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” or the 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. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: kozinn

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