A New Disc of Americana from the Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet Print E-mail
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Written by David DeBoor Canfield   
Monday, 11 February 2013

A New Disc of Americana from the Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet

Founded in 1957, the Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet was one of the earlier ensembles of its kind to achieve prominence in the U.S., making its New York debut in Carnegie Hall in 1963. Since then, it has promoted new American music in the medium, and a grant from the NEA made possible the CD reviewed below. The ensemble currently holds residency at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and its members teach there. In November of 2012, I had an opportunity to correspond with bassoonist Keith Sweger about the group and their new recording.

Q: From your photo, it is obvious that the current personnel of the Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet is completely different from that of the original group. How long have the five of you been playing together in your ensemble’s current makeup?

A: I am glad that our photo doesn’t look like we were members of the original group back in 1957! The group that recorded the CD (Mihoko Watanabe, flute; Johanna Cox, oboe; Elizabeth Crawford, clarinet; Keith Sweger, bassoon; Gene Berger, horn) was together for only one year. Johanna joined us for just the 2010-2011 academic year, which culminated in May and June with the recording of the CD, and she now teaches oboe at Louisiana State University. Our current oboist and Ball State faculty colleague is Aryn Day Sweeney.

Q: Is the focus of MAQ on contemporary American music, or does your ensemble also perform a lot of music by composers of other countries and eras?

A: Though the MAQ performs a wide range of wind quintet repertoire, the group has always been closely tied to American music. For instance, it is said that the MAQ gave one of the first performances of Irving Fine’s Romanza . Since then, the group has premiered many works by contemporary American composers.

Q: Are any of the pieces you recorded on the present recital premiere recordings?

A: Our recording of David Maslanka’s Quintet No. 4 is the premiere recording. We are very honored and pleased to have been the quintet to first record this work. We think that Quintet No. 4 is going to become a favorite for quintets; it certainly is for us.

Q: Do you know any of the composers whose works you chose to include? If so, did any of them give any guidance for your interpretation?

A: We did not know the composers with the exception of one (I went to school with Jennifer Higdon—I was a graduate student and she was an undergraduate) though we were familiar with the works of the others. The MAQ members researched works by living American composers and after reading through many, many wonderful and interesting works, we selected the ones that are included in our project. I have to say that the process of selecting the works was a lot of fun for the group. It was a hard decision to leave out some great works, but we were all very excited with our choices. We included the Amy Beach Pastorale because we all just loved the work and really wanted it to be part of our project. We did communicate with the composers and received some great feedback.

Q: How important is such feedback from a composer? Does a composer really know better than any other gifted musician how his piece should go? (I think of Stravinsky, whose recordings of his own music are not generally considered definitive.)

A: One of the best aspects of the project, and there were many wonderful aspects to it, was the support of the composers for our work and for our interpretation of their music. Though we received some specific ideas from a couple of the composers, they were incredibly supportive of (and excited with) our commitment to their music and to our giving the highest quality performance of their works on the CD.

Q: Whose idea was it to have a competition for the cover art work?

A: Libby Crawford, our clarinetist, first came up with the idea and she was the main force in organizing the competition. She contacted Associate Professor of Art Sam Minor who was very excited about the project. His students were equally excited, and did a great job of creating visual representations of the individual pieces included on the CD. The winner was Jaclynn Dunlap who created a representation of the Maslanka Quintet No. 4.

Q: How many entries did you receive from the art students at Ball State?

A: We had 17 students submit representations. All were enrolled in Sam Minor’s sophomore graphic design class and this project was one of their assignments for the semester. All of the works included on the CD were represented. The students all did a great job.

Q: I did something similar with one of my Enharmonic LP covers, and was amazed at the high quality of the artwork of the students who submitted entries. Why did you let the audience choose the winner, rather than leaving the decision to the members of the quintet?

