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Concert Review: VentiCordi ensemble delivers beautiful, shapely sound that honors the music
WHERE: Woodfords Congregational Church, Portland
REVIEWED: Nov. 8, 2015

The chamber repertory for mixed winds and strings is rich and varied, but it is comparatively little known, beyond a handful of famous works in which an oboe, clarinet or flute joins forces with members of a string quartet, and a few pieces with more idiosyncratic scoring, like Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” orthe pared-down version of Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.” Just beyond
those celebrated works lies a trove of less frequently visited scores, among them neglected pieces by well-known composers. Finding that music and making a case for it is the mission of VentiCordi, a project started in 2009 by Dean Stein, the Portland String Quartet’s first violinist, and Kathleen McNerney, an oboist who teaches at Bowdoin and Bates colleges, and performs with several New England groups. Stein and McNerney enlist other players as the repertory requires. For their concert on Sunday afternoon, as part of the Lark Society’s series at Woodfords Congregational Church, they were joined by clarinetist Kristen Finkbeiner, cellist Andrew Mark and pianist Bridget Convey. The program focused on music from the first 60 years of the 20th century. Most were by composers of a conservative stripe, an approach that suits this
group’s combination of timbres and yields a pleasantly easygoing program. Even Arnold Schoenberg, who is best remembered as the father of the tonality-skirting 12-tone method – and who is still blamed, by many listeners, for derailing musical history and fostering decades of abstruse, difficult works – was represented by an early score, composed when he still dwelled in the realm of Brahmsian Romanticism.
That piece, “Ein Stelldichein” (“A Rendezvous”) was composed in 1905, inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel, whose otherworldly poetry was also the impetus for Schoenberg’s earlier “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”). Schoenberg left “Stelldichein” unfinished, but the section he wrote is, like “Verklärte Nacht,” an arching structure built of moody, atmospheric, melody-rich themes, including a lovely violin solo line. Hearing it, one had to wonder how Schoenberg, and 20th-century music, might have developed in an alternate universe where Schoenberg never hit upon the idea of jettisoning tonality. (A more useful idea, though, is to come to terms with the path Schoenberg took, because a great deal of his 12-tone music is uncommonly powerful once you are used to the contours of his later musical language.) Two of the five works actually violate the rule implied in the ensemble’s name, which means WindsStrings. Robert Muczynski scored his 1958 “Fragments” for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, but the group made it conform to its mission by reassigning the bassoon line to the cello. That textural change alters the piece’s character slightly, but it did no violence to the music, a bright collection in which three cheerful, extroverted movements are offset by two thoughtful, engagingly contrapuntal slow pieces.
No such substitution was made in Reinhold Glière’s “Eight Duos” (Op. 39), a 1909 work for violin and cello – all “cordi,” no “venti.” But who could complain? Stein and Mark produced a sound hefty and warm enough to create the illusion of a small string orchestra, an effect aided by the church’s comfortably live acoustics.

The program also included a supple reading of Aram Khachaturian’s 1932 “Trio,” for clarinet, violin and piano, and, as its finale, Bohuslav Martinu’s 1947 “Quartet,” for piano, oboe, violin and cello, a colorful, rhythmically vital score that, like all these pieces, brimmed over with surprising melodic twists. For all one hears about the democratic character of chamber music, often a player or two stands out in the course of a program. Not so here. The choice of works put every player firmly (if fleetingly) in the spotlight. These musicians made the most of those moments, giving the works the beautifully articulated, shapely playing and rock-solid ensemble they demand.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland.

