Ah, here’s to those lazy, hazy days of summer in Rockport! Shalin Liu’s panoramic view encompasses the strand below: boaters drop lines, tourists loll on the picturebook mole, gulls wheel, kids splash along the beach amid sandcastles. Let’s loft a flute of rosé to breezy, festival fare — musical finger food for easy grazing.
But half a mo’ — not so slow! Tonight’s visitors from Gotham extended fresher ideas.
Now in its seventh decade as a resident ensemble at Juilliard School, the New York Woodwind Quintet hit the stage running, executing its heady if balanced potpourri of between-the-wars classics (Hindemith and Poulenc), edgy, eccentric gems (Haas and Carter), and engaging, imaginative arrangements (Mozart and Monteverdi) with precision, charm, and indefatigable elan.
Paul Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik (1922) fairly rattled with cheery post-war bustle and daring exuberance, as the Quintet trotted out in succession: a quasi-mechanized fox-hunt, a daffy waltz for Carol Wincenc’s piccolo, a brown study of dark minors and bluesy gestures, five-cadenzas-in-45-seconds, and a wild ride, as stuttering low winds chased Stephen Taylor’s oboe.
A. Mozart evidently overcame boredom while writing Fantasy in F Minor (1791, a commissioned piece for mechanical organ) by pulling out a few stops: where his score calls for ‘viola’ and ‘gemshorn’ (ram’s horn ocarina), arranger and hornist William Purvis reassigned them as a formidable showcase for Carol Wincenc’s elegant flute.
The ensemble’s performance of Pavel Haas’s Wind Quintet (1929) proved a revelation for this reporter, who admits that his prior listenings came in random YouTube pickups. Expecting a docility, somewhat derivative but less extrovert than the hair-raising works of Haas’s teacher Leoš Janáček, I was shocked to discover an impassioned screed, throbbing with life, erratic, exhilarating.
The Preludio, far from a gently insinuating Allegretto, abruptly asserted itself with pungent sforzandi, delivered with rapt attention to internal dynamics. The Preghiera (prayer) is no somber chorale, but a Hebraic tango dashed with surprise attacks and a jazzy flute/horn duo. Ballo Eccentrico ended not with canned laughter, but bereft moans. The Epilogo evoked less a Moussorgsky chorale than manic Kafka. Menacing staccato outbursts characterized the Quintet’s mesmerizing, noirish take.
Elliott Carter’s Wind Quintet (1948) packed high-speed drama in two cocksure sketches, its brisk Allegretto recalling Hindemith’s incisive staccatos, and the Presto anchoring filigree gestures with ostinato ensemble motifs. Debonair, yes, but warmly engaging, and easier to follow than Carter’s later work. Charles Neidich’s rosewood clarinet clued us in with his final genial winks.
Purvis admitted that his challenge in setting Claudio Monteverdi’s seicento madrigals for winds was pleasingly to blend their disparate timbres; he fared well with “Cruda Amarilli” and “Ah, dolente partita”, unfolding their luminous harmonies in amber consonance.
Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and winds (1932-9) climaxed the evening: its three movements, each tripartite, signaled dramatic tempo shifts and mercurial mood swings with a tight tapestry of aphoristic solos. The rollicking, brilliant Allegro Vivace gave way to Marc Goldberg’s reflective bassoon cadenza and duet with Mihae Lee’s sturdy piano. An easy Divertissement for oboe and clarinet picks up speed, then slows down. The Prestissimo swings from giddy Parisian gaiety, manic to romantic, to an ominous lento finale. Is it a ray of blinding hope, or gravitas grinding us into the sands of time?