Wingra Quintet Honors Past, Celebrates Present
The woodwind quintet is something of a well-loved stepchild in the family of music ensembles. The repertoire began to build in the early 19th-century, but the majority of the most famous composers have resisted the combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. And while those string players fortunate to become part of a major string quartet can sometimes devote themselves solely to their ensemble fulltime, wind players are usually engaged in orchestras, and/or teaching positions.
Even at major universities, one doesn’t always encounter an established woodwind quintet — and certainly few that begin to rival the accomplishments of UW-Madison’s own Wingra Quintet. Wednesday night the Wingra had an opportunity to celebrate the start of their 45th season, and imaginatively combined past and present by programming works composed or arranged by founding or current members.
The tributes began with “March” (1948) by the Wingra’s founding horn player, John Barrows (1913-1974). This was no Sousa two-step, but took lively advantage of an instrumental combination that the composer literally knew inside out.
A later former horn player, Douglas Hill, was called to the stage to share insights on his “Three Moods.” The original 2005 score for horn and string quartet evolved in 2008 into the woodwind quintet version. The moods of “Joy,” “Sorrow” and “Anger” are apparently a mix of jazz-inflected environmental concerns overlaid with political overtones. Whatever the merits of the original composition, the change in instrumentation seems obvious — it’s not that strings can’t play jazz, but the timbres of the woodwinds would seem to make the harmonic shadings and jazz riffs all the more expressive.
Former flutist Richard Lottridge’s arrangement of the “Suite Francaise” of Poulenc (originally for solo piano) was a thorough delight. Lottridge could hardly have chosen better source material, as Poulenc wrote extensively for winds, including a celebrated Sextet for piano and woodwind quintet. Lottridge also allowed present Wingra flutist Stephanie Jutt to switch to piccolo in a couple of the movements. Later in the seven movements came a Renaissance stateliness, some wonderful use of Marc Vallon’s lower bassoon range, and a finale that was simply flat-out cute.
The arrangements of founding clarinetist Glenn Bowen (currently retired in Tucson; Linda Bartley, who took over his chair in 1992 is only the second clarinetist in Wingra’s history), opened and closed the second half. In an arrangement of Jimmy Dorsey’s “Oodles of Noodles,” it was Jutt who had oodles of fun. In “Walking Home in Spring,” the first of two Alec Wilder tunes, Marc Fink swapped his oboe for an English horn, lending an even darker hue when melded with the bassoon and French horn (the latter played with great versatility all evening by Linda Kimball). Whatever the original version of “Neurotic Goldfish” might have held, here Vallon was unleashed to race all over his bassoon.
Vallon then introduced his arrangement of Bartok’s Op. 6 “Bagatelles” for piano, originally fourteen brief movements in all. Vallon selected half of them, and provided additional variety by not using all five instruments in every movement. Number 3 omitted the oboe and bassoon, for example, and Bartok’s original lines can be so sparse that the decision to pare down the instrumentation here and there was effectively utilized.
A brief Duke Ellington medley (“Satin Doll,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”) closed the night with a kind of living exclamation point, as if the Wingra Quintet was saying: “This is who we were, who we are, this is our music, and how we play it!”
Happy 45th birthday Wingra Quintet: long may the group make music in any future incarnations.