Woodwind Quintet from West Point performs at Williams

On Feb. 7, the Academy Woodwind Quintet, hailing from the United States Military Academy at West Point, presented a program of contemporary works at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. The program included the premier of “SURFACE TENSION: A Saxtet for Woodwinds” by David Kechley, Chair of the Music Department at Williams.

The program opened with American composer Samuel Barber’s “Summer Music, Op. 31,” dating from 1955. The piece began with a slow, melodic section, which featured many intertwining parts between the instruments and used unusual harmonic textures, with many dissonances. The music then moved into a brighter, more rhythmic section with several impressive runs in the clarinet part. There were also several oboe solos, including a folk-like theme near the end of the piece that showed off the oboist’s excellent tone. Although a wider dynamic range would have been desirable throughout the piece, the ensemble was generally excellent, especially through the brisk, rhythmic sections.

Following Barber’s composition was another American work written only seven years earlier, Elliott Carter’s woodwind quintet. The first movement, marked Allegretto, was marked by a general downward trajectory, beginning with rapid and upbeat rhythms, but gradually becoming darker in tone and then subsiding to a quiet ending. The second movement, marked Allegro giocoso, was decidedly exciting throughout, punctuated by many short, fast notes, and moving to an abrupt and surprising conclusion. The Quintet did an admirable job communicating this frenetic atmosphere.

For the second half of the program, the quintet gained a saxophonist to perform Pierre Max Dubois’s “Sinfonia da Camera” from 1965 and Kechley’s new work. The Dubois proved to be one of the most interesting works on the program, a work that looked back to classical forms, but with a thoroughly modern flavor. Moreover, the addition of the saxophone also provided for a much wider range of colors in the ensemble. The opening “Entrée” featured moving notes that were passed between the instruments, lending a rhythmic undercurrent to the movement. The second movement, “Gigue en Rondo,” began with a very baroque-sounding theme on the flute that gradually veered off in a different harmonic direction, which clearly showed the interesting relationship between past and present in Dubois’s music.

The final movement, a set of variations, was Dubois’s opportunity to show off the versatility of this combination of instruments. One variation was a series of duets passed between the different instruments that highlighted all of the possible combinations within the ensemble. On the opposite end of the spectrum was a chorale-style variation, which showed the unique blended sound of the instruments.

The final variation was clearly the most exciting, featuring effortless double-tonguing in the flute part and exciting roulades in all of the parts, building up to a brilliant finish.

The Dubois paved the way for Kechley’s premiere, giving the audience a taste of the different sonorities in this combination of instruments. The piece is written in one movement and Kechley writes in his program notes of how the form of the piece developed, almost subconsciously, into a classical sonata-allegro form. He attributes the emergence of this form, “not so much for harmonic reasons, but due to texture, and different types of music that tend to sound introductory, expositional, developmental, transitional, recapitulational, etc.”

The germ for the piece comes from the opening material, “in the form of a call and response between the pairing of saxophone and horn against the rest of the group.” Much of the movement was punctuated by running bursts in several of the parts, giving the composition a restless and kinetic feel.

Kechley also used several techniques to add excitement, including sudden drops in volume followed by crescendos. The piece was a fitting close to the program, giving all six musicians a chance at virtuosic display. Although unusual, this combination of instruments worked extremely well. The first half of the concert had many merits, but the addition of the saxophone in the second half gave the ensemble a new vitality and expressive range that carried through to the finish.