Curtis Summerfest: Learning music by doing

Oboist and Curtis alumna Katherine Needleman played Poulenc at the Curtis Institute's Summerfest program on July 29, 2016.

The Curtis Institute of Music likes to say its students "learn by doing" - where is this not the case? - but it pays to learn by listening, too. At Friday night's Summerfest concert, there was plenty for young scholars to imagine someday taking on when their faculty took the stage. You had to think anyone could appreciate the myriad genres and subgenres of sound Katherine Needleman could draw from her oboe, or the high level of craft with which composer David Ludwig was able to weave together influences.

The movements of Ludwig's Rule of Three for two violins and viola started out with a Baroque-like statement, but the borrowings quickly dissolved into other musical languages. Stylistically, Ludwig is a polymath, but an accomplished one, and if he evoked Glass or Sibelius, the listener and student could not help appreciate his ability to turn on an emotional dime. The penultimate climax was particularly effective, generating more heat than three instruments had any right to put out.

Several other chamber combinations formed. The less said about a piano-horn-violin arrangement of a Tchaikovsky nocturne the better. The Shostakovich Quintet in G Minor, Op. 47, had the good fortune of Charles Abramovic's presence. You could hear the pianist functioning as inspiration in real time for the string players.

But, oddly, it was in Poulenc, a composer often dismissed as lightweight (an illustrator in a world of artists) where this concert's great substance could be found - in Needleman's way, with the superb pianist Amy J. Yang, with the Sonata for Oboe and Piano. An alumna of both Curtis and Astral Artists, Needleman is principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where she no doubt has great presence. In close quarters, it was her great palette of colors that impressed. She produced but wisps of sounds - cirrus clouds, really - in the third movement, and could be sweet or stern, or any shade between. She is an unfailingly expressive player who always seems to be thinking about sound production in the service of the music's structure and emotional intent. Needleman was a Richard Woodhams student, and here to a greater extent than usual, the pedagogical apple didn't fall far from the tree.

The last Curtis Summerfest faculty concert, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. in Field Concert Hall, features new works, as well as Brahms' Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 2., 215-893-7902.