The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet performed Sunday at Shriver Hall.
The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet performed Sunday at Shriver Hall. (David Rowe Artists)
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Is it possible to be too refined, too polite, too well-bred when playing French woodwind music? Well -- possibly not. But at Shriver Hall on Sunday, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet put the question to the test.

Over the past two decades, the group has carved out a commanding presence in the world of chamber music, with insightful interpretations, precise ensemble playing and a feel for blending wind sonorities that has rarely been matched. There was much to admire in Sunday's program, which focused on some of the most colorful and charismatic French music of the last century, from familiar works like Jean Francaix's playful Quintet No. 1 to little-known gems; Paul Taffanel's quietly tempestuous Quintet in G Minor in particular was a true delight, with much credit going to Michael Hasel on the wooden flute. The ensemble turned in a richly atmospheric reading of Samuel Barber's "Summer Music" (another mainstay of the repertoire, and the only non-French work on the program), while Darius Milhaud's "La Chemin¿e du Roi Ren¿" percolated with subtle wit and breathtaking attention to detail.

And yet, for all its elegance -- or maybe because of it -- the evening never really quite took off. Chamber music is so appealing partly because its small size allows for a sense of spontaneity and individual personality; the best performances can sound almost improvised. But the Berliners seemed to glide along efficiently on familiar, well-oiled rails, delivering a performance that was perfect down to its molecules, yet oddly lacking in the most important thing of all: life.

-- Stephen Brookes

Traffic Quintet

Alexandre Desplat might want to stick with what he knows best. The French composer has the astonishing ability to write evocative music for big-name films like "The Queen" and "Syriana." Desplat uses a keen sense of timing and mood to heighten on-screen drama. Yet if the mercifully short concert of his smaller-scale music by the Traffic Quintet on Monday evening at the French Embassy was any indicator, his work loses focus without a story pushed prominently in the foreground. Polished and energetic playing from this sleek ensemble could hardly make up for music that was structurally deficient, unvarying and ultimately dull.

The Paris-based ensemble -- a traditional string quartet complemented by a pulsing bass -- played Desplat's transcriptions of various film scores, including several of his own, from the last 40 years. Abstract images, creations of video artist Ange Leccia, were projected overhead. While it was mystifying how the extreme close-ups of billowing smoke or a statue sprayed with water related to the score, the music itself had occasional allure. There were well-managed string textures and rustic dance rhythms at the opening, while an arrangement from "Last Tango in Paris" emerged with verve.

The evening foundered in its attempt to unify whole works written for entirely different contexts. The result was a sprawl with little connection among movements or sense of emotional development. Throughout, it was hard to get over the irony that the Traffic Quintet gave the program the avant-garde title "New Waves." What's really new about playing decades-old film music?

-- Daniel Ginsberg

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