AMONG THE BEAUTIFUL HILLS OF CAMBRIDGE, in the midst of farm country, an old red barn is the summer home of L'Ensemble, a group that divides its time between here and Manhattan.
The centerpiece was a newly-written work by Jon Deak, principal double bass with the New York Philharmonic, titled ‘”Owl in Love’” and based on a Haitian children’s tale. As the composer himself explained, the story is a cross between “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Ugly Duckling;” the owl of the title falls in love with a girl named Rose Marie (Haitians, like the inhabitants of Bloom County, have no trouble mixing humans and beasts in their stories), but the owl must first come to terms with his perceived ugliness.
The piece is scored for soprano, double bass, flute, and string quartet, but the instrumentalists are called upon for much more than merely playing. Not only must the instruments imitate the animal world -- the players must do so, too. The soprano, while giving the narration in English, uses a variety of languages all invented by Deak to represent the principal characters. It sounds much more complicated than it looks and sounds, and this was the result both of the talent of the performers and the wit of the piece.
Soprano Ida Faiella narrated and sang, and played Rose Marie to bass player Deak’s characterization of the owl. Deak’s playing is startlingly anthropomorphic: he combines glissandos, left hand pizzicato, drumming on the bass, strange mouth noises, and a very expressive face to make his instrument talk and sing in a way that would be the envy of any jazz bassist. The rest of the ensemble comprised Barry Finclair and Richard Sortomme, violinists; Mary Rowell, violist; Beverly Lauridsen, cellist; and flutist Craig Goodman. The worst part of ‘”Owl in Love’” was its brevity: still at work on it, Deak promises that it should be finished by Christmas. To compensate, he offered a short work for solo bass and performer which he and a friend wrote to celebrate that much maligned literary villain, the Big Bad Wolf. It was hilarious.
The other vocal work on the program was as much of a contrast as could be imagined: Shostakovich’s “Romance Suite,” op. 127, written to seven poems by Alexander Blok. Sung by Faiella, it was written with piano trio accompaniment, although only in the last of the songs does the full group play: the first poem, “Ophelia’s Song,” is for soprano and cello; the second, “Prophet Bird,” for soprano and piano, and so on, giving the composer the chance to create very spare and novel textures. This also is much more difficult to perform, and the polish of the result proved again that with L’Ensemble, the performers are masters of their material. Also helping out was the barn itself, with its marvellous acoustics: all of the musical sounds had a pleasant presence.
The concert began and ended with instrumental works. Violinist Sortomme opened the program with Ravel’s “Tzigane,” a virtuoso showpiece that he brought off with all the necessary vigor – and with precision of intonation, too, a tricky part of a piece written to make fun of bad violin playing. George Calusdian was the pianist, able to suit his style to each of the three very different composers he was called upon to play works of; besides Ravel and Shostakovich, he performed the Piano Trio No. 3 by Brahms (with violinist Sortomme and cellist Lauridsen). It was Brahms played as it should be: majestically and yet with delicacy and wit, and enjoyable finish to an ingenious program.
The next concert by L’Ensemble will celebrate female composers (Clara Schumann, Amy Beach, Ruth Seeger, and others) and will be played by the group’s distaff members on Aug. 10 and 11 at the barn in Cambridge.
– Schenectady Gazette, 23 July 1985