Listen Barthe -- Passacaille
Aug 27, 2015
Listen Reicha -- Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 88, No. 2 IV. Finale: Allegretto
Aug 27, 2015
Listen Taffanel -- Wind Quintet III. Vivace
Sep 20, 2015
Warroad, Minn. is pretty far away from Moorhead, Minn., and it's really, really, really far away from the Twin Cities. It's around 10 minutes from Manitoba, Canada, it's the home of Marvin Windows and Doors, and it regularly produces male and female hockey players that end up playing for the U.S. National Team. This little town was the first stop for the Concordia Wind Quintet from Concordia College in Moorhead.
The members of the quintet are all on the music faculty at Concordia, and they play in the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, as well as other chamber ensembles. But despite this, their favorite concerts are still those that they perform for school children — and it's pretty obvious. Humor as a way of connecting with their young audience is their mode of operation. They're not afraid to be silly, nor do they eschew physical comedy — especially the bassoonist, Russ Peterson, and clarinetist, Leigh Wakefield (the horn player, Leigh's wife, Karin, sits between them and she has to "keep an eye on them").
Their concert is structured around a diverse musical selection with each player introducing their instrument in between the pieces, usually enhanced by jokes. For the polka, Leigh taught the students to say "hoo-eey!" enthusiastically as that apparently is appropriate response to a polka band. A piece by French Baroque composer Marin Marais with an incredibly difficult horn solo had the Leigh and Russ conspiring to speed up the piece suddenly ("Let's get her!") to make things even more challenging for Karin.
The students also got a kick out of the sound of all the reeds when the players blew them outside of their instruments — they sound similar to the high squeak when one blows on a blade of grass. Oboes and bassoons have double reeds (clarinets and saxophones use single reeds), and the players have to make their own. Or as the quintet put it, "oboe and bassoon players don't have friends — they just around all day and make reeds."
In fact, the bassoon was one of the two individual instruments that attracted the most attention — the other being the horn. When asked which is longer, naturally most students thought the bassoon, but as was demonstrated with a length of tubing, the horn is actually 17 feet all coiled up, whilst the bassoon is a measly eight feet, four inches! This plastic tubing can actually even be played. Karin took the mouthpiece off of her horn and attached it to one end of the tubing. However she still needed a bell, so she asked if anyone in the audience had happened to bring a bell to the concert. A student that had been planted before the concert then offered up a black bell and it was rather amusing to see the teachers react to that unexpected response. French horn makers needn't worry however; a tubing "horn" wouldn't make a good enough substitute for the real thing, but it does make a fairly reminiscent sound.
That 'horn as tubing' demonstration is fairly common educational tool, however the trick with the bassoon was something I'd never seen before. In fact, I sat there with my mouth hanging open for a second or two. All woodwind instruments are basically hollow tubes and when the players close a finger over a hole or key, they make the tube longer. Bassoons have a pretty wide range — from the low grumpy sound of the Grandfather's theme from Peter and the Wolf to the infamously high opening solo of The Rite of Spring. The longer the instrument the lower the range, and apparently one can lower the range of the bassoon simply by rolling up a piece of paper and sticking it in the top end of the bassoon. With most of the paper roll sticking out, it acts as an extension to the bassoon and the player can actually sound a lower note than the bassoon's natural range! How cool is that!
Not everything the students learned was about the mechanics of the instruments, however. A quintet is a chamber ensemble and of course, a key element of a chamber ensemble is the lack of a conductor. There tends to be one person that leads off each piece with a nod and a breath, but otherwise the players rely on watching each other, breathing, and leaning to stay together. But to show how a conductor can influence an ensemble, the quintet invited a student volunteer to come up and conduct them in Offenbach's Can-Can. The clarinetist taught the student a few basic movements; the "fish-hook" shape of 2/4 for the right hand — which keeps the beat — and the "pizza delivery" move for the left hand to make the quintet play louder (apparently you're supposed to hold your nose if you think the ensemble sounds bad — something I don't ever remember learning in my own college conducting classes). Using a baton (or "Harry Potter's magic wand"), the student volunteer was a great sport going through all the moves including the "pizza delivery," and making the group speed up or play ridiculously slowly to great comic effect.
The quintet's penultimate piece was a bluesy rendition of "Amazing Grace," but with an unforeseen twist. Russ suddenly ran out of the room in the middle of the piece and returned a moment later with his saxophone to blast a jazzy solo of the hymn to the delight of the crowd. After the concert, when a class of kids were crowding around the musicians asking them questions and giving them hugs, he started to play his sax and pretended to run away from the crowd, but the kids followed him like he was the Pied Piper. It was clear that the performance had been highly enjoyable for the students and teachers alike, and hopefully it inspired students to look forward to the opportunity to join the band in high school.