VentiCordi Presents Expressive, Well-written Music

By Dr. Morton Gold | Arts Reviewer | Posted: Thursday, November 13, 2014 12:00 pm
The Lark Society for Chamber Music presented the group known as VentiCordi – which means “winds” and “strings” – in a concert at Woodford’s Congregational Church in Portland Nov. 9. This group of talented, professional musicians has made a specialty of performing works for mixed instruments that are infrequently performed.
The performers in the group include: Dean Stein, co-director and violinist; Kimberly Lehmann, viola; Ashima Scripp, cello; Sarah Brady, flute; and Kathleen McNerney, co-director and oboe.
The earliest composition was composed in 1915 by Max Reger, and the most recent one in 1935 by Grazyna Bacewicz. Taken together as a group, the music could have been advertised as music for a summer’s afternoon – or evening. While they made few demands on the listener, they could hardly be described as trifles. What they all had in common was that when a wind instrument appeared with strings, the wind instrument was essentially the first among equals and the strings either acted as accompanying instruments or junior partners at best. I have heard these fine musicians perform previously, and nothing I heard this afternoon altered my previous impressions.
Their intonation was superb the entire concert, rhythms were crisp, dynamic markings were marvelously drawn, and the interaction between the performers was evident. Each knew when the other had the lead, they neither rushed nor overpowered the one who had the more important phrase. The timbre of Ms. Brady’s flute could readily be described as having a liquid quality, and is even in quality from the lowest to the highest notes, which she demonstrated in “The Jet Whistle” by Villa Lobos. She also played an alto flute whose range extends a perfect 5th below the standard flute and is much longer.
Ms. McNerney’s oboe playing is a model of what the oboe should sound like; in the hands of less-gifted performers it’s often an unpleasant experience. Her playing really impressed me again in the Trio by Hans Gál, especially in the 2nd movement. Mr. Stein’s violin’s lines were always singing, accurate, whether he had the lead or in a subsidiary line. His playing ever impresses one as making things sound easy and natural even though they may be quite difficult. Ms. Lehmann’s viola playing is likewise outstanding in every respect. Most violas sound like someone’s distant cousin, twice removed. Her large, robust tone proves that to every generalization, there is a happy exception, and she is a fine musician as well. The first movement of the Serenade by Max Reger aptly showed her playing to good advantage.
I noted that it was remarkable just how engaging and enjoyable that music composed for merely three instruments like this one (no piano!) could be. There was nothing earth-shaking, just music that was expressive and well written.
The cello performance of Ms. Scripp was ever musical and was demonstrated at the start in the Trio by Bacewicz. In the concluding work, Conversations by Arthur Bliss, Ms. McNerney enthralled one and all with her solo performance on the English horn, an instrument that is neither English nor horn. It is an alto oboe, and even more demanding to play well than the oboe – some things defy logical explanations. The next event in the series will occur on Dec. 7 with a concert featuring the distinguished Portland String Quartet.
— Dr. Gold is a composer/conductor and an arts reviewer for the Journal Tribune.

