Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet – “American Breeze” = STEVEN STUCKY: Serenade for Wind Quintet; JENNI BRANDON: Five Frogs; BRUCE ADOLPHE: Night Journey; AMY BEACH: Pastorale; JENNIFER HIGDON: Autumn Music; DAVID MASLANKA: Quintet No. 4 – Albany TROY1369, (9/1/12), 72:29 ****:

(Mihoko Watanabe, flute, piccolo/Johanna Cox, oboe, English horn/Elizabeth Crawford, clarinet, bass clarinet/Keith Sweger, bassoon/Gene Berger, horn)

The woodwind quintet repertory (which traditionally does include a French horn) is vast and very attractive. As a member of such ensembles over the years, I feel that it is a medium with much sonorous variety to offer and should compete regularly for the attention and pleasure of the public with the string quartet or piano quintet.

This program is an absolute gem, filled with incredibly interesting pieces by American composers covering many diverse styles. I found the Serenade by Steven Stucky a real find. Written in homage to the various “outdoor” serenades by such composers as Brahms and Mozart, Stucky wrote this beautiful work for the Pennsylvania Quintet. Each movement offers a “musical moment”, in Stucky’s words, with showy soloistic passages for all. The Notturno is especially pretty.

I have had the good fortune to have played Jenni Brandon’s Five Frogs several times and, I must say, I love this piece! Taking its inspiration from a book of haiku by Hiroaki Sato, One Hundred Frogs, each of the five movements, here, is a picture of “frog life” in a way; “leaping”, “swimming”, “catching bugs” and so forth. The closing Epilogue is nearly impressionistic in its references to frogs as a whole and to the preceding four movements. I can’t imagine anyone not getting a smile out of the bassoon “croaking” in Bullfrog! This is such a neat piece. Brandon is a Los Angeles-based composer and new music promoter.

Bruce Adolphe’s Night Journey is a single movement nocturne, of sorts, in which “colors appear, lights flicker” and the imagery is one of a night train ride. This is a very mysterious work, as intended, with little jazz touches here and there. Adolphe has served as a visiting professor at Yale and served on the faculty of Juilliard and the New York University. If there is a “historical” work her, it is the brief but lovely Pastorale by Amy Beach, arguably the first American female composer of renown. This characteristically lovely, picturesque work is the only work Beach wrote for wind quintet.

David Maslanka is one of the country’s great most prolific writers of wind music. He has written everything from symphonies for wind ensemble to concerti to chamber music. The Quintet No.4 was commissioned by the Florida Wind Quintet and, as the composer describes it, is written in reference to the French repertoire of the 1940s and ‘50s; particularly the music of Poulenc. The opening movement is particularly striking with its pulsing sections under extended solos for each instrument. It sounds broader and “larger” than the five instruments at hand and is a highly engaging, dramatic work.

I confess that Autumn Music by Jennifer Higdon is my favorite work here, having performed it before. Higdon is one of America’s finest composers and an active promoter of her colleagues and of American music in general. Her writing is lively and colorful with a special attention to creative use of timbre. This piece wonderfully evokes the bursting of color in autumn leaves and a little chill in the air. The rhythms and harmonies go from bright, propulsive and joyous until the last three minutes of the work, where the clarinetist takes up bass clarinet, the pace slows, the harmonies “darken” and the mood becomes more plaintive. It is as if winter is around the corner; a wonderful work.

The Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet is a terrific ensemble with five individually skilled players. Their approach to this album was innovative as well; having chosen the program to be a starting point for some visual arts students at their base, Ball State University, to create visual art that reflected the tone of the program as recently performed. The “winning” design became the cover art to this album (Jaclynn Dunlap’s visualization of the Maslanka quintet) Each of these works is, or should be, in the standard repertory for woodwind quintet. I imagine anyone finding great pleasure in the works by Brandon, Higdon and Stucky, especially. For wind quintet performers this collection is a must.

—Daniel Coombs