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January 19, 1999

Modern ComposersThe Borealis Wind Quintet. Discoveries: 20th Century Music for Wind Quintet. Eric Ewazen: Roaring Fork Quintet for Wind Instruments; John Steinmetz: Quintet; Miguel del Aguila: Wind Quintet No. 2. (Helicon, CD # HE 1030) 1998.

Heard any good wind quintets lately? If you have listened to anything performed by the Borealis Wind Quintet, the answer is likely yes. Since their founding in 1976, Borealis has become known as one of the top chamber ensembles in the nation, and this new recording from Helicon Records demonstrates why. Containing three wind quintets written between 1984 and 1994 by three different composers, the album is a fine sample of new wind ensemble work.

Miguel del Aguila was born in Uruguay in 1957 but took his B.A. from the San Francisco Conservatory, and after further study in Vienna, has lived in California since 1992. His Wind Quintet No. 2 (op. 46) was written in 1994. The work is structured in four movements, with programs indicated by the movements' title: “Back in Time,” “In Heaven,” “Under the Earth,” and “Far Away.” Aguila says that the quintet "tells the events of a story which takes us to a completely different place in each movement, much the same as would four acts of a theater play.

I exploited the nearly unlimited coloristic possibilities of the instruments to obtain unconventional sounds. Harmony and melody are also used to help the instruments create these particular colors. Although I made extensive use of new performance techniques and effects, I avoided making them sound new or obtrusive by blending them with other instruments playing in conventional styles." The composer's Latin roots show through in a couple of sections, but overall this is a thoroughly American work.

John Steinmetz's Quintet, written in 1984, is a somewhat more ambitious piece. It is written in seven sections, including a short Prelude, played without breaks, and is without program. It is an amazingly diverse work, and shows off the robust full-bodied playing of the ensemble, particularly the flute and horn. Steinmetz, who also lives and works in southern California, is himself a bassoonist, but this Quintet proves that he appreciates and knows how to take full advantage of the full range of all the instruments in the wind quintet.

Described in the album notes as a "continuous excursion of sonic diversity," the Quintet continually changes and mutates, but with a single thread of an A440 running through the entire piece and binding the work together into a unified whole. At times the A440 underlies various melodic motifs like a thin ostinato, carried first by one instrument, then another; at times the other themes and motifs drop off and the work is temporarily reduced to nothing but that one thin line. The second movement is described as "a chant in Gregorian style with variations," and includes "a highly ornamented duet" for oboe and bassoon. The fourth movement is a passacaglia

"with the ostinato bass line stated in the horn, with each subsequent instrument providing another layer to the texture." The final movement is a full-bodied chorale in B-flat layered over the recurring A, ultimately resolving into a final solo A. This Quintet is chamber music that will be enjoyed even by listeners who don't really care for chamber music. As Robert Frost said of one of his poems: "You're gonna like this one whether you like it or not."

You can hear the Borealis Quintet perform Quintet by John Steinmetz on WHIL- FM (91.3) Thursday, January 21 at 7:00 as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

---J. Green

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