Concert #2 — Wonders for Woodwinds
On October 21, my husband and I attended a performance by the wind quintet “The Patagonia Winds”. I had never heard a wind quintet before and enjoyed how different it was from a full orchestra. The voices of the individual instruments stood out very distinctly rather than blending in with an orchestra. Because there were so few musicians on stage, and because they moved so expressively, it was possible to see as well as hear the structure of the music. You could see a melody line being brought forward by the oboe; see the bassoon and flute linked in a duet; see the clarinet player soaring and gliding through a series of arpeggios.
My husband noticed that four members of the group had what looked like a shot glass full of liquid on the floor next to their chairs. He jokingly suggested that it was vodka. I later talked to a friend who plays bassoon. She explained that it’s essential to have an extra reed with you, and that bassoon reeds are so thick they need to be soaked for several minutes. The fifth member of the group did not have to worry about extra reeds because he played French horn. It seems counterintuitive that a brass instrument would be part of a wind quintet, but the timbre of the French horn is more muted and mellow than that of a trumpet or trombone (has fewer brassy harmonics), and fits beautifully with the rest of the group.
Although there were only 5 musicians on stage, there were a total of 8 instruments present. The oboe player also played English horn (pitched a fifth lower than the oboe); and the flautist also played piccolo (an octave higher than the flute) and the alto flute (pitched a fourth lower). I especially enjoyed the times when the piccolo and bassoon played “in unison” two octaves apart. It was as if a whole strange new instrument had been created.
The concert program began with the “Overture to Candide” by Leonard Bernstein. Neither I nor my husband were familiar with the operetta “Candide” and so the overture (which featured many different themes from the operetta) sounded very disjointed to us — hyper and agitated. After the concert we talked about which numbers we had enjoyed the most. My husband said that he enjoyed the times where there was some sort of tune that you could follow, and the Overture to Candide did not have one. The next day I happened to complain about this part of the concert to Jim (an amateur flautist) who said “I love that piece! How can you say it doesn’t have a melody!” and proceeded to sing it for me.
The next part of the program was Carl Neilsen’s “Quintet Opus 43”. I especially enjoyed the first movement because the flute, oboe and clarinet played repeated, bird-like trills. (The oboe sometimes sounded exactly like a kind of bird called a nuthatch!) It brought to mind a walk in the woods. In contrast, the bassoon sounded like some sort of comical roly-poly creature. I enjoyed how the different “creatures” interacted with each other, pairing off in dialogue. This was my favorite part of the concert and I’ve listened to this movement several times at home since then.
The second movement was called “Menuet”. This is the piece that featured a motif of gracefully flying arpeggios.
The third part was theme and variations based on a chorale that Nielsen had composed. This started out with the five instruments playing in homorhythmic texture, blending so perfectly that it sounded like a single instrument, almost like some sort of organ stop. From there the variations went in many directions, some lyric and some harsh and discordant. At one point the clarinet and bassoon seemed to be having an argument. At another, the flute and oboe played the chorale tune in a minor key while the three remaining instruments played thick gloomy chords in the background.
The next section of the program was Paquito D’Rivera’s “Aires Tropicales”. This featured several recurring moods — sometimes reminding me of the bossa nova style of Tom Jobim, sometimes Carmen Miranda dance rhythms, and sometimes falling off the edge of the earth into chaotic harmonies and erratic unexpected timing. My husband and I commented afterward that we felt “lost” during a lot of this piece but would feel oriented again every time the bassoon ostinado came back. There could be all kinds of crazy things flying by, but with the ostinado to hold on to, the confusion was tolerable (or even exciting!) This is a great insight for me to keep in mind when I’m composing.
The concert ended with George Gershwin’s “Three Preludes”. These were originally written as piano pieces but here were arranged for wind quintet. The first movement sounded upbeat and urban; busy and crowded. The second started out slow and languid, then began to swing. The last movement picked up the tempo with a saucy strut. The entire piece featured Gershwin’s trademark bluesy harmonies and syncopated rhythms.
This concert was a great opportunity for me to hear the different timbral colors that can be produced by combining wind instruments in different ways. I came away excited about composing for wind instruments.