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Disappointment morphs into French fun at raucous River Oaks Chamber Orchestra finale

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River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Alastair Willis, Kristin Wolfe Jensen
Kristin Wolfe Jensen performs Francois Devienne's Bassoon Concerto No. 4 with the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra and guest conductor Alastair Willis. Photo by Jeff Grass
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Alastair Willis, Kristin Wolfe Jensen
The music's grueling passages were executed with relaxed ease, brilliant ornamentation and elegant charisma. Photo by Jeff Grass
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Terri Golas, Carter Pann
To honor former managing director Terri Golas, founder Alecia Lawyer commissioned a work by a composer of Golas' choosing: Carter Pann. Photo by Jeff Grass
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra generic
The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in performance at The Church of St. John the Divine. Photo by Jeff Grass
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Alastair Willis, Kristin Wolfe Jensen
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Alastair Willis, Kristin Wolfe Jensen
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Terri Golas, Carter Pann
River Oaks Chamber Orchestra generic
The Church of St. John the Divine
Get Directions - 2450 River Oaks Boulevard Houston

Resist the urge to self indulge.

I wish I could remember who made me write those words on the first page of my sheet music to Claude Debussy's Girl with the Flaxen Hair, a reminder that simple beautiful melodies are more desirable than complicated interpretations that show off a player's musical abilities.

The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra's opening work for Saturday's concert at the Church of St. John the Divine, titled "ROCO Celebrates France," suffered from this musical offense. In Debussy's Petite Suite, guest conductor Alastair Willis fell prey to the undulating writing that forms the gorgeous texture for En Bateau (In a boat) — marked Andantino. The long melodies, which attempted to hover with forward motion, sunk with little magic within a tempo that was clawingly stuck behind a slow ictus.

Where was the French fun?

The crimes in the interpretation of the overture were soon forgotten when principal bassoonist Kristin Wolfe Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, launched in an athletic feat that my colleague, classical music savant Chris Johnson, described as watching the Olympics.

A new standard

A reduced orchestra gushed with frivolous glee to musically recount a comedic tale of adultery and misdeeds that ends with a happily ever after whack.

Jensen flexed her musical muscles in what was most likely the American premiere of the Bassoon Concerto No. 4 by Francois Devienne, a composer who she refers to fittingly as the French Mozart. When she picked the concerto, Jensen and orchestra librarian Jason Stephens had no idea that a score wasn't published and that the parts only existed in the microfilm archives of the University of Iowa.

Stephens transferred the manuscript into a music notation program, corrected many of the discrepancies and errata and worked alongside Jensen and Willis to prepare this new version for performance. Thanks to this enterprising trio, one can expect Devienne's technically difficult showcase, including Jensen's own cadenza, to become a standard — and a love-hate workhorse for emerging bassoonists.

Filled with large leaps and dazzling sequential virtuosic riffs, the music's grueling passages were executed with relaxed ease, brilliant ornamentation and elegant charisma. The kind of urge I had to resist here was cheering on Jensen as she whirled about all the solo's lively twists and turns — surely the pièce de résistance of the musical soirée.

To honor former managing director Terri Golas, founder Alecia Lawyer commissioned a work by a composer of Golas' choosing. Composer Carter Pann, whose Mercury Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra was written for principal flutist Christina Jennings and premiered by ROCO in 2009, penned The Extension of My Eye, Le Tombeau d’Henri Cartier-Bresson for the special occasion. The short seven-minute work — evocative of the sparkle of Respighi with the lushness of Rachmaninoff — unraveled as a spellbinding abstract sketch teeming with the mystery of a man who's said to be the father of photojournalism.

Unscripted moments

As it's customary in ROCO concerts, among the many unscripted moments was a surprise musical selection that added excitement to the performance experience. Constant Lambert's Aubade Heroique, a brief tone poem written in 1942 that portrays the bittersweet juxtaposition of a bucolic setting and the doom of warfare, was beautifully sung courtesy of languid English horn and low flute melodies.

Fabulous gaily raucous merriment closed the concert with Jacques Ibert's incidental music to Eugène Marin Labiche's play The Italian Straw Hat. After a hilarious play-by-play introduction from the conductor, a reduced orchestra gushed with frivolous glee to musically recount a comedic tale of adultery and misdeeds that ends with a happily ever after whack. Ibert's Divertissement, as adorably cute as the work may be, requires that the musicians focus on precision, for which they earned a standing ovation.

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