Reeding is Fundamental: Sue Heineman, Mark Hill, and Friends at the University of Maryland, October 14, 2009

Most people shy away from concerts that feature unfamiliar repertoire, unless the performer’s star wattage alone draws crowds. This gives short shrift to many distinguished players who also have a good ear for music that should be heard more often.

Sue Heineman and Mark Hill and have certainly distinguished themselves as performers — she’s principal bassoonist of the National Symphony, he’s principal oboe of the National Philharmonic (aka the Montgomery County Philharmonic), both are faculty members at the University of Maryland — but they ain’t superstars. Thus, their annual free concerts featuring repertoire for their instruments (plus those of whatever friends they invite to the party) seem mostly to draw enthusiastic wind students. I’ve now been to the last four of these concerts, most recently Wednesday evening’s show at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, and I can tell you that they deserve to be heard by a broader audience.

This year, Heineman and Hill brought in clarinetist David Jones, principal clarinet of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, and pianist Audrey Andrist, a local treasure and a veteran of these concerts. The nicely balanced program features two works for the three winds alone and a solo with Andrist accompaniment for each.

Heineman played Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, the Op. 73 ones originally written for clarinet and piano. As wonderful a bassoonist as Heineman is, she could not make her mellow tone pop out over the piano sound behind her in quite the way a clarinet does, which leached some of the music’s impact. On the other hand, her amazing facility on the bassoon enabled her to ride the surges and ebbs of Schumann’s melodies like a surfer on a wave, hanging out just a bit at the top of the drama to enjoy the excitement and catch the view, rolling refreshed into Schumann’s earthier sentiments. And Heineman’s ardent, woody tone did emphasize the wistful side of Schumann’s melodies, giving another perspective on either the most or second-most familiar work on the progrm.

Battling it out for that honor was Francis Poulenc’s clarinet sonata, commissioned by Benny Goodman, which combines jazz inflection and phrasing with that wonderful urbanity that saturates Gallic wind music. Both Jones and Andrist know how to play in many styles (Jones’ program bio lists Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin, and Tony Bennett among his collaborators), and their performance nimbly danced among the two idioms, especially in the energetic yet bluesy first movement. Jones showed off magnetically cool and lovely tone in the “Romanza” slow movement, with Andrist matching him in restrained ardor, though both seemed happy to dance off again in the finale.

Hill, sadly, played a bit of a clunker, Eugène Bozza’s “Fantasie Pastorale,” which whips big gestures from Andrist’s piano and virtuoso riffs from Hill’s oboe into not much of musical consequence. As a vehicle for Hill to make sparkly showers of notes and caress slower melodies, it did the job, but the Bozza was the only piece from this concert I would be perfectly happy never hearing again.

It sounded especially disappointing coming right after Léon Jongen’s trio for the three reeds, which fulfilled its ambitions in a way Bozza’s number didn’t, perhaps because Jongen made his entertainment from less grandiose stuff, developing it with wit and fluency. Heineman, Hill, and Jones had no worries about negotiating the sometimes-tricky handoffs among their instruments; indeed, their assurance allowed them to find that wit in the music, and to buff Jongen’s melodies so that they shone bright and inviting. They tracked the first movement’s angular main theme in all its guises, including its not entirely surprising reappearance in the trio’s closing pages, made lively play of the Vivace second movement, and gave grace without undue gravitas to his more overtly lyrical statements.

The last skill was rarely demanded in the last work on the program, a departure from the prevailing aesthetic: Heitor Villa-Lobos’ trio. With its folk rhythms juxtaposed and overlaid, its independent treatment of the instruments in setting forth those rhythms, and its enthusiasm for the earthiest, nay, dirtiest sounds the bassoon, clarinet, and oboe can make, Villa-Lobos’ work recalls the sound of the reedy intro to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Brazilified and explored at length. What’s not to like there?

Heineman made her bassoon rut and shout just as she made it sing in the Schumann, while Hill and Jones showed that their instruments can shout out a rhythm just as hard and precise as a bassoon can, thanks very much. While at times the sharp disjuncts and raucous discourse in the music sounded chaotic, the structure and purpose of Villa-Lobos’ writing became clearer upon further thought after the performance — a sure sign that both composer and performers knew exactly what they were doing.

With music and playing of this caliber presented for free, the Gildenhorn Recital Hall should be packed to the gills when these folks play. Y’all should look for them next time.

My other reviews of these concerts: 2006, 2007. I went to 2008 and somehow did not write a review of it, but it was also excellent.

WHY I GO TO A LOT OF CONCERTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND

1. It is close to both my office and my home.
2. Them’s often some good concerts.
3. I have been going to concerts there since I was 12; not about to stop now.
4. Alumnus bias.
Not sure what proportion those are in, but that’s why you’ll see a lot of reviews from there.

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4 Comments on “Reeding is Fundamental: Sue Heineman, Mark Hill, and Friends at the University of Maryland, October 14, 2009”

  1. Gunnar Says:

    “Leached”: good word.

  2. Sue the leaching bassoonist Says:

    I didn’t care for it so much… I much preferred “wonderful,” “amazing,” or even “dirtiest,” “rut,” or “shout.”

  3. Gunnar Says:

    Uncommon, is all I meant. I wasn’t there.
    I also liked the bit about surfing on top of Schumann’s melodies, for whatever that’s worth.

    And I like your secondary choices – the world cries out for more dirty, shouting bassoonists from Rutland.


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