State of the Woodwind Quintet

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How does a composer approach writing a piece for five instruments that are so different in shape, size, and sound production that the idea of creating a perfectly blended sound is almost an impossible task? This is the challenge when attempting to write for that most unusual among the standard chamber groups: the woodwind quintet

Unlike a string quartet or a brass quintet, in which the instruments can both assert their individuality and seamlessly combine sounds to form one 'ultra-instrument', the wind quintet—comprised of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon—combines wooden instruments (two with double reeds, and one with a single reed) with a silver instrument and a brass instrument. It sounds like a recipe for a sonic stew, but this has not stopped intrepid composers from creating some lasting and truly beautiful music for this combo.

This week's show takes a look at some of the most compelling offerings for this combination in recent years. The oldest offering of the day, George Perle's fourth (!) woodwind quintet, took the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his expert navigation of texture combined with a unique vision for twelve-tone writing. The most recent, Scott Wheeler's Village Music, was written for Boston-based quintet Arcadian Winds, and combines twisted fanfares with alluring dances and Night Music.

And of course, a woodwind-based show would not be complete without a contribution from that unstoppable force of English composition, Harrison Birtwistle; his Five Distances "goes the distance" to satisfy his listeners.

Tune in and jam out to five very different instruments making wonderful sounds en masse.