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CHAMBER REVIEW
Coastal Winds and Fifth Avenue Brass / Sunday, March 1, 2015
Valerie White, flute; Daniel Celidore, oboe; Jeff Chan, clarinet; Miranda Kincaid, bassoon; John Lounsbery, French horn; Tom Hyde and Dave Lindgren, trumpet; Gary Piner, trombone; Gary Meierhenry, tuba

Coastal Winds in the West County

WINDS BLOW SWEETLY IN WEST COUNTY

by Philip Beard
Sunday, March 1, 2015

March 1 was the perfect date for a rousing wind-groups concert at the Occidental Center for the Arts. Two local groups, the Coastal Winds Woodwind Quintet and the 5th Avenue Brass Quintet, did themselves proud before a near-sellout crowd. The performance was to benefit the host Center, currently raising funds for its expansion plans.

Coastal Winds -- flutist Valerie White, oboist Daniel Celidore, clarinetist Jeff Chan, bassoonist Miranda Kinkaid, and hornist John Lounsbery – opened the afternoon’s delights with a unique sequence of two pieces. They were introduced via a mini-lecture by Mr. Celidore, who treated the audience to a revealing and humorous portrait of Australian composer Percy Grainger. Grainger was an eccentric man who happens to have composed a large body of notoriously quirky but powerfully affective music for wind ensembles. The quintet’s first number was a lovely arrangement of Grainger’s lyrical “Walking Tune,” one his myriad compositions based on folk melodies.

It was a perfect opener, demonstrating the group’s rich resonances and technical mastery of their instruments, and resplendent with grainy harmonies and dynamic variation. It was lively and modern sounding but never discordant. The group showed marvelous overall balance and dynamic control, though they would have done well to place the horn in one of the side positions of their onstage horseshoe, rather than directly in front of the wooden projection “shell” at the back of the stage, where the reflected horn notes occasionally overpowered the softer woodwinds.

The second number, a set of ten short variations on that selfsame Grainger “Walking Tune” (a world premiere) was composed by the Bay Area’s prolific Mazdak Khamda for his friend Daniel Celidore. Mr. Khamda, present in the audience, mounted the stage to offer a brief introduction that was mirrored in the program notes. The work itself, after the initial theme statement, leaned definitely more toward Khamda than Grainger, as reminders of the “Walking Tune” theme in the variations were few and far between. That said, the piece exuded its own idiosyncratic charm, with several short virtuosic solos for each of the instruments alternating with sinuous ensemble chordal passages, pace variations ranging from eerily slow to frenetic, and melodic flights of fancy galore. Most impressive among the numerous solo flights were the high horn passages, handled by Mr. Lounsbery with his signature surefootedness that makes it all sound so easy.

Next were the 5th Avenue Brass, showcasing trumpeters Tom Hyde and Karl Johnston, Gary Piner on trombone, Gary Meierhenry on tuba, and the masterful hornist John Lounsbery. This group has been performing locally for several years and they always score high. Their opening set consisted of the well-known anonymous late Renaissance tune “Die Bänkelsängerlieder;” a setting of J.S. Bach’s “Contrapunctus IX;” and “Blue Curaçao,” a modern calypso-flavored piece by the prolific brass music composer/arranger Zack Smith. All were delivered in spirited and disciplined fashion. The Bänkelsängerlieder provided a fine opener, its full-throated harmonies and lively double-tongued passages immediately testifying to the group’s rich sound and technical prowess. The perpetual motion Bach fugue gave Mr. Lounsbery another conspicuous chance to shine with his bold, precise entrances. The jaunty “Blue Curaçao” got the audience tapping their toes to end the set, the Cuban-tinged harmonies and syncopated rhythms conjuring visions of a time not far off when we’ll be hearing a lot more music like this.

The concert’s second half opened with Coastal Winds performing Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s intricate three-movement “Quintet,” Opus 43, among the most iconic woodwind quintet pieces of the 20th century and the most demanding number on the afternoon’s wide-ranging program. The first movement, marked “allegro ben moderato,” gives a good sense of the broad scope of the whole work. It opens with the bassoon announcing the first theme, joined shortly by the ensemble. The horn introduces a countermelody, and there ensues a game of tag with the instruments chasing each other around the soundscape. A lyrical high-horn melody gives way to a jagged sixteenth-note motif that includes lots of small-scale Baroque-like flourishes. The composer achieves a nice interweaving of legato lines with short-phrase backgrounds, conventional thematics with modern contrasts.