AS I HEARD IT…………………………………………………… Morton Gold
The second concert in the summer series of three was given by the group known as VentiCordi (Winds/Strings) at the South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport on August 2. This group specializes in playing music for small mixed combinations of music composed for strings and wind instruments that are not frequently performed. Performers for this concert included artistic directors Dean Stein, Violin; and Kathleen McNerney, Oboe and the following: Kathleen Boyd, Flute; Peter Sykes, Harpsichord; and Katherine Cherbas, Cello. Let it be said at the outset that all of these instrumentalists are excellent musicians who played with passion, grace, and with excellent intonation individually and collectively. The program began with three excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin played by Dean Stein. This 18th century work has a wealth of technical difficulties which Stein handled with ease. He emphasized the lyrical beauty of the music rather than striving for any theatrical effect and his playing was a joy to experience. The next work, a Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord was composed by Henry Cowell, a distinguished 20th century American composer. One might wonder why did Cowell use a harpsichord, an instrument not used since the mid eighteenth century? The answer is that was a group of folks in New York City decided to commission works from many leading composers to include the harpsichord in their new works in an effort to revive the use of this instrument. The timbre of the harpsichord is delicate, and the instrument’s cover usually contains pastoral decorative painting. The color of the keys is reversed, namely the white keys found on the piano are black on the harpsichord and the piano’s black keys are white. Cowell had a well earned reputation as a “modernistic” composer and so I braced myself for what I imagined the sounds that this work might contain. I was very pleasantly surprised. This work (one of three on the program) was written in the style of a Sonata da Camera, that is a chamber sonata in four dance like movements in different speeds composed for a few instruments. Cowell’s music is charming and tonally traditional. Essentially the harpsichord and cello shared the bass line, the flute and often the cello shared a melodic idea and deferred to the more pungent sound of the oboe. Ms. Boyd is an ideal performer of Baroque chamber music. Her tone is not big but her playing is always rhythmically and melodically accurate. Ms. Cherbas is likewise well suited to play music from the Baroque. Mr. Sykes harpsichord playing was solid, not only in this work but in everything he played. The tone of oboist McNerny is rich, full bodied and even in quality from the lowest to the highest reaches of her instrument. This is exactly the kind of composition that few other groups tend to program which is a pity because it is a beautiful piece and deserves to be played more often. The last work prior to intermission was a Sonatine for Violin and Cello by Arthur Honegger who is usually remembered for his oratorio King David or for his sonorous depiction of a locomotive in music Pacific 231. This work had violinist Stein paired with Cherbas on cello. Here both performers changed their stripes, musically speaking. Both played expansively with full bodied tone where called for and contrasted with more delicate timbres. Much of this three movement work reminded me of two children playing individually side by side. It received a well realized performance. Following intermission two works were performed. The first was musically more interesting (to me.) It was a piece by 20th century Czech composer Ilja Hurnik composed for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord. The music is well crafted with ideas that are lyrical and whimsical and show off each instrument to advantage. The concluding work, a Quartet for Flute, Oboe and Violin, Cello and Harpsichord was by Georg P. Telemann, an 18th century prolific composer. It received a beautifully crafted and well thought out performance.  The concluding program in this series will take place on the 17th and will include a rare performance of Brahms Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano.
(Dr. Gold is a composer/conductor and an arts reviewer for the Herald Tribune.)

VentiCordi, or 'wind strings,' ends its third season with flair

Portland Press Herald  - August 19, 2011
Concert Review by Christopher Hyde

VentiCordi, literally "wind strings," is celebrating its third season this year. Founded by violinist Dean Stein and oboist Kathleen McNerney, it explores chamber music written for any combination of wind and stringed instruments, a literature that is voluminous but seldom heard on the concert stage. 

Its final program of the season, Thursday at South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport, was typical, including a fascinating selection of works from baroque to contemporary, well performed by the founders and noted guest artists, including Pamela Mia Paul, piano, Erin Lesser, flute, Mark Simons, clarinet, and Jennifer Combs, cello.
The program opened with a delightful piece by Madeline Dring (1923-77), a Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano with jagged but cheerful rhythms, a soulful andante, and a flair for combining and contrasting instrumental textures. As the program notes point out, it sounded rather like a combination of the classical Gershwin and Francis Poulenc.
My favorite of the evening was the only piece I had heard before, a raucous "Contrasts" for Violin, Clarinet and Piano, by Bela Bartok commissioned by Benny Goodman in 1938, and still full of surprises.
It opens with Verrbunkos, a dance on the occasion of young men being recruited for the military. It begins appropriately with a march, which is then deconstructed into a taste of what the recruits are actually signing up for. The concluding movement, Sebes, is a fast dance, introduced by a drunken peasant, portrayed by an out-of-tune violin. It offers all sorts of wonders, including what seems to be a barking dog. Simons did an amazing job with the showy clarinet part.
Another gem was Choros No. 2 for Flute and Clarinet by Heitor Villa-Lobos, based on a form of Brazilian street music. The complex rhythms and unusual counterpoint between the two voices showed Villa-Lobos at his best.
A baroque Trio Sonata for Flute and Oboe with Cello by composer and flute-maker to Frederick the Great, Johann Joachim Quantz, contrasted nicely with the Brazilian. If Frederick could manage the flute part of that trio, it's no wonder that his father had him beaten for playing too well.
The program concluded with a Quartet for Piano, Oboe, Violin and Cello (H.315) by Bohuslav Martinu, one of those neoclassical works, like Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony," that employs all of the techniques of a bygone era yet sounds distinctly "modern."
One hopes that VentiCordi can continue to mine its musical treasure-trove for a long time to come.
Sophisticated VentiCordi Pleases Kennebunk Fans

By Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom Classical Voice of New England
Kennebunk, ME. 4 August 2011.  Against a verdant background – pale green gilded harpsichord accented by a lush potted white hydrangea – the two virtuosi who warmed up the audience were virtual silhouettes in the ensemble’s uniform of orchestra black (Dean Stein, violin; William Blossom, double bass). The sophisticated string players drew the attention of the audience with ever-increasing intensity of a sensitive classic interpretation of the opening work. The piece was billed as “Duet with two obligato eyeglasses for Violin and Double Bass”, woo 32, by Ludwig van Beethoven, (1770-1827). The movements were marked: 1.Minuet; Allegretto and 2. Allegro. It was lovely. The audience let them know it immediately following the first movement.
The other work prior to Intermission was “Sonata for Oboe and Harpsichord with Basso Continuo” BWV 1030b, by J. S. Bach (1685-1750). Oboist Kathleen McNerney’s assertive statement, with its plaintive urgency, changed the mood of the evening artistically . The first movement was untitled, by Bach. Ray Cornils, known to Mainers as Portland’s Civic Organist, played the harpsichord. Cornils is a master of the instrument maintained by Friends of the Kotzschmar Organ, fondly known as FOKO. His keyboard material, always beautifully executed, enhanced the ensemble. However, he seemed less at home at the harpsichord than the pipe organ, inasmuch as rather than the natural lift of a follow-through, the right hand seemed self-consciously affected throughout much of the piece. After intermission, that was not an issue. Cornils had relaxed and continued to perform the keyboard material beautifully as a part of the ensemble. The second movement of the “Sonata for Oboe and Harpsichord…”, Siciliano, was more like a stately Bach organwerke, with the double bass noticeably simulating organ tones on strings. In the third movement, the oboe concluded its pleading above the harpsichord and double bass, all bringing the piece to a delightful climax that justified a strong applause before Intermission. The work for flute, oboe and harpsichord that followed intermission was introduced with a few words by Dean Stein. Although born in Connecticut, composer Kelsey Jones (1922-2004) grew up primarily in Portland Maine. He was taken to the Sunday afternoon performances of the Portland Symphony Orchestra, which was at the time a PWA project orchestra. He was a terrible student, but thanks to his very accomplished violinist sister, he was able to enter conservatory in Canada. Thankfully, he became a composer and hence we have this wonderful piece, Sonata Da Camera. 
The Jones Sonata for flute, oboe and harpsichord offers four movements: Praeludium, Corrente, Andante, and Giga. With the Praeludium, the ensemble delighted the audience with a shrill modernistic sound contrasting artistically with the classics of Part I of the evening’s program. It was extremely well played, immediately engaging, although it must have been the first time most of the thirty-something (count) audience had heard it. Listening to the first movement, one might imagine a squeaky door; the second, a strong wind blowing. The Andante was a blur of sound from the other two instruments above the significant harpsichord part that was in this instance much more cerebral than continuum; the final movement, Giga, must have resembled the dance because I didn’t make a note of it and must have considered it obvious; I know I was intrigued by the entire work. Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) died in a German concentration camp during World War II. Dean Stein came across his instantly fascinating music when he was performing with the prestigious Eastern Music Festival at Guilford College near Greensboro, North Carolina. Stein is rightfully proud to have brought this Holocaust music to Maine, using it for the final work on this VentiCordi program. Entitled “Concertino for Flute, Viola & Double Bass,” its four movements are Andante con moto; Furiant: Allegro furioso; Andante and Rondino; Allegro galo. Dean Stein, violin, William Blossom, double bass, Timothy Macri, flute, were the three artists featured in this finale. They brought to life the yearnings of the doomed composer. Picture the musicians standing in the order just mentioned, left to right, with the huge double bass as the focal point, itself an artistic arrangement. VentiCordi is relatively new as an ensemble, but they bring from tremendous life experiences a serious professionalism that includes every aspect of presentation, from the graphics and composition of the program, to the careful costuming and arrangement of each ensemble, and even the touch of hydrangea! They do need a volunteer stage hand to handle placement of stands and arrangement of music, when a union stage hand is not available with the hall rental. Pianist Pamela Mia Paul joins VentiCordi in Program III, the final performance of the 2011 summer season  on August 18 at 7:30 p.m . Also playing that evening at South Congregational Church, Kennebunk, are guests, Flutist Erin Lesser, Clarinetist Mark Simons, and Cellist Jennifer Combs. For further information, contact VentiCordi directly through their web page, . Founders and principals of VentiCordi are Kathleen McNerney and Dean Stein.


