A mighty wind
The Dutch reed quintet Calefax brings its trail-blazing sound to Palo Alto
Few ensembles can claim to have created a new musical genre, but Calefax, a quintet composed exclusively of reed instruments, has brought a fresh sound to audiences.
The Amsterdam-based group's unusual combination of instruments — clarinet, oboe, saxophone, bassoon and bass clarinet — has resulted in unconventional adaptations of familiar works, and original compositions by an array of living composers. Concerts can include music by Bach, Shostakovich, Ravel, contemporary pianist Frederick Rzewski and Conlon Nancarrow, who often wrote for the player piano.
Calefax is scheduled to give its first West Coast performance on May 3, at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Although the venue is new, the concert has been years in the planning, said Daniel Levenstein, director of Chamber Music San Francisco. Levenstein said he has been a fan since he first heard a Calefax CD some seven years ago. His enthusiasm only increased when he was invited to hear the group play at the Frick Collection in New York.
Including Calefax in Chamber Music San Francisco's spring concert series, which also features more traditional groups of string and piano players, could be seen as "a bit of a risk," Calefax bassoonist Alban Wesly acknowledged.
But Levenstein said he's confident the Peninsula audience will appreciate the ensemble. "In Palo Alto people have adventuresome taste — it's quite gratifying," he said.
The all-male group, which plays standing up and usually without music, has been praised for its delicacy and precision. One critic described the group as "five souls playing as one." Besides Wesly, the other musicians are: oboist Oliver Boekhoorn, clarinettist Ivar Berix, saxophonist Raaf Hekkema, and Jelte Althuis, who plays the bass clarinet and the bassethorn.
Levenstein remembers first being impressed by Calefax's adaptation of Debussy's "Children's Corner," originally written for piano. He called the group's take on the piece "extremely tasteful, beautifully executed and immediately ear-catching." The ensemble, he said, captured the piece's spirit and the composer's intent, which was a feat, considering the shimmering quality and "splashes of high notes" in the original.
Speaking on the phone from Amsterdam, Wesly, one of Calefax's founding members, talked about the usual perception of reed instruments as "nice, funny and joyful." It's a stereotype that doesn't leave room for the instruments' potential for a much wider range of feeling and expressiveness, he said.
By limiting the role of reeds, he said: "You're missing a whole layer of drama, like the wonderful sound of a full string quartet. (By) blending the sounds of all the reed instruments, we're coming much closer to that."
When the Calefax musicians began playing together some 25 years ago, they found that little or nothing had been written for such an ensemble. Its members have slowly appropriated the music of eight centuries by arranging, interpreting and recomposing, wherever they felt a piece had potential. Hekkema has arranged about half of Calefax's repertoire.
"Having to make arrangements has forced us to have a much more intense relationship with the music," Wesly said. In his opinion, the need to adapt brings a musical advantage, requiring the players to dive into a composition to better understand what the composer wanted to express.
The group's adaptation of Rameau's "Tombeau de Couperin," for example, allows listeners to appreciate the differences between the original and the Calefax version, Wesly said. One movement in particular has, he said: "a depth and melancholy in terms of sound color that we can deliver. Having both the bass clarinet and the bassoon as the bass instruments gives such a juicy and rich color palette."
Wesly said he also believes that Calefax's use of the saxophone, both soprano and alto, gives its music a broad range of tone and color, and is helping establish the saxophone as an important instrument in classical music.
Some might call this combination of instruments quirky. But the Calefax musicians believe that "not having found out this all-reed instrumentation is a mistake in musical history," Wesly said.
Many people not only agree, but have been inspired enough to write music especially for Calefax. "We just find, without any pre-warning, complete compositions in our office," Wesly said. In response to this generosity, a couple of years ago Calefax started a contest for a three-minute composition, suitable for an encore. There has been an enthusiastic response.
In addition, several reed quintets have sprung up, in Australia, Portugal, the United States, Argentina, Denmark and Holland.
To enlarge the repertoire, Calefax has commissioned works, most recently by Rzewski, for whom the group premiered a piece last month in Amsterdam.
Commissioning music was in fact how Calefax got its start, when four students from Barlaeus, an Amsterdam grammar school, dared to ask the composer Willem van Manen to write a piece for them. To their amazement, he complied, adding a part for clarinet. The first performance of this piece, the "Barlaeus Blaaskwintet," in 1985, marked the official birth of Calefax.
Since then, Calefax has moved from rehearsals in Wesly's father's garage (an auspicious place to begin, as those in Silicon Valley know) to an office in the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, a modern concert hall in Amsterdam.
While all the members have pursued individual careers in classical music and jazz, at this point Calefax is more or less self-sustaining. That's "a remarkable thing we're really proud of," Wesly said. The group has won critical acclaim for its CDs, and in the past year played 80 concerts in 11 countries including Japan, India and Turkey.
Meanwhile, Calefax likes to retain an element of the early days when several of the musicians played for a the Dutch street orchestra Riciotti. As well as taking on the classical canon, Calefax tackles jazz and experimental music, as heard in the "Studies for Player Piano" by Nancarrow, featured in the group's latest CD.
The musicians' success has made them mindful of those who do not have the privilege of concert-going, Wesly said. While in India, they looked for a way to play for those who wouldn't normally have the chance to hear professional musicians. This led them to give a concert at a school for the blind.
Wesly said he particularly likes demonstrating to children how his bassoon's reed produces sound much like blowing on a wide blade of grass. This makes "a pure sound with an archaic quality that's very direct," he said. "Children are curious and flabbergasted."
What: The Calefax reed quintet gives a performance including Debussy's "Children's Corner"; Mozart's Serenade in C minor, K. 406; and Nancarrow's "Studies for Player Piano."
Where: Schultz Cultural Hall, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 3
Info: Go to www.chambermusicsf.org or call 415-392-4400.