A: We wanted to have our audience have some more tangible involvement in the project and we thought that this was a great way of doing that. The audience members really enjoyed their role. At our spring 2011 on-campus recital, the students’ representations were displayed in the lobby and audience members viewed the work before and after the recital, and at intermission, and a “ballot” was available for those who wanted to participate. It was fun to walk through the lobby and observe audience members viewing the representations and listening to all the discussion going on. We thought that the audience picked a great representation for the cover.

Q: Do the individual members of your quintet also give a lot of solo recitals?

A: All of the MAQ members perform solo recitals throughout the country and abroad, in addition to performing solo recitals on campus at Ball State. Everyone is very active in performing or presenting at conferences of his/her professional organization, like the National Flute Association (NFA), International Double Reed Society (IDRS), International Clarinet Association (ICA), and the International Horn Society (IHS). Some recent noteworthy performances include Mihoko Watanabe premiering Jody Nagel’s Flute Concerto with the Muncie Symphony Orchestra and receiving an invitation to perform at the Flöten Festival Freiburg 2013 in Germany. Elizabeth Crawford will premiere a work for solo E♭-clarinet by Scott McAllister at the ICA 2013 conference in Assisi, Italy. Gene Berger was a finalist in the 2011 International Horn Competition of America, and has recently given numerous premieres of chamber music for brass instruments. Keith Sweger has performed recitals and has given master classes at the 2011 Asian Double Reed Association conference in Thailand and the 2012 International Bassoon Festival in Beijing.

Q: How do you decide as a group how to interpret a piece? Obviously, in a group of five members there will always be a majority in any vote. Does the minority vote ever “win”?

A: I’m not sure that in a rehearsal we are recognizing musical opinions as being in the majority or the minority. We tend to have very open and fluid rehearsals, with all members throwing out ideas and interpretations. It seems that after trying different ideas, the group tends to make decisions as a group, not so much as individuals in a group.

Q: Among living composers, who has yet to write a woodwind quintet that you would most like to see do so?

A: This is an interesting question. One of the first names that came up was André Previn. He has written some great works for winds but he hasn’t composed a quintet yet. Carter Pann has written wonderful chamber music and wind ensemble pieces, but he has not yet written for wind quintet. Kevin Puts is another composer that comes to mind who has not written for wind quintet. If any of these composers read this interview, we hope that they would consider writing for the quintet…and would give us a call about a collaboration!

Q: What are the next “big events” planned for Musical Arts Quintet?

A: With the completion of this project, we are focusing on the main part of our jobs at Ball State, teaching graduate and undergraduate studio, and presenting our normal schedule of recitals and master classes. We will probably have a big new project under consideration in another year or two.

AMERICAN BREEZE Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet ALBANY 1369 (72:29)

STUCKY Serenade. BRANDON Five Frogs. ADOLPHE Night Journey. BEACH Pastorale. HIGDON Autumn Music. MASLANKA Quintet No. 4

The striking cover design of this CD was the first thing I noticed as I removed it from the shrink wrap. It turns out that the members of the Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet came up with the idea of a contest for the art students of Ball State University, each of whom listened to all of the pieces on the present CD, and then created a visual representation of one of the works. The artwork was all displayed at a subsequent concert by the quintet, and the audience selected the winner, which turned out to be by Jaclynn Dunlap and based on the Maslanka Quintet.

The CD opens with the Serenade for wind quintet by Steven Stucky, whom I suspect needs no introduction to the readers of a review of contemporary music. Although only one movement of this five-movement work is described with an allusion to night (the second movement, “Notturno”), the entire work seems filled with nocturnal sounds, such as are sometimes heard in the music of Bartók and others. In the first movement, in fact, I imagined a will-o’-the-wisp flitting to and fro. The use of the interval of the third is prominent in a number of places, but the general style I would describe as non-tonal (as opposed to atonal). Stucky draws much contrast and color from the relatively limited sonic palette of the woodwinds and horn, and he states that he found it an interesting exercise, coming as his first chamber work after a five-year stint of writing orchestral works exclusively.

