by Matt Campbell
The Renaissance City Winds, a versatile chamber music ensemble founded in Pittsburgh in 1975, performed a program of Americana at April 28 at Pro Bikes in Squirrel Hill, and at Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall April 29. Hammer dulcimer player Bill Troxler joined the group for arrangements of folk tunes that evoked colonial America and other time periods.
The Winds perform three to work concerts each year, doing each program twice—in a hall, and a “parlor.” November’s train-themed program was at the Victorian Holmes Hall on the North Side of Pittsburgh, which also features an amazing collection of thousands of toy trains. The intimate settings really make RCW concerts special. The Pro Bikes shop in Pittsburgh, while a surprisingly resonant space, was an exception and the racks of clothes distracted rather than added to the atmosphere.
The program opened with an early wind quintet from 1945 by Gunther Schuller, an American heavyweight. Schuller was a professional horn player and in only his teens was principal horn with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra before moving to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. Schuller’s intimate knowledge of the horn and winds showed throughout the charming work. There’s always a little bit of everything in RCW concerts, and the Schuller work featured a bluesy second movement stylishly played, especially by flautist Tom Godfrey’s soulful bends on the blue notes. The group effortlessly tossed off the perpetual motion third movement with its tricky rhythms.
Bill Troxler, a retired president of Capitol College in Maryland, is an expert on the hammer dulcimer, a beautifully sonorous string instrument played with soft hammers that sounds somewhat like a cross between a harp and a banjo; check out this video on YouTube to get to know the instrument. Though the hammer dulcimer was once very popular and could be purchased at Sears and Roebuck, it had almost disappeared in the later 20th century.
Troxler and RCW bassoonist and composer R. James Whipple arranged two suites of folk songs for the hammer dulcimer and winds. Again, there was a little bit of everything as Troxler not only performed on the hammer dulcimer, but he joined the ensemble on drum and a simple flute-like instrument, sometimes alternating between instruments in the same piece! There’s always a story behind the music, and Troxler explained that one tune was about Mary, the Queen of Scots, on her way to be beheaded. Another was an Irish battle tune, in which the “mean” Irish cut off the English general’s head to be sent back to “Eliza [Queen Elizabeth] and her ladies.” These pieces were wonderfully evocative of times centuries past.
The most substantial offering of the evening was Barber’s melodious Summer Music for wind quintet (horn, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and flute). Although much of the wind literature is from unrecognizable names, this is the rare chestnut from a composer in Barber who is recognizable and beloved by all classical music fans. Whipple offered his usual amusing notes, saying he first learned Summer Music years ago during the dog days of summer when it was over 100 degrees. Between the remarks and the ensemble’s clear affection for this piece, it felt like summer had come to Pittsburgh. Renate Sakins (oboe), David Lintz (horn), and Jack Howell (clarinet) along with Whipple and Godfrey showed the comfort that develops when musicians have been playing together for a long time.
One of the challenges ensembles that wind quintets and instruments besides the piano, cello, and violin face is that the staples of the repertoire are often from composers the everyday classical music aficionados don’t know. For instance, one of the great flute concertos was written by Andre Jolivet, an otherwise relatively obscure composer. Though Beethoven, Mozart and other greats blessed the winds with a handful of pieces, groups can’t repeat the same pieces every time.
While there are great works for wind quintets by unknown composers, it’s a tough ask for audiences to come to a concert that will be mostly new to them. That’s unfortunate, because the Renaissance City Winds is a veteran ensemble that exhibits fine musicianship and interesting music.
For now, the RCW are a well-kept secret but that’s a plus for those who do know about them. The audience was able to sit within a few feet of the musicians in a small space, not a cavernous hall. After the concert, concertgoers could mingle with Troxler, who gave an up-close look at his odd-looking trapezoidal hammer dulcimer, and the personable RCW musicians. A summer-themed reception (a nod to the Barber) featured fried chicken, chips and watermelon, and even some bottles of Yuengling and apple pastries.
The Winds will be back in the fall for their 2013-2014 season. Visit www.rcwinds.org for more information.