Bassoonist Peter Kolkay’s star shines brightly at Blair

The audience that filed into Turner Hall on Wednesday night knew it was in for a treat the moment bassoonist Peter Kolkay started to play. His recital opened with Patrice Fouillaud’s Volumen (1986), a work that Kolkay described as “one of the noisiest pieces of unaccompanied bassoon music I know.”

kolkayFouillaud’s aptly named work was like a cross between the music of Igor Stravinsky and Sonny Rollins. Throughout the piece, Kolkay played in extreme registers while producing a variety of sound effects – squeaks, squawks and slides. He even engaged in some good old-fashioned foot-stomping. Volumen was certainly noisy, not to mention abstract, abstruse and unapologetically modern. But in Kolkay’s hands, this music was like a sonic rose, a beauty to behold despite its thorny dissonance.

The only bassoonist to have received an Avery Fisher Career Grant, Kolkay is now one of the Blair School of Music’s newest bright lights. He joined the Blair faculty as an associate professor just last August. So there was a lot of anticipation for his Wednesday recital, which was devoted entirely to French music. A good subtitle for the concert might have been “With a little help from my friends,” since the rest of the concert was like a Blair faculty showcase.

Pianist Melissa Rose joined Kolkay for the next piece, Charles Koechlin’s Sonata, Op. 71. This work inhabited a completely different musical universe from Volumen. Composed around 1918-19, Koechlin’s three-movement Sonata is filled with appealing and approachable melodies. Indeed, the sonata’s opening movement was beautifully pastoral, while the dewy second-movement nocturne could have been written by Chopin. Kolkay played every note with feeling and with a delightfully reedy tone. Rose provided supple support.

Kolkay joined another one of Blair’s other rising stars, flutist Philip Dikeman, to play Pierre Gabaye’s Sonatine (1962). In his insightful program notes, Kolkay wrote that Gabaye was seemingly picking up “where Francis Poulenc left off: wit and whimsy alternate with poignant calm in the first movement, while the contrast between long notes in the flute and lyrical flourishes in the bassoon dominates the second movement.” One suspects that Gabaye was also paying homage to Ravel’s Sonatine, which also began with a first movement marked “Modéré” and concluded with a finale filled with rapid passagework.

Dikeman and Kolkay both shined in Gabaye’s music. A former flutist with the Detroit Symphony for nearly 20 years, Dikeman played throughout Sonatine with a golden tone and a commanding technique. Kolkay played the bassoon’s fast passages with precision and flair.

The big piece on Wednesday’s program was François Devienne’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 73, No. 3. A contemporary of Mozart, Devienne played bassoon in the Paris Opera, so it came as no surprise that his quartet seemed so theatrical. The first movement was like a Rossini overture, opening in dark G minor but quickly shifting – like a scene change – to bright major. The second movement reminded one of a deeply felt opera duet, with violin and bassoon engaged in a heartfelt dialogue.

Violinist Carolyn Huebl played her often difficult part with polish and sweet lyricism, which elicited warm and nuanced playing from Kolkay. Violist Kathryn Plummer and cellist Felix Wang played with subtlety and sensitivity.

The concert closed with Henri Dutilleux’s Sarabande et cortège (1942) for bassoon and piano. Kolkay said he once considered the Sarabande to be the most difficult work ever written for bassoon. Obviously, he’s long since mastered the piece, since he played it with perfection on Wednesday. He hit the Sarabande’s extreme high notes dead center and tossed off acrobatic passages with ease. Rose stuck to the bassoonist like glue, providing exhilarating accompaniment.

Kolkay indicated his all-French program evolved as a “happy accident.” Hopefully, he’ll provide us with more serendipitous encounters in the future.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.