The joy of a VentiCordi concert lies in the unpredictability of its programming. Founded in 2009 by Dean Stein, the first violinist of the Portland String Quartet, and Kathleen McNerny, an oboist on the faculty of Bowdoin and Bates colleges, this flexible wind and string ensemble is devoted to uncovering works that Stein and McNerny regard as unjustly neglected.

Listeners are likely to have different views about whether a rarity deserves its obscurity or not. But VentiCordi’s performance on Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland reinforced the impression they left when I heard them a year ago: Stein’s and McNerny’s instincts are generally sound, and because they gather first-rate musicians around them, the works at hand have a fighting chance to win new converts.

This time, those players were pianist Bridget Convey, flutist Sarah Brady and bassist William Blossom. It should be noted, too, that Stein, on this occasion, traded in his violin for a viola for two of the works.

VentiCordi began with an appealingly consonant Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano (1968) by Madeleine Dring. It had its predictable moments, but for the most part, its strengths were in its richly tuneful oboe writing, perhaps not surprisingly, since Dring wrote the piece for her husband, Roger Lord, the principal oboist of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years.

Andrea Clearfield’s Three Songs for Oboe and Double Bass (1996) are intricate and atmospheric, and they evoke the lyrical spirit of the Pablo Neruda poems that inspired them. They are also fascinating on purely technical grounds – for the way the oboe and bass lines fit together like puzzle pieces.

Nino Rota, though best known for his film music (he scored most of Fellini’s films, as well as parts of “The Godfather II”), was a prolific and imaginative composer of concert music as well. VentiCordi offered his Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano (1958), a burst of inviting themes, surprising harmonic changes and vivid interplay between the players. Mostly, the dialogues are between the violin and the flute, but just when you wonder whether Rota gave the pianist short shrift, the galloping finale shifts the focus toward a keyboard line with a truly cinematic sweep.


August Klughardt’s “Schilflieder” for Oboe, Viola and Piano (1872) was better balanced. Klughardt is a footnote in the Romantic repertory, best known today to wind players, thanks to an attractive Woodwind Quintet (1901) that turns up on programs periodically. “Schilflieder” (or “Reed Songs”) has eloquent champions, too: The German oboist Albrecht Mayer made a superb recording of this five-movement work (for Decca) a few years ago.

The performance also made you reconsider Klughardt’s reputation as a Brahmsian conservative, in his time, despite his friendship with Franz Liszt. I hear more of Liszt’s influence than Brahms’ here. That said, there is a truly Brahmsian warmth in Klughardt’s writing.

Erwin Schulhoff’s Concertino for Flute, Viola and Double Bass (1925) is the sort of work likely to yield its mysteries fully only after several hearings. A Czech musician who had a promising career both as a composer and as a pianist, and whose early music embraced Dadaism and other avant-garde styles, as well as jazz, Schulhoff fell afoul of the Nazis on two counts: He was Jewish and a Communist, and he spent his final years in concentration camps, dying of tuberculosis at Wülzburg in 1942.

The Concertino is a fluid work, full of seemingly disparate influences – modernist angularity here, neo-Renaissance modalism there – that nevertheless holds together remarkably well. Its highlights are a Furiant (a Czech dance) and closing Rondino, in which Brady gave spirited readings of the bright piccolo lines, Stein dug in to the vigorous viola writing, and Blossom gave the rumbling bass figures an elegance that kept them in the middle of the action.

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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