What fun to leave the frigid outdoors behind and enter the equally sunny yet far warmer confines of St. Barnabas Church for an afternoon of reminiscent repertoire engagingly served up by the Niagara Winds.
The last time I heard this music was during my clarinet-playing days. The fine art of chamber music was ingrained in us students at the University of Ottawa—generally under the tutelage of the newly minted principal players of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (notably Gerald Corey, James Morton and Robert Cram). If we budding orchestral hopefuls learned nothing else it was the too-frequently neglected adage that “less is more”—a lesson that could have been employed more frequently during this wind fest.
Despite bassoonist/host Christian Sharpe’s assertion that the French “masterpieces” echoed the nationalistic fervour of “liberty, freedom and equality,” a woodwind quintet, necessarily, cannot hope to achieve the latter. With two double reeds, one single, an open-hole mouthpiece and a pair of buzzing lips generating the sound (little wonder the string quartet with its unanimity of tone generation has inspired much of the world’s finest chamber music), this disparate collection of instruments can’t possibly manage the heavenly delights available to their bowed colleagues.
All the more reason, therefore, to seize every possible musical advantage in the playbook to win over the patrons that probably “have never heard this music before.”
Three words: dynamics, acoustics, length.
In many ways, the first two combine. In the jaunty Passacaille which opened the proceedings, the group served notice that the vast majority of technical challenges were clearly under control and that intonation vagaries would not be permitted to enter the mix.
With the launch of Taffanel’s Quintet, the lack of truly noticeable dynamic contrast (particularly in the accompanying figures) and a most reverberant acoustic soon led to ragged ensemble (the “Allegro con moto” veered in and out of togetherness) and the apparent need to force the tune to rise above the fray (notably hornist Tim Lockwood’s lead line in the “Andante”). The festive “Vivace” (which seems a first cousin to the last movement of Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony) required a much drier staccato and phrase-ending clips to lift the energetic whirlwind into the heights of unity.
Mihaud’s La Cheminée du roi René had many fine moments: flautist Doug Miller and clarinetist Zoltán Kalman combined in a beautifully understated duet in the “Madrigal nocturne”—less was more, here; oboist Christie Goodwin excelled in “Jongleurs”; “La Maousinglade,” discreetly anchored by Sharpe, offered some marvellous harmonic shifts. Yet the audience was soon drawn over to the beauty of the stained glass windows, which, given that this score was written to accompany a silent film, wasn’t really surprising. Just as the film gains meaning and relevance with its sonic element, so too does the music “seul” require its point of departure for artistic intent to be fully realized.
In Françaix’s fury of notes (Wind Quintet No. 1) everyone did have “a great old time.” The impetuous “Presto,” with its alternation between slightly sarcastic sassiness and sensual seductive replies was done to a T and easily the finest combined effort of the day.
With the joking birds still ringing in their ears (after having tickled their funny bones), the contented crowd bundled up and went back out to the deep freeze, which was barely noticed given the artistic heat that had just been generated by these dedicated musicians. JWR