Category Five Winds Blow in Whangarei

New ZealandNew Zealand Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Roelofsen, Rameau, Bach, Gershwin, Byrd, Debussy: Category Five [Peter Dykes (oboe), Moira Hurst (clarinet), Simon Brew (saxophone), Mark Cookson (bass clarinet), Oscar Lavën (bassoon)], The Old Library, Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand, 27.10.2013 [Pse]

Tchaikovsky (arr. Hekkema) – Miniature Overture (from “The Nutcracker”)
Mozart (arr. Wesly) – Quintet in C minor, K406
Ruud Roelofsen – “Tides”, a Musical Postcard from Zeeland
Rameau – “La Poule”, from Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin
(arr. Crump) – “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, from Cantata BWV 147
Gershwin (arr. Cookson) – Three Preludes
Byrd (arr. Hekkema) – The Browning (“The Leaves Bee Greene”)
Debussy – Suite “Children’s Corner

Drawing a bigger audience than might be expected on a holiday Sunday afternoon, Whangarei Music Society’s 2013 season ended on a real blow-out. On the one hand, the wide-ranging menu looked scrumptious, and on the other it’s only right and proper that a wind quintet formed “over a few glasses of wine” in windy Wellington should name itself after a degree on the Beaufort scale – and, it must be said, when it let rip, Category Five proved well able to live up to its name.

Nor was this any ordinary wind quintet. The “standard” model typically mixes reeds (oboe, clarinet, bassoon) with non-reeds (flute, horn). Following the example set by Califax (a group based in Amsterdam), Category Five substitutes bass clarinet and saxophone for the non-reeds, adding a whole pile of harmonics which substantially enriches the tonal palette. Rather less obviously, this also challenges the traditional view, amongst classical musicians at least, of the saxophone as being limited to solos, supposedly because it “cannot blend in”. From what we heard, it jolly well can.

As far as I can make out, the players comprise four Kiwis and a Tyke – a wondrous combination I modestly applaud, being myself a NZ-resident Yorkshireman. Peter Dykes (oboe), Moira Hurst (clarinet), Simon Brew (saxophone), Mark Cookson (bass clarinet), and Oscar Lavën (bassoon) all brim with talent, pertinent experience both as soloists and ensemble musicians and, going by their co-operative compèring of the concert, plentiful good humour and boundless enthusiasm.

Not surprisingly, since the “reed quintet” is, relatively speaking, still in its infancy, only one of the programme’s eight items was an original composition. Although neither over-endowed with melodic invention nor particularly evocative of its title, Ruud Roelofsen’s brief vignette, Tides, a Musical Postcard from [Old?] Zeeland, left few stones unturned in showcasing the reed quintet’s range of sometimes startling sonorities.

The term “arrangement” is deceptively simple, as I discovered when I discussed it in this review. To my mind, to cut any ice these days, a “good” arrangement has to be one which stands as a musical work in its own right, one that contributes something both new and substantial; to put it bluntly, it doesn’t leave you wondering, “Why did they bother?” By that criterion this programme, for the most part, comprised at least fairly good arrangements, and included a couple of truly juicy “plums”.

The main exception was Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, in which the music’s three voices were simply allocated to fixed instruments – in other words, this was a bog-standard “transcription”, nothing more than a change of clothes (and putting me more than a bit in mind of Andersen’s fairy-tale Emperor). Oh, C5 played it impeccably, but the arrangement said nothing that hadn’t already been better said by JSB.

At the other extreme came the overture to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, whose arrangement was a tingling kaleidoscope of colourful, bustling lines, lancing through the texture like jet-propelled party-streamers. If he’d heard this, Tchaikovsky might well have been tempted to revise his own score!

And in between? The arrangement of Mozart’s Quintet K406 was riper and rounder, its “Alberti” accompaniments burbling more deliciously that ever – and the aforementioned “unblendable” blending beautifully. Then again, trying (manfully!) to replicate the convoluted keyboard ornamentations of Rameau’s La Poule (“The Hen”), or to clarify the counterpoints of Byrd’s The Browning, C5 seemed somewhat like ducks out of water. Yet, they took like ducks to water in Gershwin’s Three Preludes, whose sassy jazz and languorous blues just sit up and beg for the blessing of saxophone and bass clarinet. Here, no doubt guided by Oscar Lavën’s jazz expertise, the highly-idiomatic C5 didn’t miss a trick, realising all the music’s implied colours, the “blues-ey” gloom and catchy dance rhythms.

Possibly excepting its opening Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum movement, where it’s inevitable that the extended pianistic joke will be utterly lost in any arrangement, Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite was magically transformed. C5’s way with the subtly-graded, overlapping notes of The Snow Is Dancing conjured an entrancing atmosphere, whilst Golliwogg’s Cake-walk responded gleefully to their romping rude bottoms, a succession of saucy sounds that a piano can merely hint at! Suddenly, the long-familiar notes seemed to become invested with a kinship to the Gershwin.

Although I seem to be implying that the standard of performance depended on the quality of arrangement, in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Some arrangements simply worked better than others, and I would guess that, as they develop their repertoire, the pieces less successful as arrangements will gradually be weeded out. To each and every piece they played, C5 palpably committed their hearts and souls. For an encore, they dished up a tasty titbit of Duke Ellington, which made doubly sure that the audience went home happy, if perhaps a wee bit hungry for more – which is always a good sign, is it not?

Paul Serotsky

Leave a Comment