Last Tuesday in the friendly ambiance of Fleischmann Auditorium, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra (SBCO) went through one of its occasional reductive math equations. For starters, the orchestral element was removed, in keeping with the concept of the SBCO’s Chamber Players subseries. String players also had the night off in this all-winds evening, in a modest yet wholly fascinating “light” program cheekily dubbed “No Strings Attached.”
Beyond the unconventionality of the instrumental setting, the freshly devised program itself stood apart from more staid norms of chamber music presentation. From the more traditional end of the spectrum, the second half belonged to Beethoven’s Sextet in E flat, Op. 71-one of his early classical pieces, with liberal nods to heroes Mozart and Haydn. Some rough spots in the performance aside, the players offered a persuasive reading this night, and won points of intrigue for the work’s public rarity.
In the contemporary corner was film composer Gernot Wolfgang’s engaging and inventive Duo for Clarinet and Bassoon-Three Short Stories, written in 2000 for his wife, SBCO bassoonist Judith Farmer. Farmer and clarinetist Michael Grego navigated Wolfgang’s inviting and strongly jazz-tinged score with precision and a hearty sense of swing-a quality not always at the ready for classical players.
Opening the concert on a sparkingly witty note, Jacques Ibert’s Cinq Pieces for Oboe, Clarinet, and Bassoon conveyed the subtle tartness and joie de vivre of the early 20th century “Les Six” composers, a group that included Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc. As suitably evidenced in Ibert’s compact five-movement work, Les Six’s music and approach seems to sound better and better of late, in this post-serial era.
Representing an entirely different aspect of the French repertoire, French horn player Jenny Kim gave a brave and bold solo reading of a short blast of music by Olivier Messiaen, the “Appel Interstellaire” section of his grand, 12-movement Des Canyons aux Etoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars), heard en toto at the Ojai Festival several years back when the composer himself was an artist-in-residence.
Even in this too-brief snippet of Messiaen’s music, we got a good taste of the late composer’s signature modernist language and also of his innate religiosity, individuality, and love of nature. But Messiaen’s “nature” music eschews breezy sentimentality, instead conveying the ruggedness and imperturbability of life beyond man’s control, a stern lesson we are learning once again from the Tea Fire.