Traditional Classical music concerts are great. A famous symphony orchestra or string quartet, a masterpiece by a revered composer, a beautiful hall with pristine acoustics, and a quiet, attentive audience – these elements combine to produce truly special, even life-altering, artistic experiences.
Classical Revolution has a different take on the idea of “concert”: find the best local musicians, bring them together in a favorite hang, and invite anyone and everyone willing to listen. The atmosphere is completely different, but no less impressive.
Since beginning in San Francisco in 2006, Classical Revolution has spread to dozens of chapters across North America and Europe. Greensboro's chapter, directed by cellist Brian Carter, has built a tremendous audience with just four performances since January 2015.
Sunday's performance, like many of Classical Revolution's concerts, featured a relatively young group: Quintet Sirocco, featuring Cat Keen Hock (clarinet), Ronnal Ford (oboe/English horn), Xin Gao (saxophone), Rebecca Libera (bassoon), and Trevor Davis (bass clarinet).
The reed quintet is a relatively new ensemble, devised by the Dutch ensemble, Calefax in the mid 1980s. The instrumentation of the reed quintet resembles the traditional wind quintet, with horn and flute replaced by saxophone and bass clarinet. The difference made by these two instruments is tremendous.
In a wind quintet, the overall sonic image is five distinct colors that weave in and out of the texture. A reed quintet retains the sense of individual timbres, but gains a great deal of homogeneity. Any two instruments in the ensemble can blend together and synthesize a new tone color, creating a dazzling variety of sounds.
In downtown Greensboro's Gibb's Hundred Brewing Company, the audience felt immediately at ease. Surrounded by warm lighting and beautiful wood surfaces, the mood lightened by Gibb's fine brew, audience members mingled freely – a far cry from the concert hall.
Beginning with Leonard Bernstein's Overture to Candide, Sirocco showed off their nimble fingers and sharp precision. Following the Bernstein were two movements from Claude Debussy's Petite Suite. Though completed in 1889, these movements felt very much like they belong to the 20th century, highlighting Sirocco's focus on performing relatively recent repertoire.
For my taste, the final two pieces on the program were also the most well-scored for the ensemble. Brian Koenig's A Journal of Dreams is a dazzling, encyclopedic journey through the colors and textures available in a reed quintet. Koenig, himself a graduate of UNC-G's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, has a dual personality as a musician. On the one hand Koenig is an accomplished oboist with a keen understanding of the capabilities of reed instruments. This familiarity was apparent in the piece's third movement, “Pavor Nocturnus,” which features growls from the oboe and tongue slaps in the saxophone.
This movement also hinted at the other side of Koenig's music career: he is a virtuoso heavy metal guitarist who has performed and toured professionally for more than a decade. To symbolize night terrors, “Pavor Nocturnus” borrows heavy metal's propulsive drive, syncopated rhythms, and shifting meters.
The most beautiful moments in A Journal of Dreams occur in the fourth movement, “Dissipation.” Here Koenig draws out beautiful, cloudy lines that are almost string-like in their delicacy. Instruments stack atop one another in long swells, building up beautiful harmonies note-by-note.
Aaron Schmitt explored a rather different approach to the ensemble in his transcription of Three Preludes by George Gershwin. Where Keonig took advantage of the ensemble's lush textures and curious timbral effects, Schmitt showed off the quintet's ability to carve out clean contrapuntal lines. At one astonishing moment, Ford (cor anglais) and Gao (soprano saxophone) joined together in a perfectly tuned unison to sing through a lilting melody. The effect was breathtaking – a reedy but completely unfamiliar tone color emanated from the stage in a beautiful and potent illustration of the reed quintet's unique capabilities.
Quintet Sirocco and Classical Revolution Greensboro were a perfect fit for each other. Both are young and exciting musical institutions with refreshing ideas of what Classical music can be. Fans of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, rest assured: this tradition has a great future.