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A quintet of fresh winds.

In the tradition-bound world of classical music, change is often painfully slow. Musicians and audiences alike may resist even the most timid efforts to broaden the genre's parameters and more often than not are inclined to seek the comforting reassurance of time-honed conventions.

But when the New World rather than the Old is the artistic focus, a universe of possibilities opens up. Forget Paris and Vienna. The road map the Quintet of the Americas follows eschews the bastions of the European classical tradition for an off-the-beaten path tour of stylistic contrasts that stretches from Argentina's tango salons to the ceremonial encampments of the North American plains Indians.

"I think people are tired of going to a concert to hear only the predictable strains of Mozart and Beethoven," asserts quintet member Marco Granados. A native of Venezuela, Granados sharpened his skills as a classical musician on a European repertoire but today finds himself increasingly inspired by the largely unexplored musical idioms of this Hemisphere.

The woodwind quintet traces its lineage to Bogota's Orquesta Sinfonica de Colombia, where five of the symphony's principal players decided to organize a group that would be dedicated to presenting music from throughout the Americas via the distinctive instrumentation of the quintet: clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flute and french horn. A formal part of European classical music for two centuries, the quintet format has proven to be remarkably flexible in adapting to the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic nuances of Western modern and folk styles.

The lone surviving founding member of the quintet, french horn player Barbara Oldham, arrived in Colombia in the mid-1970s to begin duty with the Symphonic Orchestra and soon found herself immersed in a society that has made a fine art out of cultural mixing. Forming the quintet in 1976 was a natural consequence for Oldham and a group of equally inspired young musicians who discovered their advanced technical skills could be applied to works of non-classical origin with artistically pleasing results. "Part of our reason to exist is to expose this kind of repertoire," Oldham explains. She cites works by such twentieth-century composers as Argentina's Alberto Ginastera and Julia Stilman; Mexico's Manuel Enriquez; Brazil's Heitor Villa-Lobos, Marlos Nobre, Oswaldo Lacerda and Pixinguinha; Ecuador's Diego Luzuriaga; and Puerto Rico's Roberto Sierra.

Matthew Sullivan, a member of the quintet for 11 years, is particularly enthusiastic about the group's musical mission. "As classical players," notes the former principal oboist with the Miami Philharmonic Orchestra, "we're trained to play anything that's put down in front of us, and that usually is something from the standard European repertoire. But I've found that it's every bit as fulfilling to perform a tango as it is to play something by Mozart." Bassoonist Thomas Novak, a recent addition to the quintet, finds the change of pace refreshing. "The music is very intriguing," he states, "and the cross-cultural aspect of it is quite important. This is a good example of how music can bridge cultures and lead to better understanding among people throughout the Hemispheres."

Flautist Granados has proven to be an uncommonly resourceful contributor to the quintet's musical evolution. A veteran soloist with such prestigious organizations as the New York Symphony Orchestra and the Juilliard Chamber Orchestra and a featured artist with the Venezuelan and Maracaibo Symphonies, Granados benefited from early personal exposure to Latin American idioms. As a young man growing up in Caracas, Andean folk melodies, Caribbean rhythms and the incredibly diverse styles of his own country were a constant reminder of Latin America's wealth of musical expression. "There's a big tradition of wind instruments in the region," Granados states, pointing out the existence of many pre-Columbian instruments that have survived to this day, including an astounding variety of clay, reed and wood flutes, pan pipes from the Andean highlands, and the gaita of Colombia, an unusual recorder-like instrument.

Instruments seldom if ever seen in a formal concert setting are today being introduced to a wide audience thanks to the quintet. To bring the proper flavor to the work of contemporary composer Louis Ballard, an Oklahoman of Quapaw-Cherokee descent, Sullivan lays his oboe aside to lend the plaintive sound of an authentic plains Indian flute to the work. Elsewhere, a primitive oboe from Guatemala, a vestige of the colonial era in Central America, is used with striking effect. "Today, music is being used more and more to help define cultural identity," says Granados, who specializes in arranging South American folk melodies for the quintet. The group's clarinetist, Christopher Jepperson, shares his colleague's enthusiasm for searching out exotic material and adapting it to the quintet's needs. Jepperson found such promise in an Afro-Hispanic style from the Colombian state of Tolima called the bunde. His arrangement of a selection called "Bunde tolimense," with its unusual harmonic construction and intense rhythms, is a fitting symbol of the quintet's artistic personality.

The year of the quincentennial observance has been especially propitious for the quintet. It ushered in 1992 with its Carnegie Hall debut and a program aptly entitled "Discovering the New World." As artists in residence at the Americas Society in New York, the quintet's immediate plans call for a series of concerts designed to profile obscure regional styles like the Cuban contradanza. Also in the works is a collaboration with Brazilian composer/percussionist Thiago de Mello, an avant-gardist who has already attracted the attention of such world renowned classical artists as guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima. With a performance history that already includes two tours to South America, appearances at the Inter-American Festival in Puerto Rico, the Lincoln Center, the Hall of the Americas of the Organization of American States, the Library of Congress and the Chautauqua Institute, the Quintet of the Americas is uniquely qualified to serve in its self-appointed musical ambassador's role. Early in 1993, they'll be back on the concert circuit, returning to the group's birthplace to perform at the International Contemporary Music Festival in Bogota.

"The quincentennial commemoration gave us a rare opportunity to bring attention to music from throughout the Americas," says Granados proudly. "But in a way, we've really only begun to tap what the Hemisphere has to offer. There are works and styles going back at least 2000 years that remain to be fully appreciated. And on the other hand there are brilliant new works being done by contemporary composers." For the Quintet of the Americas, a growing interest in Latin American music and a more adventurous outlook on the part of audiences are creating exciting new opportunities for musical exploration.

Mark Holston, a lifetime musician, writes about jazz and Latin music for a variety of publications.
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Title Annotation:The Woodwind Quintet
Author:Holston, Mark
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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