The principal attraction of VentiCordi Chamber Music is that its programs are built largely of works that listeners rarely encounter, except perhaps at summer festivals where string and wind players join forces to play works for instrumental combinations less common than string quartets or piano trios.

It may seem odd that mixed-timbre ensembles are so rare, but consider the logistics: a string quartet will keep all four of its players busy in every concert, but the repertory for strings and winds together is more chaotic: A program is likely to require a different combination of instruments for each piece.

For its concert Sunday afternoon at Woodfords Congregational Church, VentiCordi’s directors – violinist Dean Stein of the Portland String Quartet, and oboist Kathleen McNerney, who teaches at several colleges in the area – found a way to mitigate that chaos somewhat: Prokofiev’s Quintet (Op. 39), completed in 1924, and Torbjörn Helander’s Allegro Capriccioso, both scored for the unusual combination of clarinet, oboe, violin, viola and double bass, framed the program. Between them, members of the quintet split into smaller groups for Michael Haydn’s Divertimento, for oboe, viola and bass; and Harold Schiffman’s Duo Concertante, for violin and clarinet.

Helander, a Swedish composer born in 1971, writes in an appealing, neo-Romantic style, with an accent that calls to mind an early- to mid-20th century French style, with hints of a Russian accent; you would never have guessed that the work was completed only last year. I’m not sure how much that matters now, with composers freely combining influences and styles. In any case, Helander’s Allegro Capriccioso is an engaging piece, with tightly interwoven themes and a laid-back sensibility that keeps the music’s energetic undercurrents in check.

Those qualities, and Helander’s gracefully melodic style, make the piece an appealing curtain-raiser, and VentiCordi’s players gave it a finely polished reading before turning to the Divertimento by Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the better-known Joseph.

It’s tempting to say that Divertimento hints at why Michael never attained Joseph’s mythic stature. It is a skilled work of its time, with elegant dance movements, nicely-wrought variations and a bright, lively Presto finale with an especially appealing oboe line – but it lacks the sparkle and wit that enlivens so many of his brother’s chamber works.


Of course, it’s a Divertimento – an entertainment, meant to help wealthy patrons enjoy a social evening, and not intended for the ages – and it would be unfair to judge the composer by it, if the same could not be said of his other works (there’s a popular Trumpet Concerto, for example), and if similar works by his brother weren’t so much more interesting. Delightful as the performance was, there were moments when I wondered whether this six-movement, nearly half-hour work was really worth reviving in 2019.

I found Schiffman’s Duo Concertante (1993) far more engaging, not least because the demands it made on the two players – Stein and clarinetist Gary Gorczyca – seemed more challenging and engaging. Schiffman’s style is fairly conservative, though not so much as Helander’s; his themes have a measure of chromaticism and angularity that locates them firmly in our time, but they are not so spiky as to put listeners at arm’s length. After a few moments, you find yourself forgetting about the composer’s melodic accent, and listening instead to the suaveness of the counterpoint between the violin and clarinet lines.

In its best moments, Schiffman’s score lets both instruments sing, and Stein and Gorczyca made the most of the opportunities the composer provided. And they remained in top form when McNerney, violist Kimberly Lehmann and bassist Anthony D’Amico joined them for a focused, vigorous performance of the Prokofiev.

Much of the music’s energy comes from its genesis as “Trapeze,” a circus-themed ballet score that Prokofiev composed while also working on his Second Symphony. Parts of the work are steeped in that bitter harmonic edge that was so central to Prokofiev’s being that it is heard even in his most cheerful work, yet Prokoviev’s inventive themes, and the richness of the interplay between the instruments, give this quintet a strong appeal.

Like the Haydn, Prokofiev’s quintet it is not heard often, and the VentiCordi players made a strong case for it. But if the Haydn left you doubting that a second-drawer entertainment from the late 18th century had much to say to us now, the Prokofiev’s internal blend of vitality and dourness, as well as its melodic richness and technical virtuosity, left you wanting to hear it again, and soon.

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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