Review: Los Angeles Composers Collective: Wind Quintets

On Friday, October 23,  the Los Angeles Composers Collective presented a concert at Ross Chapel in Pasadena, featuring seven new wind quintets by the collective’s seven members. CLAW, the Los Angeles-based contemporary wind quintet, was on hand to perform. Linda L. Rife, LACC Artistic Director, gave some opening remarks and introduced each piece, all premieres.

The concert opened with Spring From Night Into The Sun by Gregory Lenczycki, a piece that was inspired by Help On The Way by the Grateful Dead. A tuba was substituted in the CLAW wind ensemble for the usual bassoon and the opening flute arpeggios were soon joined by a booming bass line. The other instruments entered with alternately jagged lines and smoother stretches, with the combinations constantly changing. This produced a complex texture that was occasionally broken by more fluid sections. At one point a lovely horn solo rose up with a solemn, introspective feel. At other times a light, bouncy groove emerged, dominated by the horns. Spring From Night Into The Sun featured excellent coordination among the players passing around the complicated rhythms and provided an engaging contrast by the artful placement of the more soothing stretches.

Out of Time by Ryan Lester was based on a sort of biological metaphor, as three musical cells were introduced and evolved in different directions. The piece began actively, with repeating rhythms and syncopated lines, the bassoon, flute and clarinet closely interwoven with the horn, producing a complex, constantly-changing pattern of eighth notes. This had the feel of classic minimalism – with the three repeating cells – but as the rhythmic variations radiated outward there was a sense of ever-expanding complexity.

Wind Quintet No. 1 by Tu Nguyen followed and was inspired by that most agreeable of diversions: daydreaming. This piece began in a series of lush, sustained chords with a particularly lovely blend in the clarinet and bassoon. There was a more leisurely and relaxing feel to this as compared to the previous pieces, and the horn part added a particularly welcoming touch. The pleasant harmony and slower pace gave an earthy, organic feel – like lying in the sunshine of a summer day. Occasionally there would be a touch of drama or the exotic, but always followed by a return to the familiar. Wind Quintet No. 1 is a deftly charming sketch of genial reverie.

The first half of the concert concluded with Story of the Tree Seed by Danielle Rosaria. This is a story that Ms. Rosaria imagined for her unborn child involving a tree seed given by an old woman to be planted by a young girl from a mountain village high above the timber line that knew no trees. Story of the Tree Seed proceeds in four movements; the first opens with a lovely horn and clarinet duo, followed by the bassoon and horn. There is a sense of noble grandeur here – and mountainous terrain – that sets the scene. The second movement is slower and more deliberate and the bassoon solo paints a convincing portrait of the old woman – long flowing passages and an elegant counterpoint complete the picture. The orchestration of the wind instruments is precisely on target here. Movement three is active and bustling, exactly like a child full of energy. The melody lines are rapid and short, especially in the flute solo. The other woodwinds add counterpoint and the feeling is optimistic and hopeful. The final movement has a monumental feeling, especially in the horn, as the tree seed is planted with a spirit of idealism and hopefulness. Story of the Tree Seed features excellent writing for the wind quintet as applied to storytelling – you can almost see the animation unfold in your mind’s eye.

The second half started with A Buck For The Organ Grinder by Derek Dobbs, with the wind quintet augmented by electric guitar, bass guitar and the composer at the electronic keyboard. This piece was inspired by the mistreatment of the old organ grinder street musicians who were often insulted or physically chased from the street corners where they would busk for small change. Given the nature of the title and the addition of the amplified instrumentation, I anticipated a high intensity sonic barrage would ensue. This proved to be incorrect, as the guitar and keyboard began with a bright, sunny opening chord that set a buoyant tone for the rest of the piece. The bass joined in, lending an Asian feel and as the woodwinds and brass entered there were some splendid harmonies as well as an engaging counterpoint. There was a terracing effect as each instrument entered in its turn, adding to the rhythmic texture and sweet sensibility of this piece. A Buck For The Organ Grinder is a gentle and unhurried piece that is full of warmth and optimism.

Ouroboros by Nicholas White was next, and this was based on the self-devouring snake myth that is common to many cultures. Dark chords and deep notes opened this piece, giving a somewhat sinister feeling. The english horn gave a rather exotic feel and the piece became more dramatic and uncertain with the addition of some discordant tones. The exotic feeling was increased by an oboe entrance that weaved a mysterious melody, reminiscent of an early passage in The Pines of Rome. The bass clarinet added to the ominous feel and the piece turned dark and menacing, perhaps a metaphor for the completion of the circle of life as symbolized by the self-devouring snake. Ouroboros is a fine musical expression of the ancient myth, nicely captured for the wind quintet.

The final piece in the program was In passing by Jon Brenner. This began with a syncopated tutti line that quickly broke down into complex counterpoint. There was a busy, active feel of motion and movement to this. A theme emerged and was handed off to different players as the others combined in a nicely ornamented counterpoint, as if commenting on the theme. The texture was animated, with many parts emerging and then falling back again; it almost seemed as if a fugue would break out. In passing is a complex assembly with intricately moving parts, pleasing to hear and well played.

The playing by CLAW was precise throughout the concert,  with good ensemble despite the wide variety of works on the program. The Los Angeles Composers Collective, formed in 2011, continues to showcase new music and emerging composers with concerts such as this.

CLAW is:
Sammi Lee – flute, alto flute
Claire Brazeau – oboe, english horn
Brian Walsh – clarinet, bass clarinet
Kat Nockels – tuba, bassoon
Annie Bosler – french horn

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