in: Reviews

June 4, 2013

Kammerwerke Double Wind Quintet

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We don’t hear enough from wind quintets in day-to-day chamber concert repertory, more’s the pity. The combination has found special favor among Eastern European and French composers; cool timbres and lithe textures make for bracing programs and challenges of voicing and structure that yield exciting results. If a single wind quintet brings listening pleasure on a hot, breezy spring afternoon, might a double wind quintet provide twice the refreshment?

We pondered this esoteric point listening to Kammerwerke, such a double wind quintet, put through its paces by founder and director Alan Pearlmutter in the relatively pleasant Victorian stucco-and-pine gothic nave of Newtonville’s Evangelical Baptist Church on Sunday

The program’s three works evolved in relative atmospheric weight from light to moderate to substantial: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite From Moscow Cheryomushki (1960), Joachim Raff’s Sinfonietta (1873), and Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 (A Major, Op. 16, 1860).

Well-integrated balance was achieved by pairing instruments in two rows: flutes, oboes, and clarinets up front (seconds doubling as needed), horns and bassoons behind. Respective instrumentalists were Carol Epple and Wendy Vignaux; Sandra Ayres and Carol Louik; Linda Poland and Jenny Connors; Justin Stanley and Sabrina Hepburn; Frank Casados and Lauren Landry.

The Suite was written for a light operetta, whose Moscow premiere coincided with a regime change in Soviet government (from Khrushchev to Brezhnev) that brought glimmers of light – and sarcastic levity — to Muscovites ground down for decades beneath Stalinist jackboots. Fairground hurdy-gurdy themes blare blithely (think Petrouchka), buffo characters dance gay polkas and mock quasi-military stereotypes in stiff parade mufti (think Lieutenant Kije), and a spirit of relief pervades Shostakovich’s contemporaneous works (eg, String Quartet #6. The ditsy, eclectic atmosphere even recalls Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, its jumbled cast poking jibes at government corruption and capitalist excess. Though paired cameos were spotted throughout for haunting clarinets, jolly flutes, and mournful muted horns, the expansive ensemble itself (may the people rule!) carried the day under Pearlmutter’s energetic baton.

Raff’s piece, freely adaptive in content as was the norm for this prolific Swiss, encompassed the traditional four symphonic movements. The opening ‘sonata allegro’ achieved drama and tension through hymn-like chorales from the back row, and a late fughetto featuring the horns. Then followed a jovial tarantella reminiscent of Rimsky’s Capriccio Italien, a pretty larghetto with languid melodies for Ayres and Epple, and a bristling vivace that exalts treble glissandi. The performance was characterized by delicacy of articulation and passionate expression. Quieter passages were accompanied from without by the rush of insistent zephyrs and starlings squalling in the eaves.

In the second of his two youthful serenades Brahms omitted violins, so Tony Turrill’s clean-cut adaptation often leaves the flutes tacet, and Vignaux seldom plays piccolo, except for dazzling highlights in the scherzo and rondo. The uncluttered allegro—measured, arch, elegant, yet engaging—never went logy, even in the heat, as Brahms exercised and stretched rhythmic and harmonic boundaries. The elusive, speedy scherzo doubled staccato octaves over orotund bass from the back row. An easy legato adagio in waltz-time featured handsome solos for Poland and Casados. Despite intonation issues in the brilliant rondo, the serenade and concert came to a rousing conclusion.

Pearlmutter remarks, “The double wind quintet, rather rare in America, is apparently more prevalent in England. The significant repertoire includes original compositions for this particular combination, as well as arrangements of standard literature. The sound of ten winds resonates with a full panorama of orchestral color, depth, and brilliance. What’s especially valuable about this is that seasoned wind players, including recent local conservatory graduates who’ve played with us, are totally unfamiliar with this literature.” Kammerwerke, now specializing in this under-exposed format, is providing pleasing and instructive experiences for both sides of the podium.

Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine (Chicago) and The New York City Jazz Record, and about wine for Beverage Business (Boston); he teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music and occasionally lectures on jazz history at Boston University.

1 Comment

  1. Why do I get such a kick out of Mr. Bouchard’s music reviews? He knows lots about what makes recent and contemporary music tick. That doesn’t explain it. Many reviewers can claim the same. His word choices are colorful, quirky, engaging. That is more unusual, but not unique. But then this:

    “Quieter passages were accompanied from without by the rush of insistent zephyrs and starlings squalling in the eaves”

    This helps solve the mystery because it hints that Mr. Bouchard’s reviews are really about more than musical events. His reviews certainly describe concerts. But they do more. They describe how the richness of a piece is very much dependent upon the richness of the listener’s experience. I glean from his writing that how we react to a piece of music depends on so much more than the music itself. Is it possible that the baggage that surrounds a tune is as important as the tune itself? Our own personal musical histories have something to do with how we take in a concert (the first song we heard our mother sing). But it also may depend on things that have nothing at all to do with what’s happening on stage (an open window that allows us to hear the rain and the “starlings squalling in the eaves.”)

    It was a beautiful ostinato Mr. Bouchard heard ” from without” during the quiet parts. Thank you for writing about it.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — June 8, 2013 at 5:13 pm

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