The music lovers of Concord were out in force — and early — to catch the only Boston-area performance by the Slowind Wind Quintet on November 14, under the serene gaze of the Concord Sages in the old main reading room of the Concord Public Library. The quintet, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, specializes in music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and in this, at the tail end of their third US tour, they did not disappoint.
Of all the standard chamber music ensembles, the wind quintet is the most problematic: in place of the homogenous timbres of string quartets, or the emollient intermediation of the piano in ensembles that incorporate it, the disparate sounds of the unduplicated winds defy blending, although composers do have some tricks that can sometimes fool the ear. Wind players either love or hate playing quintets, and there may have been something of this reticence behind the remarks on Slowind’s web site concerning the protracted and gradual formation of the group fifteen years ago, by veteran players in the Slovenian Philharmonic, an orchestra with a long and distinguished history. As it happens, post-World War I styles, emphasizing linearity and instruments’ individuality, are ideal for this type of ensemble.
The program the Slowinds chose for Friday night comprised three standards of the wind quintet repertoire and two very recent pieces that featured extended performance techniques. Of the former group, consisting of Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik,” Op. 24 No. 2, György Ligeti’s early “Five Bagatelles,” and Darius Milhaud’s “La Cheminée du Roi René,” it will suffice to comment on the quintet’s execution, which was flawless. Flutist Aleš Kacjan, oboist Matej arc, clarinetist Jurij Jenko, hornist Metod Tomac, and bassoonist Paolo Calligaris, were marvels of clarity, subtle coloration, delicacy, dynamic control, and balance. Tomac was especially effective in producing the latter quality in the Hindemith. The group made the most of the occasions in all three works, but particularly the Milhaud, where they could surprise with a fine blended sound. As with all first-rate ensembles, these players have each other’s measure and enjoy what they can do together.
Of the new works, the most substantial was “Kontrasti” by the 26-year-old Nina Šenk, a work commissioned by Slowind. As its name suggests—and without any direct allusions this listener could detect to Bartók’s clarinet trio of similar name—this work set up and exploited oppositions in texture, timbre, rhythm, and playing style among the instruments, including a variety of extended techniques such as unpitched blowing, various gurgling noises of a somewhat alimentary cast, and so on. More importantly, though, it established an intelligible set of ideas and patterns whose elaboration was quite satisfying compositionally: without telegraphing its punches, by the end one clearly had the sense one had gone somewhere, by a delightfully scenic route. This composer, who appears to be a rising star in Europe, should be heard more in this country. The Slowinds’ performance gave every impression of authoritativeness, and was of course equal in quality to the more familiar works.
It seemed, on first glance at the program, that the Slowinds were taking a very gutsy gamble by ending with “Avguštin, dober je vin” (Augustine, good is the wine) by Vinko Globokar, a veteran of Europe’s avant-garde who has made the pilgrimage: to IRCAM in Paris, Berio in Berlin, and Stockhausen in Cologne. He is also famous as a trombonist, for whom many of Europe’s leading lights have written works. In these and his own compositions he has explored all manner of extended techniques, spatial concepts, performance art, and sound formations. “Avguštin” does indeed utilize much of this experimentalism, with the horn and bassoon offstage (the latter doing triple duty with a bass drum and triangle), and the onstage trio repositioning while playing to bend sounds as well as themselves. However, at least as handled by the Slowinds—and one has no reason to believe this was not the composer’s intention—it was all played for laughs. At one point the trio swapped instruments; at another, they nested them within each other and feigned fingerings. All very droll, and the audience was duly amused, but one has to ask whether any composer of string quartets, or any substantial quartet, would find it necessary or advisable to dress a piece of concert music in this slapstick. Nothing against lighthearted music, or loosening the collar at “classical” concerts, but truth to tell, if the quintet had sat in place and played this piece “straight,” its inherent interest would have a very short half-life indeed. Again, kudos to Slowind’s chops, but in this case they were deployed in service of a work unequal to the effort.