The New York Woodwind Quintet shines in eclectic program of wind chamber music
Pavel Haas’s neglected ‘Quintet’ tops this handsome program spanning five centuries
By Natalie Piontek
Goldring Arts Journalism program, Syracuse University
The New York Woodwind Quintet, the long-standing and respected chamber ensemble revered for its homogenous sound, lived up to its reputation at Saturday’s Syracuse Friends of Chamber music concert. The eclectic program spanned several musical eras, from an arrangement of three madrigals by Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo to a Classical Period quintet by Anton Reicha, and then on to more modern repertory by Francis Poulenc, Paul Hindemith and Pavel Haas.
Founded by American flutist Samuel Baron in 1948, The New York Woodwind Quintet — comprising Carol Wincenc (flute), Stephen Taylor (oboe), Charles Neidich (clarinet), Marc Goldberg (bassoon) and William Purvis (horn) — is currently ensemble-in-residence at the Juilliard School.
The SFCM program got off to a good start with a sparkling rendition of Anton Reicha’s Quintet in D Major, Op. 91, No.3, one of an astonishing 25 wind quintets written by the composer that dates from the Late-Classical Period. Taylor’s amiable tone in the expressive opening oboe solo set the mood for the rest of the movement. Wincenc, in the cadenza that followed, fashioned a rubato that was expressive but not gratuitous, and played the daunting ascending sixteenth-note passages in thirds with pristine technique.
In the fourth movement Finale, Wincenc articulated the phrases with consummate ease of delivery, passing the 16th-note passages smoothly to the other instruments, where they bounced cleanly from player to player. Except for some occasional cracking of notes in the horn entrances, the ensemble crafted a convincing and solid interpretation of the Reicha piece, effectively capturing the subtleties of the music from this period.
Following intermission, Neidich paired up with Goldberg for Poulenc’s Sonata for clarinet and bassoon, one in a few oft-played sonatas Poulenc wrote for wind instruments. A member of the French neoclassical group of composers collectively known as Les Six, Poulenc is a composer whose music defies confinement to a specific genre — straddling the line somewhere between impressionism and romanticism, as well as neoclassicism. But whatever style he may use, you can always count on a good dose of idiosyncratic French charm.
This duet-sonata presents difficulties with respect to balance of the two instruments. The clarinet can easily sound overly bright when juxtaposed with the lower and more subtle timbre of the bassoon. This balance issue was difficult to ignore during the performance, and I often wished there could have been greater volume from the bassoon and less from the clarinet. Balance issues notwithstanding, the performance had a number of high points. In the second movement, Goldberg added nuance to his sound when accompanying the sustained melody in the clarinet — changing colors to better suit the underlying chord progressions. I also marveled at the bassoonist’s excellent intonation during the wide leaps of octaves and tenths.
I thought the ensemble produced stellar performances in the arrangement of the Three Madrigals by Italian late-Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo and Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik.
Hindemith had a particular affinity for wind instruments. He’s one of only few major orchestral composers to also write for band (his Symphony in B-flat major is one of the most frequently played works in the band repertory). Little wonder, then, that Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis and Mathis der Maler frequently populate orchestral audition lists for wind instruments.
Wincenc and Neidich — who transitioned to piccolo and E-flat clarinet, respectively, in the second movement of Kleine Kammermusik — both displayed an amazingly good command of pitch on those rather fickle instruments, and their chirpy, high-pitched voices added to (rather than detracted from) the personality of the ensemble. During the fourth movement, in which the French horn is muted, The New York Woodwind Quintet reached a startling soft pianissimo, yet was able to convey the same emotive quality and vigor of phrasing here as it did in the forte passages.
My personal favorite on the program was the little-known Quintet, Op. 10 by Jewish composer Pavel Haas, a student of Czech composer Leoš Janáček. With its emphasis on folk tunes and ironic, bitter humor, Haas’s music has much in common with that of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
At the end of the perky third movement (Ballo Eccentrico), each instrument begins bending pitches downward — as if, coming so close to a resolution, the piece had suddenly lost its way. The musicians embraced the spontaneous humor of the music and even garnered some laughs from the audience. Wincenc and Taylor, by matching the speed and width of their respective vibratos, displayed some strikingly handsome blending in their duets here. At the end of the final movement (Epilogo), the players remained perfectly in-tune during the explosive crescendo to the climax.
As Purvis remarked to the audience, “there’s something about wind quintets that is kind of subversive, a little undomesticated and a little bit dangerous — that’s what makes them so fun.”
If there’s a more apt description of The New York Woodwind Quintet’s memorable performances at Saturday’s concert, I’d be hard pressed to think of it.
Natalie Piontek, a graduate of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music in flute performance and English literature, is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism program, a division of the college’s renowned S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications
Who: The New York Woodwind Quintet
What: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: H.W. Smith Auditorium, 1130 Salt Springs Rd., Syracuse NY
When: Mar. 21, 2015
Next concert: Season closer: The Juilliard String Quartet
Tickets: Regular $25; senior $15; full-time students free