The number of wind quintets in the roster of ensembles comparable to the most widely known and respected string quartets are few, as I explained in my previous post. One of those, the Dorian Wind Quintet, is performing this weekend at Whitaker Center on Market Square Concerts’ next program, Saturday night at 8:00.
In addition to performing across the country and around the world since the original group formed in 1961, they were the very first woodwind quintet to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1981.
Many times a string quartet, coming to town for a concert, will appear with a guest pianist to perform one of the piano quintets by Schumann, Brahms or Shostakovich. Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, has appeared in that role several times in past seasons, but this weekend he will be playing a work with the Dorian Quintet, the Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano by Lee Hoiby.
In fact, the Dorian Quintet gave the world premiere of this work about 30 years ago with the composer at the piano (it was composed in 1975). They have also recorded it for the Summit Label in 1995, again with the composer at the piano. It’s one of many works they’ve introduced to the world or commissioned from leading composers - like George Perle’s “Quintet IV” which went on to win the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
You can hear the segment from a 2002 “Performance Today” broadcast with the Dorian Quintet performing live in Studio 4A – which was also the occasion for the farewell of bassoonist Jane Taylor who was retiring from the ensemble after 40 seasons.
In these audio clips, recorded at “Saint Paul Sunday,” you can hear the quintet playing two movements of the Quintet in E-flat, Op.88/2 by Antonin Reicha which they’ll be playing at Whitaker Center this weekend: here’s the beautiful third movement and the lively finale.
In the summer of 2007, Gerard Reuter, oboist of the Dorian Quintet, was performing with Market Square Concerts’ SummerMusic and playing a few pieces with Stuart Malina who was also playing one of those major piano quintets with the Frye Street String Quartet. I overheard them talking about music to play with piano and winds but other than the Poulenc Sextet, Stuart couldn’t immediately think of anything else. That’s when Gerry suggested the Hoiby which Stuart hadn’t heard before, and the conversation continued from there. So it’s no surprise to see them playing it, now, as they reconnect for this performance.
Lee Hoiby may not be all that familiar a name to many in our audience in Central Pennsylvania. He’s best known for his operas and songs, though Harrisburg did get to hear his “Schubert Variations” which Peter Orth played several years ago with Market Square Concerts.
You can read my own personal recollection of Lee Hoiby whom I met, in a way, when I was in high school and have remained in not very regular correspondence with since then.
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Lee Hoiby, born in Madison, Wisconsin, showed considerable musical talent at an early age. His grandfather, emigrating from Denmark, was a violinist and teacher. His aunts made up a touring all-girl saxophone band. Being forced to play the piano in “alcoholic dives” by his father, though, may have had the opposite effect it had on Brahms: familiar with the pop idiom of the ‘30s, he rejected it as any influence on his own musical world.
The Kolisch Quartet came to Madison, led by the son-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, which introduced Hoiby to much of the great repertoire of 19th Century Europe and also the more modern music of Schoenberg and Webern which he, as he says in his biography, “viscerally rejected.”
At the same time and on the opposite spectrum, he met Harry Partch, one of the most unusual and independent voices in American music (sometimes called a “hobo/composer”) and even played in his ensemble of home-made instruments that explored ancient as well as newly fabricated artificial and microtonal scales - something else he decided not to use in his own music.
His intent had been to become a concert pianist, studying with one of the great European pianists of the day, Egon Petri, a student himself of no less than Feruccio Busoni. However, someone sent some of the music Hoiby was composing “for fun” to Gian-Carlo Menotti at the Curtis Institute for Music and the school offered him a scholarship, an offer he couldn’t refuse.
He spent the next two years studying strict Palestrina counterpoint, something regarded by music students as the “driest of the dry” but which in principal is essential to learning good compositional skills. He also got bitten by the opera bug, studying with the Italian-born composer who is most famous for his operas. Hoiby became involved in the Broadway premiere of Menotti’s The Consul and later The Medium and The Saint of Bleecker Street. His own first opera, The Scarf, was premiered at Menotti’s Spoleto Festival in 1957 and received much acclaim when New York City Opera produced it the following year.
He’s probably best known for his operatic setting of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, premiered in 1971, which the New York Post viewed as “the finest American opera to date.” Since then, The Tempest, based on Shakespeare’s play, was completed in 1986 and recently received its New York area premiere at SUNY Purchase where it was recorded: that performance was just released last week on the Albany label. Another Shakespearean opera, Romeo and Juliet was completed in 2004 but is still looking for its first performance.
Lee Hoiby has written a wonderful amount of songs, over a hundred of them, some of them championed by Leontyne Price and other well-known singers. In fact a new collection of them was just released last month on the Naxos label, entitled “A Pocket of Time” with the composer at the piano.
But perhaps the one receiving the most attention is a more recent work, setting the last letter Pfc Jesse Givens wrote from Iraq before his death, originally written for the men’s choir Cantus, but also available for baritone and piano. A performance of it (in which I believe the composer is the off-screen pianist) has been posted on YouTube - I include it here for those of you unfamiliar with Lee Hoiby’s musical voice.
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But there are also a large number of instrumental works in his catalogue, including two piano concertos. The 1st Piano Concerto, something I enjoy listening to frequently, is typical of his lyricism and his rhythmic buoyancy.
The Dorian Quintet has also recorded Hoiby’s “Diversions for Wind Quintet.” Two movements are included in one of the clips at that 2002 Performance Today broadcast which host Fred Childs introduces with the anecdote about the composer, going to Italy in 1953 to study as a Fulbright Scholar, being rejected from the school as “a naive American who hadn’t yet seen the light of atonality,” which was then the only accepted style in most modern, academic circles. So instead, he just “bummed around Italy, writing music.”
Though it may seem difficult to believe today, in our more pluralistic musical world – you can read more about this aspect of 20th Century Music in Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise – there was a lot of pressure on the more conservative composers then to “get with it.” Gian-Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber were just two of the major American composers to reject the political as well as artistic pressure and both of their careers suffered because of it. Ironic that, not long after Samuel Barber’s death in 1981, that political spectrum began to change, atonality and serialism became the conservative, old-fashioned voice in the face of the new tonality, feeling curiously avant-garde, and critics started declaring the death of serialism. Goes around/comes around...
Whatever one’s aesthetic choices may be, it is important for a creative artist to maintain the integrity of his or her natural inner voice. And it is great to see that Lee Hoiby’s voice – no matter whether it’s vocal or instrumental – is still singing at the age of 83.
- Dr. Dick