Jenni Brandon was born in 1977, and her youth may explain why she is the only composer in this collection whose music was previously unknown to me. Her Five Frogs, an imaginative onomatomusical exercise, nevertheless stands securely in the company of the older composers represented herein. The six movements—“Leaping,” “On the Lily Pad,” “Swimming,” “Bullfrog,” “Catching Bugs,” and “Epilogue”—pretty much cover the gamut of Anural specimens and activities. Brandon received her inspiration for this work from the book, One Hundred Frogs by Hiroaki Sato, a collection of frog-inspired haikus, sonnets, prose poems, and limericks. In the work, each instrument at different times and ways, “becomes” a frog; for instance, the clarinet in its leaping ability, the horn in its suave “swimming” ability, or the fairly obvious use of the bassoon in its lower register to depict the bullfrog. In the “Epilogue,” all of the frogs sing their respective songs together, in a brilliant concatenation of lines. The work is a gem, and should attract attention from other quintets wanting to explore new literature. Brandon’s other musical activities include singing (including a gig with the Boston Pops), conducting, and teaching.

Bruce Adolphe may be more widely known as a radio figure than a composer to the general populace due to his “Piano Puzzler” feature on Performance Today, but he has hardly been lacking in performances of his music by famous soloists and ensembles. Night Journey was commissioned by the Dorian Quintet and is meant to depict a nocturnal train ride. The train is suggested by an ostinato, heard primarily in the clarinet, and the dizzying, shifting pulses and constantly changing timbres evoke the dimly perceived images that rush by the viewer looking from the window of his coach at the darkened landscape. The work is extremely effective, and warrants repeated listening.

Amy Beach may be justifiably considered the dean of women composers in America, as she was pivotal in establishing women as respected composers in this country and elsewhere. Her brief Pastorale is her only foray into the woodwind quintet medium, and was written late in her life when she was a resident of the MacDowell Artist Colony. Akin to its title, the work is gentle in harmony and undulating in rhythm, definitely a stylistic anachronism by the time it was written, but utterly captivating nonetheless.

The renowned Jennifer Higdon is represented in this recital by her Autumn Music, a fairly obvious “sequel” to Barber’s ubiquitous Summer Music, one of the staples of the woodwind quintet repertory. Higdon, as Barber did, has ties with the Curtis Institute, where both composers studied and later taught (Higdon currently holding the Rock Chair in Composition there). She writes concerning her work, “Autumn comes to us in many guises: incredible explosions of color; air that suddenly snaps with crispness; a tinge of melancholy on the eve of change in all of our lives.” Thus the work is her distillation of the essence and images of autumn, and a most successful work it is, with its juxtaposition of varying and simultaneous rhythms in each of the instruments, and its introspection and melancholy.

The CD closes with the Quintet for Winds No. 4 by David Maslanka. Given that few contemporary composers have written as many as four quintets for this medium (I know of no Reichas in our era), Maslanka’s enthusiasm for winds of all kinds is evident. The Beach work aside, this is the most conservative work in this recital, and the composer states that his intention was to look back towards the French wind school epitomized by Poulenc, that quintessential melodist. Maslanka clearly loves melody, too, and this work is mildly redolent of the French master, although I think it owes more to Ibert than Poulenc. Its harmony actually sounds as much American to me as it does French, and its opening movements of quiet undulating arpeggios and lullaby morph into boisterous good humor and enthusiasm by the conclusion of the work.

The Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet, in residence at Ball State University, gives spirited performances, characterized by tight ensemble and nuanced and sensitive phrasing. The horn licks in the first movement of the Maslanka almost propelled me out of my easy chair, in fact. Whatever the usual market for recordings of woodwind quintets may be, this disc ought to transcend it, since its appeal should extend to all lovers of contemporary music. Highly recommended. David DeBoor Canfield

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 23 January 2013 )
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