This was an interesting evening, mostly from a musically sociological viewpoint. The Chamber Arts Society, in association with Duke Performances, was presenting the Calefax Reed Quintet, a long established ensemble (nearly twenty-five years in existence with practically all the same members) at Baldwin Auditorium. Based on many overheard comments and subsequent reaction to an extraordinary concert, you would think that there was the same trepidation of this non-string group as if they had planned to bang garbage cans and turn air-raid sirens. It’s no secret that, for many reasons, string quartets and piano-centered groups are the kings of nearly all chamber music societies — not just the superb ones in the Triangle. There have been some changes of late, including a fabulous concert by the Imani Winds at Duke last season. But my observation remains that these “unusual” groups unfortunately continue to be viewed as a curiosity.

Despite the fact that they were introduced incorrectly — note that this is the Calefax Reed Quintet — they are not a woodwind quintet: no French horn or flute. They are exactly as advertised with all musicians playing a single or double reed instrument(s). Members are Oliver Boekhoorn, oboe and English horn, Ivar Berik, clarinet, Raaf Hekkema, saxophones (mostly alto), Jelte Althuis, bass clarinet, and Alban Wesly, bassoon. Based in the Netherlands, Calefax plays a wide array of styles, arranging and performing music from early Renaissance polyphony to Mozart to Jazz and everything and anything in between. 

The subtitle of their program was “The Fugue Through the Ages,” a bit academic sounding, which they readily admitted, but they later made a presentation that attempted to draw back the curtains on the mystery of fugues. The very few compositions that were originally written for the above unusual combination of instruments were invariably written for and/or commissioned by Calefax. But the overwhelming majority of works performed or recorded are arrangements, usually done by a member of Calefax. Often overlooked as an integral musical skill, but probably the most important element of the whole package (other than the playing), arranging was equally on display for this program and should receive equal credit.    

Calefax reached way, way back in time for their first selection: Mort, tu as navre by Johannes Ockeghem (1410?-1497), arr. Raaf Hekkema. An early masterpiece in memory of fellow composer Gilles Binchois, the first notes heard were Oliver Boekhoorn’s beautifully phrased, plaintive English horn. Any “show me what you got” attitudes by some audience members were quickly dispelled as the beautiful tones and intimate musicality of the men wafted across and up into Baldwin’s majestic dome. Bassoonist Wesly, serving as spokesman for the group, then gave a brief welcome statement and fudging some geographical borders, claimed Ockeghem as a fellow Dutchman. They then went right to the meat of the world of fugue and played bass clarinetist Jelte Althuis’ arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. The transformation from keyboard where you have an embarrassment of riches of color combinations can sometimes tempt arrangers to overdo it. Here, the spirit and pitch relationships among the instruments remained true to Bach’s genius as voices were seamlessly passed around with great finesse and tact. Calefax continued to move up chronologically and move to France and their great organ tradition with another Althuis arrangement, César Franck’s Prelude, fugue et variation. Franck wrote several works that added an extra segment to the traditional “prelude and fugue” pairing, and this is one of his best known. The fugue, unusually brief, leads directly into an exciting variation of the prelude. The guys seemed to take added delight in performing this wonderful piece.

We now arrived at the music education portion (no extra charge) of the program with a segment called “a brief introduction to the fugue.” Saxophonist Hekkema was the professor, and he delivered a mix of a comedy routine with a very simplistic lecture on fugue. They began by singing a canon, or round, based on a Dutch folk tune. They actually all had great voices and Hekkema was genuinely impressed with the acoustics of Baldwin. He progressed to a visual depiction of the voices in a Shostakovich fugue, and they all ended up playing a phenomenal fugal piece by Handel. While I doubt that this did all that much to further an understanding of the considerable complexities of fugues, it went a long way in humanizing these musicians and furthering a great rapport with the audience.    

The first half ended with three of the Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). I knew nothing of this composer or this work, but the fascinating program notes by Hekkema, and his arrangement, really intrigued me. Briefly, he used a player piano to further the possibilities of the mathematical relationships in imitative compositions in such a way that most humans could not play or comprehend. Nevertheless, Calefax has performed many of these, and the ones tonight were marvels of technical fluidity and ensemble tightness that might just be at the top of my “you’ve got to hear it to believe it” scale.  The first half ended with most of us sporting a dazed, incredulous look.

Arranging fourteen of the pairings from Dmitri Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes & Fugues is one of the most audacious, yet successful arrangements and recordings by Calefax. Arranged by former oboist Eduard Wesly, great care was taken to retain voice leadings and to discard those that just did not work as a piano-to-fiv- woodwind adaptation. The entire second half consisted of Calefax playing eight of these preludes and fugues. The range of tempo, orchestration and emotion was exhilarating, and you could tell that not only did each member know their own part, but they had a deep understanding of the whole. In the fugues, the individual voices jump out at you in a way that is nearly impossible on piano, but the arrangement and performance was careful to do it in a sensitive and musically ethical manner.

I felt fortunate having the opportunity to hear these musicians, realizing that they are not a group that I’d usually go see. I guess I plead partially guilty to at times being a string snob. Calefax has put me on the road to curing this affliction.