Pamela Mia Paul’s Piano Enhances VentiCordi
By Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom Classical Voice of New England
Kennebunkport, ME, 18 August 2011.  Pianist Pamela Mia Paul’s alliterative name is more or less a household word among musicians and members of the music business community. It was a pleasure to hear her in person at last. Her unassuming yet assertive piano performance enhanced the Thursday evening VentiCordi program at South Congregational Church, Kennebunkport. The other outstanding participants in various ensemble groupings were Flutist Erin Lesser, Oboist Kathleen McNerney, Clarinetist Mark Simons, Violinist Dean Stein, and Cellist Jennifer Combs. McNerney and Stein comprise the impresario team that presents VentiCordi concerts, inviting only highly proven concert artists from many locations in the USA. This was their third and final concert of the successful 2011 summer season. A flippant wind duet above a pleasant four-count pulse at the piano opened the evening’s program with “Trio for Flute, Oboe & Piano” by Madeline Dring (1923-1977). The second  “simple slow” movement, Andante Semplice, yielded an unhurried tune on oboe with response on flute, becoming a trio with piano; Allegro giocoso, the third movement’s brusque opening with scrapping wind instruments joined by the piano was pulled off successfully after significant time spent tuning and flushing out the oboe. The Bela Bartok (1881-1945) “Contrasts for Violin, Clarinet & Piano” opened with Verbunkos (Recruiting Dance) featuring a brilliant clarinet solo above plucked violin strings and embellished with colorful piano glissando. The second movement, Piheno (Relaxation) pleasantly fulfilled its program music description and the third, Sebes (Fast Dance) opened loud and jauntily with the insistent bow scraping, one after another, the open strings of an un-tuned fiddle that Stein had reserved for this moment as specified by the composer. Then a clarinet melody led the way to the end of this delightful anti-climax prior to Intermission. Always planned, but now added to the printed program in first place following the break was “Choros No.2 for Flute & Clarinet” by Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), skillfully performed by Lesser and Simons, both renowned concert artists. “Trio Sonata for Flute, Oboe and Cello” by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773) introduced the accomplished cellist, Jennifer Combs, for the first time during the evening. Her performance, much anticipated by this writer and cello fancier, was musical and undoubtedly perfect, but extremely reserved. It seemed as if she was a bit shy with her lovely sound. It was nevertheless an enjoyable trio performance in four movements: Affettuoso, Alla breve, Larghetto and Vivace. Dean Stein then dramatically lifted the piano lid to be supported by the long stick and we knew we were in for a big finale. The composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) was well served with a performance of his “Quartet for Piano, Oboe, Violin & Cello,” H. 315. The three movements are Moderato poco allegro, Adagio and Poco allegro. VentiCordi has progressed from two summer programs to three; audiences can only hope that they begin to garner support for year around presentations.

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