Among musical visitors to town, great string quartets are surprisingly numerous. Woodwind quintets are a rarer bird. (Resident groups in both genres are practically nonexistent, but that's a puzzle for another day.)
Part of the reason for scarcity of the flute-oboe-clarinet-bassoon-horn mélange is the fact that composers don't have a strong tradition of writing woodwind quintets, much less minting them in opus groups of six pieces at a time the way string quartet composers often did.
But the Philharmonic Wind Quintet of New York didn't even acknowledge the usual limited repertoire Sunday afternoon at the Independence Seaport Museum. They didn't have to. This is a group with such an abundance of precision and skill that it could afford to take on works so virtuosic that an unsuspecting audience might think this sort of thing is routine.
One of the qualities that make this ensemble such a pleasure is the balance between individual character and blending. Dating from 2001, the group is made up of members of the New York Philharmonic, an orchestra in which individualism sometimes trumps shared vision. There was no evidence of that here: Each voice in this quintet is a distinct artistic personality, but playing into one another's sound is a valued art.
I was grateful to hear Ligeti's folk-inspired
Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet
from 1953, easier on the ears than many of the works that form the composer's reputation for dissonance. And Lalo Schifrin's
La Nouvelle Orleans
, written in 1987, was an uncommon peek into a career that has included jazz and the theme music for
But it was David Maslanka's original aesthetic in the
Wind Quintet No. 3
that fascinated the most. The 1999 work hints (and sometimes more than hints) at influences as contemporary as film scores and as ancient as Bach and Gluck. Yet the composer's unusual shaping of melody is all his own. His sustained, singing tune for oboe - a gorgeous lament - was greatly enhanced by Sherry Sylar's polish, and later in the work, where muted horn and flute doubled, it was hard to imagine a closer sound meld than that of Erik Ralske and Robert Langevin, respectively.
Sometimes a piece and ensemble seem destined for each other, and though this work was not written for the New Yorkers, they clearly own it and, happily, one another.