Last night the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church hosted a recital featuring a wind quintet of the members of the One Found Sound (OFS) chamber orchestra, calling itself OFSQ (One Found Sound Quintet). The players included three of the OFS founders, flutist Sasha Launer, clarinetist Sarah Bonomo, and bassoonist Georgeanne Banker. They were joined by Jesse Barrett on oboe and Mike Shuldes on horn for a performance of Carl Nielson’s Opus 43 quintet. In addition, all but Launer paired off with a second performer on each respective instrument to play Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 388 serenade in C minor. The additional performers were Marcus Phillips on oboe, Gordon Daole-Wellman on clarinet, Craig Hansen on horn, and Daniel Zimardi on bassoon. Finally Bonomo and Shuldes joined forces with brass players Matthew Ebisuzaki on trumpet and James Thomas Ginn-Encarnación on trombone, along with Danny Sheu on viola, for a performance of Virgil Thomson’s sonata da chiesa. In the absence of notes in the program book, each piece was preceded by a verbal introduction by one of the players.
The core quintet is a solid ensemble unto itself, each player thoroughly in command of his/her respective instrument and each a keen listener to the others. It would not be surprising if they first assembled to play the Nielsen quintet, since they gave the piece an account that was as attentive as it was loving. Barrett provided the introduction, calling attention to suggestions of bird calls in the opening movement and naming the hymn on which the variations in the final movement were composed.
However, he seems to have elided over Nielsen’s own thoughts, which the composer included as an introduction to the published score. There he referred to his desire to “render the characters of the various instruments,” the operative noun being “characters.” He added, “At one moment they are all talking at once, at another they are quite alone.” This suggests that, while nature may have provided a context, the semantic core of the music is a conversation among five very distinct individuals, each stubbornly assertive in his/her own way. An earlier piece on this site described the characters as “simple folk, repeating both themselves and others frequently, each one determined to keep silence from taking over the room in which they sit” (although, given the bird calls, they may be sitting in a park or a back yard).
Also, it is frequently the case that one voice rises above the others. Many of the variations provide such solo occasions, recognizing that, in just about every social setting, the individual always has a need to assert a sense of self. Such assertive acts occur throughout the entire composition, often leading to some affectionately comical dissonances. Basically, this music is rich in personality; and OFSQ knew how to convey effectively to the attentive listener the many details of character that reside in Nielsen’s score.
In that frame of reference, each of the other two works on the program involves a different approach to characterization. Like much of Mozart’s chamber music, K. 388 has its own take on a conversational rhetoric. He wrote it in Vienna in 1782, probably to serve as “background music” for a social occasion; but he seemed to have been so fond of the conversational interplay that about five years later he rearranged the score for the more intimate setting of a string quintet (K. 406).
While the “function” of K. 388 may have been for an idle social pastime, Mozart used the Menuetto movement (in many ways the most “recreational” of the four movements, since it is a dance) to play a series of clever structural games, structuring both the outer sections and the inner trio as imitative canons, saving the trio for imitation in both prime and inverted forms. In many respects this movement is more suitable for a gathering of friends in a string quintet than as a backdrop for a polite social setting. Nevertheless, the K. 388 was given a vigorous reading last night, reminding listeners of how effectively Mozart could work with just about any collection of resources.
Thomson’s decision to complement a pair of winds with a pair of brass and then add a viola to the mix was most likely indicative of a prankish personality. He wrote the piece in 1926 for Nadia Boulanger. There is a good chance that he knew she would be impressed by his approach to fugue in the final movement, which may have given him the confidence to write the middle tango movement for himself. (Tangos show up frequently in Thomson’s scores, even when he is trying to evoke the American prairie.) Even calling the piece a sonata da chiesa suggests prankishness, drawing on the label for a sixteenth-century form with little to evoke that form other than the concluding fugue. (Thomson called the opening movement a chorale, but no one would mistake it for sacred music from the sixteenth century!) The OFS players presented this music with just the right amount of witty rhetoric that it merited.