With so much of the chamber repertoire focused on strings and piano, it was a refreshing choice by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to open their season with some of the great works for winds. Many of the wind and brass performers on the program spend most of their professional lives as orchestral and solo musicians, and clearly relish the chance to make music with their colleagues without following the conductor’s baton. The unique collegiality of music on the small stage has a pull on some of the country’s best musicians.

Romie de Guise Langlois
Romie de Guise Langlois

Joining some veteran CMS performers for Monday’s opening-night concert were four members of Chamber Music Society Two, the organization’s competitive program to shepherd rising chamber musicians into their rotation. Two of the younger players, James Austin Smith, oboe, and Romie de Guise-Langlois, clarinet, led the concert’s opening work, Mozart’s Serenade in C minor. The stormy and vivacious piece is largely an oboe concerto, and Mr. Smith rose ably to the challenge with an appealing sound and clear phrasing. But while the performance hit all the right notes in bringing the piece to life – exciting contrasts between phrases and hushed, blended tone in quiet passages – some of the busier sections lacked clarity, with different moving lines competing for attention.

The surprise highlight of the evening was the one departure from wind music, the Serenade for two violins and viola by Kodály. Written during an infertile period after the composer had been barred from teaching and, surprisingly, accused of anti-Hungarian offenses, the small-scale work packs in an opera’s worth of theatre and an ethnographer’s trove of folk songs. Any accusation of treachery would surely dissipate upon hearing the swoops and slides of the expository work, which alternates between heated conversation among the instruments and Magyar flourishes that Kodály must have picked up from his field work with Bartók. The second movement was especially dramatic, pitting a sparring, masculine viola line against a frantic and coy violin part, played over a growling tremolo in the second violin.

Ani Kavafian, now in her 34th season with CMS, should be called The Great Communicator of the violin, guiding players and listeners through every angular turn. She, violinist Benjamin Beilman (another able member of Chamber Music Society Two), and violist Paul Neubauer blended preternaturally together, perfectly blending tone and timing cut-offs. The ensemble gave the final movement a proper dose of push and pull through rustic phrases that evoked Hungarian folk music as well as some perceptible nods to Stravinsky.

Strauss’ Serenade for winds – written when the composer was 18 – may not reveal the harmonic inventiveness of his future style, but the work’s expansive phrases have a similar breadth to them, meandering through unexpected turns and occasional blue notes. And some signature Straussian elements are here in nascent form, such as a chromatic ascending bass line over flutes that fall in broken sixths, a transition that would develop into its own in such landmarks as Der Rosenkavalier. The single-movement serenade is as much a pleasure to play as it is to hear, scored sumptuously for 13 instruments, including four horns and contrabassoon, which adds depth of sonority to the Valhalla-like chorales. Melodic lines usually come in pairs, with a countermelody in one iteration returning for a starring role in the next. The richly orchestrated clouds of chords buffer a complex texture that never overwhelms. The ensemble performed with relish, with generous tone and thoughtfully phrased gestures.

Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor boasts one of the most crowd-pleasing finales in the chamber repertoire. It uses similar forces to the Strauss, but with the addition of bass and cello to the contrabassoon, and no flutes, giving even more heft to the lower end of the register.

As with the Mozart, the upper winds take on the role of soloists, and veteran CMS members Stephen Taylor, oboe, and David Shifrin, clarinet, led the band through the many affects of the piece, from Bohemian beer hall to moonlit serenades. If the elegant opening of the second movement Menuetto felt a little rushed, the fast tempo paid off in its dance-like middle section, with wiggly wind lines coursing over accents in unexpected places. Few openings are as beautiful as the bird-like dialogue between clarinet and oboe in the third movement Andante, played over gentle off-beat chords in the horns. Those off-beats transform as the piece develops, leaving behind the serenade for something like a turbulent lovers’ quarrel. The first horn part becomes especially grueling, but Jennifer Montone, principal horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra, sailed along with poise and well-balanced tone.

The Finale takes us back to the beer hall for more dancing, filled with catchy tunes and a rousing fanfare for an ending. With so much fun from a wind band, here’s hoping more music for woodwinds and brass makes it onto Chamber Music Society programming.