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Classical review: SCMR with Michael Wayne 

For its opening concert of the season, the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester turned a snafu into a rousing success.

The snafu involved one of the works on the program, the Clarinet Quintet by 20th-century composer Hans Gál. It’s a recent work (1977), but as Co-Artistic Director Juliana Athayde explained before the concert, the instrumental parts that arrived from England were in bad shape. The performers needed to make so many edits that they decided to drop it from the program entirely (not permanently, I hope; it is a lovely and unusual piece in late-Romantic style).

That was the bad news. The good news was that guest clarinetist Michael Wayne, who was already engaged to perform the Brahms quintet, proposed that they substitute Hans Gál with the Mozart quintet. This is more or less equivalent to an RPO guest pianist signing on to play the Rachmaninoff Third and then offering to throw in the “Emperor” Concerto.

The revised concert now included the two pillars of the clarinet-and-string-quartet repertoire, and two of the great chamber works, period. So the Society definitely offered a value-added program, especially when both quintets were played as beautifully as there were on Sunday. Wayne, the new associate professor of clarinet at Eastman School of Music, came to Rochester from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. If he wanted to display his chamber music chops to Rochester at full force, he could hardly have done better than with this program.

When it’s played sensitively, the clarinet is as moving and mellifluous as any instrument. Combined with strings, it can be as downright delicious as a box of Godiva chocolates. Wayne’s tone is rich, focused, and even from top to bottom. As one would expect from an experienced orchestral clarinetist, he blended precisely with the string players in both works (violinists Juliana Athayde and Willa Finck, violist Olivia Chew, and cellist Lars Kirvan).

If the sudden program change was troublesome for the players, you’d never have known it from their poised performances of both works. The Brahms' Clarinet Quintet from 1891 is invariably described as “autumnal”; here it was played with great delicacy and did not drown in its own moderate tempos and rich harmony. This touch of restraint made the music even more emotionally resonant. The Mozart quintet was elegant and lively without being fussy. Pairing these two great clarinet quintets may have been an accident, but it showed how indebted Brahms was to Mozart’s example in form and in tone.

Wayne got a breather during Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade.” This mercurial work is usually played with Wolf’s chamber orchestration; in fact, I don’t think I had ever heard the original until yesterday. Whether presented by a string quartet or a small orchestra, it is a delightful piece from a composer who wrote almost no chamber music. Athayde, Finck, Chew, and Kirvan played it with witty precision.

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