Five principal wind players of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra came together under the name “Great Exhalations” for a performance at Eddie’s Attic on Wednesday night. But the best-laid schemes of mice and musicians often go awry; the quintet’s scheduled horn player, Susan Welty, became ill earlier in the day and, with only six hours’ notice, hubby Brice Andrus stepped in to sub for her. He joined flutist Christina Smith, oboist Elizabeth Tiscione, clarinetist Laura Ardan and bassoonist Carl Nitchie in a last-minute scramble to incorporate Andrus into a slightly revamped selection of music.
That meant postponing two interesting works for another day: György Ligeti’s “Six Bagatelles” and Luciano Berio’s “Opus No. Zoo,” a theatrical chamber work with libretto by Rhoda Levine. In their place, Smith and Andrus each played an unaccompanied solo amid the remaining wind quintet pieces.
The concert opened with “Trois pièces brèves” by Jacques Ibert, a genre-defining modern work from 1930 that every wind quintet should have in its repertoire. It’s a composition characterized by transparency, grace and wit. The lively opening Allegro is followed by an Andante featuring the flute and clarinet and a final Allegro scherzando that ends in a brisk Vivo romp.
Smith then played her solo, the Sonata for Solo Flute in A minor (Wq. 132) by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Among the composer’s flute sonatas, it’s the only unaccompanied one and the only one published during his lifetime. Smith gave it the loving treatment due the simplicity of its rhetorical style.
The first set closed with an arrangement of Beethoven’s Sextet for Winds (Op. 71). It was originally scored for pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns, a popular harmoniemusik combination in the late 18th century.
The second set opened with the first movement from the Quintet for Winds (1876) by Paul Taffanel, a highly regarded 19th-century virtuoso and the father of the modern French school of flute playing. At just under 10 minutes long, the first movement demonstrated his lesser-known composing capabilities quite well.
Andrus then stepped up to play his unaccompanied solo piece, two movements from “Sea Eagle” by Peter Maxwell Davies, written in 1982. There are eight species of birds of prey known as sea eagles worldwide; Davies’ title refers to the European white-tailed eagle, which had become extinct in Britain by 1916 due to hunting. When Davies wrote “Sea Eagle,” the bird, which in maturity has an eight-foot wingspan, was being reintroduced to Britain by conservationists, despite objections from farmers that it was a threat to young lambs. Davies’ musical take on the eagle is one of nobility. Andrus played the ruminative second movement, then the first, which is more varied in range of expression, working itself up to a forceful climax.
The concert concluded with the ebullient “Three Shanties for Woodwind Quintet” by Malcolm Arnold, best known to the broader public for his Oscar-winning film score for “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” The shanties that underlie the piece are “Boney Was a Warrior,” “Johnny Come Down to Hilo” and “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?” Arnold’s brightly colored writing for winds is filled with rollicking humor in the outer movements that contrasts with the rather charming middle movement. It must have been as much fun to play as to hear.
Despite the last-minute shuffle, it was a well played and engaging concert, both serious and fun. Of special note is that the array of close microphoning present in previous classical concerts at the Attic was absent; the winds were certainly well heard without it. (In the photo above, the visible microphones were for speaking to the audience; there was also a single stereo mike up front for recording.)
The behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt is that Eddie’s Attic is now involved in developing a radio program based on its live classical music shows. That would raise the bar for the venue and the musicians in terms of careful programming. It would also greatly expand the public exposure and, surely, the live audience as well.