The salient feature of VentiCordi Chamber Music, the project directed by Kathleen McNerney and violinist Dean Stein, is its flexibility.

Because its point is to present mixed-timbre works (that, at least, is the mission statement implied in its name, which means WindsStrings) and because its roster draws on Maine freelancers and music school faculty, it can shape its roster, for a given concert, around McNerney’s and Stein’s programming ideas, rather than vice versa, which is how programs are more typically built.

For its Sunday afternoon program at Woodfords Congregational Church, clarinetist Gary Gorczyca, cellist Andrew Mark and pianist Chiharu Naruse joined McNerney and Stein for a program of works composed on either side of World War II, with the Holocaust as a backdrop, if not quite a full-fledged theme.

Three of the program’s four composers, Alvin Etler, Darius Milhaud and Leo Smit, were Jewish; the fourth, Paul Hindemith, was not, but his wife had a Jewish grandfather, which along with Hindemith’s own status as a “degenerate composer” – the Nazis’ designation for composers who used dissonance, jazz and other elements that they regarded as not properly Aryan – was enough to lead him to flee with his family from Germany to the United States. Milhaud, a French composer, escaped to the United States after the invasion of France, in 1940, but Smit, a Dutch composer, remained in Europe and was murdered at the Sobibor extermination camp, in Poland, in 1943.

You might not expect to hear cheerful music at a concert with all that looming over it, but much of what VentiCordi offered on Sunday was upbeat. A fleeting exception was the opening movement of Etler’s Sonata for Oboe, Clarinet and Viola (1945), which has a peculiar split focus, with a melancholy, almost brooding oboe line juxtaposed with playful, even bouncy clarinet and viola writing.

If the situation in Europe informed the piece at all, that oboe line, which sounded wrenching but soulful in McNerney’s hands, is the only clue. The Moderato third movement has an introspective quality, but it is sweetly melodic for the most part, and the second and fourth movements are outgoing and bright.


Milhaud composed his Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano in 1936, three years after the Nazis took power, but four years before they invaded France. It is a largely untroubled work, with “Divertissement” and “Jeu” (“Play,” or “Game”) among its movement titles. Except for a brief, introspective introduction to the finale, it is all about the lively interplay among the instruments, and Stein, Gorczyca and Naruse moved through the work’s contrapuntal dialogues, tandem figures and Stravinsky-inspired rhythms, easily and in the spirit of gamesmanship Milhaud clearly intended.

Smit’s Suite for Oboe and Cello (1938) also bears no trace of concern about the gathering clouds. Essentially a Baroque dance suite, though updated harmonically, it begins with an Allemande – a German dance – and includes a Sarabande based on the traditional “La Folias” chord progression, as well as lively Courante, Menuetto, Gavotte, Musette and Gigue movements.

Smit’s music is energetic and chromatic, and McNerney and Mark gave it a vital, often colorful reading, although Mark’s cello tone seemed oddly like that of a wind instrument, or sometimes a French horn, either because he was trying to match McNerney’s phrasing and articulation, or because of the quality of his instrument or the church’s acoustics (although I haven’t noticed this effect when other cellists have performed there).

Stein, Mark, Gorczyca and Naruse closed the concert with Hindemith’s 1938 Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano, a three-movement work that has its pensive moments and, in its finale, passages that suggest a narrative arc. It was the most substantial piece here, and Gorczyca, especially, excelled in producing shapely, evocative lines.

The Hindemith is an appealing rarity, and it was good to hear it. But it did, however, raise an obvious question: Why not include, instead, Olivier Messiaen’s apocalyptic “Quartet for the End of Time,” a work for the same combination of instruments, composed in 1940 when Messiaen was interned in a German prisoner of war camp? That, at least, would have evoked the atmosphere that was little more than a background concern here.

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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