Wind quintet bucks norm to great success
By Ruth Bingham
Special to The Advertiser
"It's our MySpace concert," Jonathan Parrish joked, explaining that the Spring Wind Quintet of Chamber Music Hawaii used social networking to find three of the four pieces on their program — all composed within the past 20 years: "We're bringing you some of that old 20th-century music."
In classical music concerts, contemporary works are usually rationed, carefully sandwiched between familiar masterworks — presumably to make the medicine go down more easily.
Instead, the Spring Wind Quintet jettisoned the concept and presented an entire program by living composers: Angel Pena (born 1921), Adrienne Albert (1941), and Greg Bartholomew and Miguel del Aguila (both 1957).
Not long ago, such a program would have been risky, but fortunately no longer: to a piece, the music was engaging, hilarious, charming, moving — everything good music of any age is supposed to be.
In many ways, the works signal a return to Mozart's ideal, music that appeals to both Kenner und Liebhaber (connoisseurs and amateurs), as all four of these works did.
The Spring Wind Quintet — Claire Starz Butin (flute), Scott Janusch (oboe), James Moffitt (clarinet), and Marsha Schweitzer (bassoon), in addition to Parrish (horn) — delivered a finely crafted performance that placed the focus on the new works.
The evening began with what seemed a joke — musicians sneaking in from all sides, announcing themselves with animal calls, to form an assemblage of quirky musical animals that slid from individual calls into organized music as they settled into chairs.
The piece was Albert's "Animology," a sectional rollicking ride that included hints of musical quotes, as when a phrase echoing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" slipped off the rainbow up into the stratosphere.
That was followed by a more serious work, "Movements for Wind Quintet" by Angel Pena who played string bass for the Honolulu Symphony for 28 years before returning to his native Philippines. Composed in 1993, the three "Movements" languished for 17 years before this concert's world premiere.
To present the Hawai'i premiere of Bartholomew's Second Suite from "Razumov," his chamber opera, the Spring Wind Quintet joined online with 20 wind quintets from around the world to participate in a group commission. Second Suite is undergoing rolling premieres, starting with its world premiere in November 2008 by the Aeolian Winds of Pittsburgh.
Bartholomew's writing has a feeling of film style to it, sprinkled with eclectic hints that never quite materialize into firm influences. Was that a Spanish flair, a ballad, folksong or a dance rhythm? Was that harmonic minor meant to be Arabian? His music has a lilting grace that makes listeners want to join in, dancing or playing along.
The Spring Wind Quintet dedicated the entire second half of the concert to Aguila's Wind Quintet No. 2, consisting of four descriptive movements, like vivid vignettes from a disjointed tale.
In 1995, Aguila won a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for this Quintet, a fact that surprised not at all upon hearing it.
The first movement, "Back in Time," began with solos accompanied by humming and had an early American feel, with Stephen Foster-ish melodies. For "In Heaven," Aguila created a lightly rhythmic sound mosaic with a faintly Caribbean feel, the whole laced with dancing that became increasingly intoxicated.
The third movement, "Under the Earth," was as unsettling as one could imagine, its dark, cloudy chords and hollow blackness leaving no doubt as to the title's meaning. From off stage, the oboe overlaid a dreary funeral march while the wailing flute sent ghostly phrases floating through. It was music to raise hackles.
The closing, "Far Away" sketched a picturesque Arabian travelogue, with drones, modal melodies, and swirling scales punctuated by trills, closing the evening with a flourish.
Skeptics of contemporary music owe it to themselves to hear this program, for if there is a way to keep classical music alive, it is with programs like these — music to surprise and delight, neither preachy nor pablum, just thoroughly enjoyable.