The second movement (Menuet) moves at a quick 6/8 pace, with Mr. Chan’s clarinet shining brilliantly through the virtuoso passagework in duet with Ms. Kinkaid’s droll bassoon. The lively, sometimes lilting movement ends with a delicate ritardando.

The third movement opens with an eerily menacing adagio “Praeludium.” Mr. Celidore switched to English horn for this prelude, imparting an exotic, alto-sax-like character to the exposed melodic line. The prelude segues without a break into the concluding “Tema med variationer,” comprising no less than eleven variations on the lyrical, chorale-like theme stated initially by the flute and English horn. The first variation impresses with fast passagework and lots of trills; the second (andante) reintroduces the oboe with its higher, more brilliant sound. The third features strident clarinet riffs answered by the calming bassoon; the fifth, a bassoon solo with quick melismas. The sixth injects a pronounced Middle-Eastern feel. The ninth begins with an extended solo-horn fanfare in a major key, brightening the minor mood of the preceding several variations. The tenth is a fast waltz, giving way to an even faster 6/8 race to the finish. A chorale-like restatement of the opening theme ends the piece, sounding now very Bachian after this potpourri of varied styles and moods. In sum, an intriguing piece, masterfully performed.

The Coastal Winds’ segment of the concert ended with a march by John R. Burrows, a virtuoso horn player who once was Mr. Lounsbery’s teacher. Clever and inventive, the march feels like a rousing hornpipe. Ms. White’s flute work was deft and fife-like. Clarinet and horn navigated bizarre interval leaps without a hitch. The march’s tongue-in-cheek quality, reminiscent of Poulenc and his Les Six buddies in 1920’s France, provided a delightful finish to this this group’s performance.

The afternoon’s music concluded with three more numbers from the Fifth Avenue Brass. First came Ian MacDonald’s “Sea Sketches,” its three sections titled “Maritime Overture,” “Sea Shanty” and “Hornpipe”. This suite, a standard of brass quintet literature, is alternately lively and lovely while never presenting the group with much in the way of technical challenges. While not always tightly performed it still gave a good salty taste of life on and around ships. Especially effective was the wistful Sea Shanty, featuring Mr. Piner’s velvety muted trombone.

Next came a setting by Michael Allen of Gabriel Fauré’s haunting motet “Pie Jesu,” from his celebrated Requiem. If a more beautiful, affecting, transparent melody has ever graced the annals of music, I’d like to hear it. Messrs. Hyde and Lounsbery carried off the solo line elegantly. The effect was mesmerizing except for the occasional missed note in the supporting parts. Brass players have a tough job.

The afternoon concluded with Kevin McKee’s recent hit “Escape,” a five-minute extravaganza of program music meant to evoke the fiery power of volcanoes. Tempo indications include “with Vesuvian ferocity” and “Mt. St. Helenesque.” This piece showcased the best of the group’s talents. It opens with a lickety-split slurred-sixteenth-note tradeoff between the two trumpets, segueing to double-tongued staccato flourishes that set a driving, ominous tone. The center section is slower, meant to evoke volcanic majesty (“Adagio, with an Air of Nobility”) but maintaining a menacing minor-key mood throughout, underscored by the trumpet’s insistent repeated eighth-note slurs under the low brass’ soaring quarter-and half-note lines.

The foreshadowed doom erupts in earnest with a return to the opening fast pace, sforzando notes flying back and forth among the voices, reaching their height in a punch-counterpunch passage between horn and trombone and playing out finally in a reprise of the opening frenetic staccato and slurred lines, leading to a major-minor arpeggio (upwards for trumpets and horns, downwards for trombone and tuba) that ends discordantly before trombone and tuba deliver the downward slurred-octave knockout on the tonic. What a piece!

Thanks are due to Andrea Van Dyke, Steve Fowler, Patrick Fanning, and their associates at the Occidental Center for the Arts for hosting the concert. The Center is now in its fifth year of operation and acoustic and audience-comfort improvements have made the venue one of the acoustic gems of Sonoma County for small to medium-size groups.