Peter Kolkay may be doing for the bassoon what Wynton Marsalis has done for the trumpet — lifting it from the back benches of the bandstand and orchestral stage and establishing its street cred as a versatile solo instrument. He introduced his program at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday as the answer to two questions he had asked himself: “What do I have fun playing?” and “Who do I have fun playing with?” He might have added a third question — “What will be fun for the audience?” — because he also answered that one resoundingly.
For the “who,” he brought together a pair of friends from his conservatory years, pianist Alexandra Nguyen (whom he’s been performing with for a while) and oboist Deirdre Chadwick. As for the “what,” there were trios by Poulenc and Theophile-Casimir Lalliet (19th century) that the three had worked on together at the Eastman School of Music and, for bassoon and piano, splendid pieces by Henri Dutilleux, Andre Previn and Paul Moravec — altogether a program of great variety and approachable appeal.
Moravec’s “Andy Warhol Sez,” seven Warhol quotes intoned by Kolkay, each one followed by a short snatch of music that captured its essence, was an astringent foil for Dutilleux’s stately “Sarabande et Cortege” and Previn’s three-movement and multi-idiomed Sonata, but, in all of these, it was the beautifully managed piano/bassoon ensemble that made them special, and this same ensemble prevailed when Chadwick’s oboe joined in.
It was no surprise that Kolkay tossed off easily the kind of quick, angular bouncing-around that people think of when they think of bassoon music. It’s what you’d expect from a finished artist. But it was his mastery of the legato that was most impressive in this performance. Both long passages of the Poulenc Trio and all of Lalliet’s Terzetto might easily have been opera scenes with the bassoon as baritone soloist (and, in the Lalliet, the oboe as the soprano). In Kolkay’s hands, the bassoon assumed all the subtle inflections and shapings of the human voice. The “vocal” duet in the Lalliet final movement, in particular, was pure opera buffa finale, with Kolkay and Chadwick finally coming together as a loving couple and Nguyen serving as the equivalent of the accompanying orchestra.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.