Winds of change

Rainier Chamber Winds blows up a storm.

Rainier Chamber Winds continues to bring us music for wind ensembles that we are unlikely to hear anywhere else, except in music schools. While wind quintets are regularly extracted from orchestras to perform for schools and other outreach programs, and the Soni Ventorum has been a resident faculty wind quintet at the University of Washington for more than a quarter of a century, anything written for a larger complement of winds alone tends to get neglected in the professional arena.

Every concert Rainier Chamber Winds plays is full of interest, and not least because conductor Kathleen Macferran does careful research and comes up with excellent, widely varied programs. As part of the group's 10th anniversary season, Sunday's performance at the Seattle Art Museum included the premiere of a piece it commissioned. Jeux was composed by Charles Berry, a recent import from California to Bainbridge Island.

Rainier Chamber Winds

Seattle Art Museum, February 7

While commissioning is always worthwhile, you never know what you'll get till you've got it (Who knows? You might get Mozart). Jeux, named after but not owing anything to Debussy's work of the same name, is a smooth, tonal 20-minute piece for 12 players with clean harmonies, in three unoriginal movements. Though well performed, it had neither the vitality nor the character of the preceding composition, a brief Capriccio for 10 Wind Instruments by another contemporary composer, Hungarian-born Ivan Er�This choppy, jaunty, highly syncopated little work in heavily disguised triple time, with hints of blues harmonies, is a fine addition to the wind literature.

There was real satisfaction in sitting back to hear Richard Strauss' late Sonatina for Wind Instruments, also (more accurately) called the Symphony for 16 Winds, and subtitled "From an Invalid's Workshop." A reminder of the consummate skill of a superb composer, the Sonatina is copiously endowed with Strauss' masterly use of timbre and tone, his harmony and melody; but this performance sounded less carefully rehearsed than the rest. The players were not always as split-second precise, nor as well attuned to each other.

While Macferran is always a conductor meticulous to every detail, she is not a let-it-all-hang-out romantic. Strauss was. The older he got (and he wrote this at nearly 80), the more refined and erotic his romanticism became, and this piece is loaded with it. Not here, however. I wished for more expansiveness, for a richer smoothness, for the kaleidoscopic swirl of musical colors with which Strauss saturated it, more flamboyance. This was all a little too orderly, too academic, bloodless.

Where Macferran shone was in the first work on the program, Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Partita in E-flat for Four Pairs of Winds. Brisk, light, very clean, and in well-articulated baroque style, the performance showed Macferran and her players at their best. It was a delight.

The Rainier Chamber Winds has just come out with a CD of musical tales in the style of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, commissioned from two local composers and performed at its children's concerts. Seven stories comprise Tales Told in the Winds (MMC Recordings). Four are from Aesop's Fables, which lend themselves extraordinarily well to this format. Allan Barlow narrates the stories, with different voices and a wonderful pig's snort, while Huntley Beyer's music gives a lively, descriptive accompaniment. Roupen Shakarian's quite different settings of three more modern stories, The Turnip, Clock and the Kid, are narrated by Paul Prappas. The recording is a generous 76 minutes long, well produced, and is suitable for ages 3 and up (even adults).

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