The demanding artistry of chamber music is no stranger to the musicians of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra (OPO). Different ensembles of the OPO have performed in the past at Orlando's Shakespeare Theatre, but the intimate, yet casual setting of the MEZZ , inside downtown Orlando's Sanctuary Building, makes for a totally new atmosphere for this kind of music.
Principal wind players Colleen Blagov, flute; Jamie Strefeler, oboe; Nikolay Blagov, clarinet; Diane Bishop, bassoon and Mark Fischer, horn, delivered a consummate performance of music for this special ensemble that was entertaining, loud, technically striking and every bit as impressive as recent OPO concerts of music for full orchestra.
Mozart's Divertimento No. 12, a light piece for social settings, served as a serene introduction for the more modern selections that followed. Poised in their chairs, with sheet music ready, a furtive glance from the horn player across the oboist into the flutist set off the silent counting of the beat before each movement and started the music smoothly, as if they had already been playing.
The quintet's performance of Malcolm Arnold's highly imaginative Three Shanties was spectacular. The quirkiness of the piece, especially in the first and third movements, was well captured and the audience's reaction was evident.
For example the rhythmic change in the first movement, where the bassoon introduces a four-note figure in a slower tempo, and a while later snaps back to the jaunty opening rhythm, caused some laughs from the well-dressed crowd. The sudden waltz in the third movement, reminiscent of circus music, was equally comical.
Strefeler was the star of the arrangement for quintet of Ravel's gorgeous Le Tombeau de Couperin. Her dexterous finger work gave off a clean and loud intonation, showing very clearly the nasal qualities of the instrument's timbre. The most impressive movement was the fugue, in which the melody is passed from flute, to oboe, to clarinet. The group synchronicity was precise, and resulted in a tightly-wound performance of this delicate homage to Couperin.
The most interesting aspect of the performance of Piazzolla's famous Libertango was the arrangement of the original parts for wind quintet. The relentless main melody (originally for bandoneon, a type of accordion typical of tango) sounded somewhat subdued in the texture, at first, and emerged on the bassoon. Bishop's playing, as the piece progressed, was thick and loud, adding to the highly rhythmic flavor of this Latin-American music.
For Jean Françaix's eccentric Quintette, the stamina of the flute and clarinet was tested. Colleen and Nikolay took the challenge quite seriously and dazzled the audience with incessant flurries up and down the scale. The lines for clarinet are especially demanding, and the amazing Bulgarian player hit every note in the upper register of the instrument.
This piece really benefitted from Fischer's superb command of the French horn, as anyone who witnessed his performance of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 a few weeks ago will know. His ability to project a sweet and syrupy tone, followed by passages that call for harsh and scratching belches - with the aid of a mute or his right hand inserted into the bell - is quite impressive to witness. It sounds as if it was not the same instrument playing.
The casual atmosphere of the venue, with appetizers and a cash bar, made this a really special event that shows the OPO as a multifaceted music organization. The musicians were available for conversation after the performance, which provided a great opportunity for socializing and meeting local classical music aficionados.
The series at the MEZZ continues with Principal Strings, on April 9 at 7 p.m., and Principal Brass, on April 16 at 7 p.m.
To find out more information and purchase tickets, click here.
To watch a performance of Malcolm Arnold's Three Shanties for Wind Quintet, click here.
To listen to the finale of Jean Françaix's Quintette, click here.
To read a review of the OPO's recent performance of Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto with soloist Sarah Chang and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, click here.