The Les Amies Trio- a collaboration of artists with a sense of purpose, a sense of class, and a sense of humor, graced the San Antonio Chamber Music Society's 74th season with a performance last Sunday, February 26th, 2017 at Temple Beth-El.
The trio, dressed elegantly in formal gowns, was led onstage by member Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, celebrated soloist, and pedagogue. She took to the microphone and warmly greeted the audience as she explained how she and her colleagues, harpist Nancy Allen and flutist Carol Wincenc, formed the trio after becoming friends at various chamber music festivals. Her personal touch of mentioning how rewarding it is to bleed their sounds together, and humorously adding that she enjoys playing in Les Amies because there isn’t a violinist telling her what do, amicably started off the concert like chamber music is often described: the music of friends.
The concert began with Deux Interludes suivi de Carillon (1946), by Jacques Ibert. Known for his humorous, lyrical and eclectic style, it seemed fitting that he would write for the unusual combination of flute, viola, and harp. The first interlude, a minuet, featured a melodic interplay of viola and flute over the harp. It was easy to hear why Carol Wincenc, an in-demand soloist, orchestral musician and Juilliard professor, stands at the top of her field. I was immediately drawn into her playing as she shifted tone color and vibrato to suit the lush harmonies, blending and blossoming out of the viola line with impeccable intonation. The second interlude, Ibert’s nod to the Spanish guitar and soundscape of Andalusia, showcased each member’s ability to shift her playing from melodic to accompanimental at the drop of a hat. With roles consistently shifting and the piece constantly propelling forward, it was an exciting piece to see and hear.
Next on the program was Arnold Bax’s Elegiac Trio, written in 1916 as a reaction to the Easter Rebellion (a bloody political event of the same year in which Irish Republicans fought to end British rule and create the Irish Republic). Ms. Allen, principal harpist of the New York Philharmonic, internationally-renowned soloist and pedagogue, played a beautiful introduction that gave way to a celtic melody in the viola and then flute, which developed into a symphony of sound that showcased each player at their most resonant, their most poignantly soloistic. From beginning to end, the trio unabatingly pushed and pulled with tempo and volume, communicating with one another with the kind of palpable trust that takes years of friendship, countless hours of personal practice, and decades of performance experience to attain. You could almost see time stretch itself like a piece of taffy, and, all too soon, the group landed on a final chord so soft, in tune, and balanced that my millennial self was muttering, “I can’t even. That was so on fleek. Too good.”
Maurice Ravel completed Sonatine en Trio for piano in 1905, after which it was arranged for trio by virtuoso harpist Carlos Salzedo. Ravel, like other French composers of the 20th century, used an exotic tonal language to evoke an impression in his music. His style differs in that on the micro-level, it is perfectionist, cerebral, mechanistic; on the macro, fluid, intuitive, blurred. Like a polyglot speaking perfect slang. Les Amies, playing even the silences with purpose, moved through each movement with precision and ease, doing justice to the work of this great composer. The wildly energetic third movement began with such a great pizzicato cue given by Cynthia Phelps that I couldn’t help myself from laughing out loud, jealous of Nancy Allen for having the privilege to play off of her.
The second half of the concert featured a number of short duos, the first being a sonata by classical-era composer François Devienne (1759-1803), arranged for flute and viola. Dubbed a ‘palate cleanser’ by Ms. Wincenc, its straight-forward symmetry and themes provided a delightful break from the boldness of the 20th century. Following that was a selection of three pieces by Gabriel Fauré, the standout work being his Impromptu for Harp in D-flat Major (1904). Nancy Allen transformed the harp into an orchestra unto itself, passing through the gamut of harp technique and mesmerizing the audience with complex choreography. Her masterful, memorized performance should be prescribed to smartphone users who are addicted to cyberspace and seeking a cure to be in the present moment.
Les Amies ended the program with the piece that provided the genesis of their formation: Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915), by Claude Debussy. Ms. Wincenc, explaining that you have to be good friends in order to take on this achievement of the 20th century, described the piece as a journey of surprising, quick turnarounds for listener and performer alike. And, just as she outlined, we were taken on a voyage of their seamless exchange of melodic line, their sudden and stark shifts of character, their ensemble blend and balance...and it was FIERCE. They served Debussy on a silver platter, each artist completely owning her part and nailing difficult runs, stark soundscapes, and lush flourishes of sound. My favorite part was the metallic, nasty-in-a-great-way sound that Ms. Phelps was digging out of her 1560s viola during the third movement. When the piece ended, I joined the audience in a standing ovation and shared in their awe of what each of these exceptional musicians are capable of, all of what they’ve achieved together.