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As the Covid pandemic is easing – hopefully to remain so over the longer term – events have resumed and audiences are starting to come out in force. This is certainly true at UNC Wilmington's superb Beckwith Recital Hall. This venue saw two performances in as many days of dynamic young ensembles with emerging instrumentation. The first featured a trio, F-Plus, consisting of violin, clarinet, and percussion. Not 48 hours later, the Akropolis Reed Quintet took the stage.
New groupings of instruments are a continuing feature of musical developments which began a century ago or more, a seminal work such as the all-percussion Ionisation by Edgard Varèse being a prominent example. (In Western music this was new; all-percussion ensembles – playing non-notated music – had long been known in Africa.) New combinations like the reed quintet offer a new set of timbres. This grouping is distinct from the wind quintet in replacing the flute and horn (no reeds) with the saxophone and bass clarinet (one reed each). New combinations call forth the creation of new works and offer opportunities to adventuresome composers willing, perhaps eager, to take up the challenges of a so-far non-standard grouping. And they can throw a different tone on familiar works via arrangements created for the new type of ensemble.
The Akropolis Reed Quintet is a wonderful development of manifold possibilities. First of all, they are top-class players. The group has won a variety of competition prizes, garnered laudatory reviews from their numerous concerts around the U.S., and has now released four CDs. They have premiered new works as well, an artistic endeavor of particular importance. They are also active in the educational setting, bringing the excitement of music to young people; among their endeavors is an ongoing residency at three public high schools in Detroit.
Despite having achieved such multi-faceted and continuing success, the group is young. They met in college and have been playing together for the 13 years since then. They are energetic and fun. Not an ensemble for a coordinated group look, in this concert two of the men wore jackets, one wore a vest, and one wore neither of those. They were dressed variously in blue, black, and gray. The lone woman in the group wore a red dress. Out of this visual diversity, however, arose the finest of musical teamwork.
The program began with a touch of the unusual, titled Les Biches in Blue. This was a whimsical and, on multiple levels, plausible pairing and juxtaposition of ballet music by Francis Poulenc with the famous song "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin. (Poulenc's French title has no single, direct translation. As one expert put it regarding the allusive French term, "the word biches is itself pregnant with double entendre, referring most obviously to does [adult female deer], but also, in the underworld of Parisian slang, to a woman (or ironically, a man) of deviant sexual proclivities." The Irving Berlin song is, on the other hand, a paean to simple, happy love.
This piece immediately displayed the group's superb playing. Articulation among the instruments was finely matched. Imitations dovetailed with seemingly easy precision. Phrasing was shapely, something which stood out over and over in the course of the concert, and intonation in the chordal textures was well-nigh flawless. The piece was simply enjoyable to hear, with its mix of cabaret, jazz, and humor.
Four sections from Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin followed. Originally six pieces written for piano, later orchestrated by Ravel himself and since transcribed to varying combinations, this piece is well suited to a wind group. The rapid, athletic lines of the prelude showed that this is an ensemble with virtuosity to spare; it was exciting. Articulation was clean and phrasing always clear, with lines shifting seamlessly. One appreciated the range of dynamics and the beauty of intonation in Ravel's elaborate harmonies.
The following Forlane is not necessarily as perky as played here. The one drawback in the performance – perhaps not avoidable – was when the melody moved to its highest pitches in the middle section. It was too high for best speaking by the upper instruments and verged on shrill in a few phrases. The shaping of the melody in the middle and lower ranges was lovely, as was the contrapuntal richness.
The gentle, nostalgic minuet featured a fine, resonant crescendo by the group, and a beautiful oboe solo by Tim Gocklin. The delightful ending Rigaudon was athletic again, with a lovely saxophone solo by Matt Landry; he has an especially rich, creamy sound.
The half ended with a great representative of American music, Leonard Bernstein, best known as a composer for his music to West Side Story. Here he mixed the elements of an antique form with a catchy jazzy idiom. The quintet rendered the continuously difficult rhythms with aplomb and absolute tightness. That left these superb performers plenty of room for fine music making. There was a grab-you jump from forte to piano. The clarinet (Kari Landry) had a wonderful upbeat melody moment, and the bass clarinet (Andrew Koeppe) had action-packed spots as well. The snazzy ending left an upbeat feeling of anticipation for the second half.
The distinguished pianist and jazz composer (the entire program alluded to jazz) Arthur Cunningham was represented next, with five movements from his Harlem Suite. Harlem was long a center of Black life in New York, the locale of the great jazz clubs of the 20s and 30s where artists like Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington drew Black and white people from around the city and became figures of national and international prominence. (Duke's famous "Take the A Train" alludes directly to Harlem.)
Originally a piano suite, these pieces worked well in the wind setting. The first one, "Apollo" (perhaps not coincidentally the name of one of the aforementioned clubs), was mellow to start, with a good-spirited middle section and call and response between the sax and the clarinet. The following "Lullaby for a Jazz Baby" was bluesy and had a rich, full bass clarinet solo with a fine sax solo later. The middle "Sugar Hill" (a neighborhood within Harlem, now a national historic district) was perky and whimsical with irregular rhythms. The thoughtful "Convent Collection Piece" (for Sunday mornin') had the place of a slow movement, with an appealing oboe solo and another fine group crescendo. The ending Monday evening piece, "All that Funk," lived up to its name, with a good-natured rhythmic character. There was notable precision on the pauses and the group chords and a rich carrying of the bottom line (those funk rhythms!) by the bass clarinet.
This smaller-scaled set led to the dénoument of the program: An American in Paris. This spirited evocation of the energy of Paris, from a composer born in New York and living through the Roaring 20s in that center of culture, is one of the great works by one of America's master composers. It was splendidly played. The clarity of lines was to be savored, as were the shifts in figuration. The slow middle section had a fine expressiveness, with the English horn (Gocklin again) carrying the mood wonderfully; this is one of the great blues by anybody. The return brought more energy and a rollicking solo line in the bassoon (Ryan Reynolds, who had resonant bass tone in ample passages throughout the concert). The rhythms were tight and precise, and the ending was great fun, giving the concert a bright and exciting conclusion.
With all the wonderful playing – not to mention the herculean and skilled arranging task involved in recreating this piece for a group of five instruments – this was in a sense the only not fully successful piece on the program. All of the other pieces were arrangements from smaller-scaled originals. This piece is for large orchestra and is almost 20 minutes long. It is built of great contrasts in timbre, energy, and sheer sonic scale. This cannot be translated with full success to a quintet, even with the lovely lyrical playing which made certain parts of it very successful.
Whether or not this piece endures in the group's repertory, exciting things are happening, with new composers, exploratory arrangements, and a group of the highest technical and artistic skill to bring them to wide audiences. It is a wonderful moment to be experiencing music, and Wilmington itself can now start to be known as a place supporting the presentation of new works and exciting young performing ensembles like the Akropolis Quintet.