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Oboe Quartet a homecoming for composer

The Boston Globe, March 27, 2012
By Jeremy Eichler

BROOKLINE - A composer ideally learns over time how to write lucidly for all the various instruments of the orchestra. But there can be nothing quite like coming home to one’s own instrument, with which first-hand knowledge runs deep, and visceral muscle memories predate the long hours later spent acquiring the more abstract craft of composition.

Or so it seemed at least on Sunday night, when Winsor Music presented the premiere of a new Oboe Quartet by the young Scottish composer Helen Grime. In contrast to her other pieces fired by extra-musical sources, Grime told the crowd at St. Paul’s Church, this piece was inspired simply by the oboe alone. She had spent years of her life studying the instrument and considered a performance career before ultimately choosing composition. As an oboist, she confessed, she especially loved playing fast, high, and virtuosic music. And you can tell. Her new work, in Feldmanian parlance, might have been called “The Oboe in My Life.’’

The gymnastic pleasures of solo performance are indeed written into this score’s concerto-like oboe part, played on this night with precision and poetry by oboist and Winsor artistic director Peggy Pearson. But more rarely for a young composer, there is also a distinctive personal voice that comes through in the music itself, a brief but substantive exploration of the possibilities implied by placing the oboe soloist in dialogue with string trio.

In the opening pages, fractured string figures lick up at the plaintive oboe lines like flames. The oboe tumbles, skitters, exalts, and seeks out the extreme highs and lows of its range, but virtuosity never feels like an end in itself. The piece’s textures in fact grow lean and sinuous, and, after a striking cadenza, the oboe ultimately recedes and the strings close with a reflective section full of questing glissandi, a moment of silvery beauty. Sunday’s strong performance made one look forward to hearing more of Grime’s music, and fortunately, her next local premiere will be on April 22, when the Claremont Trio introduces a new work at the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.

The concert began with a vibrant account of Brahms’s “Liebeslieder Waltzes.’’ The acoustics of the church left the piano (played by Megan Henderson and John McDonald) sounding somewhat recessed, but the sound was bright and forward for the fine vocal soloists Kendra Colton, Katherine Growdon, and Andrew Garland. Thanks to Winsor Music’s young artist program, they sang alongside Daniel McGrew, already a poised tenor while only a freshman at Oberlin Conservatory.

The four singers returned for the evening’s finale, a memorably intimate performance of Bach’s Cantata (BWV 99), conducted by John Harbison. High points included Growdon’s recitative full of dusky colors and pathos, and her ravishing duet with Colton, embroidered by flute (Ann Bobo) and oboe d’amore (Pearson). But this was a true ensemble performance distinguished by warmth, emotional precision, and not infrequent upwellings of joy. The late Craig Smith, who was in a good position to know, called BWV 99 one of Bach’s most perfect cantatas, in which music “illuminates the text like a lantern in the night.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.