skillfully evoked; good moods like the joyous flashy twittering of a freed bird or the simple thirds of Hopkins’s “to a young child” were especially persuasive. The ‘Pipes and Fiddles’ dance in the face of death had too much gaiety to be deadly; but, if similar lines were rueful rather than ominous, this good piece will be heard again.
The works of Francois Devienne, a French contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, have been largely passed over outside the woodwind world. Wincenc and Phelps played an early duo in C minor whose fluid grace and classical polish make it worth another look.
The final work, Debussy’s elegant Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, central to this repertory, made a strong summation of the back and forward-looking program. By the time this Ruby series would end on March 31 (that concert included a premiere by Joan Tower), Les Amies would have a nice stash of souvenir repertory.