It may be difficult to define exactly what makes French music so French, but certainly, style of performance has a lot to do with it. Sunday afternoon in Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, the Paris-based Ensemble a Vent gave ample proof of this in the second of this season's Coleman Chamber Concerts.
Oboist Maurice Bourgue leads this 10-member wind ensemble, now in its 18th year. Sunday, the players infused even the Germanic portion of their program with French lightness and grace.
In the case of Beethoven's early Octet, with the misleadingly late opus No. 103, this approach wrought miracles. The sheer energy of the performance--brisk, buoyant tempos, crisp, pointed accents, vital rhythmic precision--made the work sound like one of Beethoven's most important scores. A sudden, group sotto voce in the Andante, the intent silence between phrases in the Trio and the elegant fleetness of the ensemble's jaunt through the Finale were all testament to the players' complete involvement with the music.
The bright tone and snappy rhythmic inflection of the ensemble were perfectly suited for Poulenc's acerbic Sextet for piano and winds. Bourgue's oboe sang sweetly and piquantly up high, with just a hint of vibrato, and the song-like melodies were dispatched by all with easy grace and restrained sentiment. Careful balances gave the peppery harmonies a buzzing vibrancy.
Unfortunately, a coughing flutist proved too intrusive for enjoyment of the otherwise charmingly played "Petite Symphonie" by Gounod. Her indisposition prevented her from continuing with D'-Indy's "Chansons et danses," so an arrangement for woodwind octet, sans flute, of excerpts from Mozart's "Don Giovanni" was quickly substituted. These were performed the with same enthusiasm and precision evident throughout the afternoon.