Last evening in the Academy of Vocal Arts' baroque yet intimate theatre on Spruce Street, I was privileged to hear a wonderful performance of Sir Arthur Bliss' rarely played Quintet for oboe and four strings. The Philadelphia Orchestra's principal oboist Richard Woodhams was joined by the Wister Quartet, which is the core of the presenting organization, 1807 and Friends, the now 30-year-old chamber music series. The audience members were primarily well-seasoned music lovers, joined by a passel of Curtis students, come to hear their teacher Mr. Woodhams.
Though of American parentage, Bliss spent his entire life in England and was knighted in 1950. The opening of this three movement work was mystifying, with a tonal language which did not follow the harmonic progressions that our ears, by habit, have accepted as logical. But one did become accustomed and the eventual entry of the oboe signaled a tunefulness to which Bliss regularly returned, interspersed with impetuous flights of fantasy. The range of expression was grand, from the keening lyricism of the middle movement, including a memorable long passage for oboe with pizzicato strings, to wild passion in the finale movement, based in part on "Connelly's Jig." Bliss provided a somewhat enigmatic ending to the whole thing, though not enigmatic enough to prevent the audience from demanding several curtain calls. It was a very beautiful performance, refined, with great sensitivity among all the players, and featuring Woodhams' signature control, arresting timbre, and ardent interpretation.
The Wister Quartet is comprised of violinists Nancy Bean (also the series' artistic director) and Davyd Booth, violist Pamela Fay, and 'cellist Lloyd Smith. All were variously featured in the Quintet's elaborate and telling orchestration, and they gave great pleasure in the rest of the program as well, which included the second quartet of Madalena Lombardini-Syrmen and the American Quartet of Dvorak. Their next program is November 14, with music by Dvorak, Chopin, and Beethoven.
-Chuck Holdeman, October 11, 2011
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