French hornist Adam Unsworth has long nurtured two seemingly opposed musical loves: the French horn and jazz.
"I just happened to pick an instrument that's not a common jazz instrument. French horns are not included in jazz ensembles very often," Unsworth said in an interview with this news organization.
And that's why, as the newest member of Quadre, Unsworth may jazz things up a bit when it comes to the Mountain View-based horn ensemble's repertoire. Unsworth is also a composer who primarily writes jazz works, though it's a genre that typically doesn't offer much for French horn.
He officially joined Quadre in February. The group's three other members, Amy Jo Rhine, Lydia Van Dreel and Daniel Wood, invited him to join them last summer, following the retirement of longtime member Nathan Pawelek.
Local audiences will be able to hear the ensemble's new lineup in person next month, during Quadre's California tour. The group is planning a series of performances June 21-27 of its "What Is Home?" program, which "speaks to the incredibly uplifting work that is being done every day by organizations that serve the unhoused community," according to the ensemble's newsletter.
The group's upcoming tour will include a June 26 concert outdoors at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The concert will take place 4 p.m. at the Center's ParkStage. For those hoping for a sneak peek, the group will also livestream a rehearsal next month, with details to come on Quadre's Facebook page.
A musical upbringing
Unsworth was raised around music. His father was on the faculty of the Crane School of Music in upstate New York, where, as a child, he was able to attend concerts and began studying the horn with a professor at the college.
"I definitely had advantages in that way. And I loved playing the horn, from the first day I took it home from school in fourth grade," he said.
His family also helped instill a love of jazz. With his father playing jazz piano, and his older brother a jazz bassist, it was the music he grew up listening to.
From middle school through college, in addition to French horn, Unsworth played the electric bass, an instrument more at home in a jazz ensemble. In grad school at University of Wisconsin, Madison, he eventually sold his bass in order to have the money to start taking auditions.
"I started playing jazz on the horn in my master's degree and then kept going," he said.
Unsworth is now a professor of horn at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he lives with his family.
Working together from afar
With Quadre's members based in different parts of the country, well before the pandemic the group was already doing a lot of work remotely. The group talks for a couple of hours each month, making decisions about repertoire and planning for future seasons, and then comes together throughout the year for performances.
The model seems well-suited for the work-from-home world, with one significant exception: Virtual rehearsals aren't possible.
"There's what they call latency, where there's a delay. And so to actually play together is quite difficult," Unsworth said.
Due to the pandemic, until recently, in-person performances have been limited. Since accepting the invitation to join the ensemble last summer, Unsworth has had a chance to play with Quadre only a couple of times, including during a trip to the Bay Area last fall, when the group had their first real chance to rehearse together. The ensemble also performed at several local food pantries during the visit.
Focusing on social justice
Quadre emphasizes social justice in its programming, with themes for each season that highlight key issues facing society. For its 2020-21 season, "Homelessness: Hope, Humanity and Heart," Quadre is exploring the meaning of "home" in our community and has commissioned composers Nina Shekhar and Ben Shirley to create works on the theme.
As part of its June tour, Quadre is also partnering with South Bay organizations that support the unhoused community, such as the Bill Wilson Center, Martha's Kitchen, WeHOPE and LifeMoves, to present performances for those agencies' clients, including concerts June 23 at LifeMoves' Mountain View shelter and June 24 at LifeMoves' shelter in San Mateo.
The ensemble's June 26 performance in Mountain View will feature multimedia artist Kristopher Grant; percussionist James Kassis; and new works by composers Shekhar, Shirley, Michael Kaulkin and Zachary McDonald and by artistic director and composer Wood.
Kaulkin and McDonald were the first- and second-place winners, respectively, of Quadre's 2020 International Composition Contest. "What Is Home?' will feature their winning works: Kaulkin's "By Hook or By Crook" and McDonald's "Locked Up."
Quadre launched its 2021 composition contest last month and is seeking entries until June 1, with first place receiving a prize of $1,000 and second place receiving $500. The winning works will be performed in the 2021-2022 season.
Leaving room to improvise
Unsworth is working on a piece for Quadre's 2021-22 season, which will explore the theme of environmental issues and climate change. In writing this new work, he said, he's trying to evoke a sense of clean air and clean water in the music.
With his compositions focusing on jazz, Unsworth said "composing for a horn quartet is something that will be different for me. (Jazz) is just a very different musical world where there's a lot of improvisation. The structure is a lot more sparse by design, because you want to leave room for the improvisation."
While he might leave a bit of space for improv in the piece, Unsworth said he's also looking at bringing in a jazz influence in other ways, possibly through a collaboration with a percussionist, noting that the group often collaborates with other musicians.
In discussing the ensemble's social justice mission, Unsworth pointed out that French horns, in the time long before phones, were used as "calling instruments" a way to send signals across long distances, or more metaphorically in this case, sending a call to action.
While the idea of signaling by horn may have a particularly quaint appeal in this era of Zoom, Quadre is using its instruments to send some calls that its musicians hope listeners will want to answer.
For more information about Quadre's upcoming performances, visit quadre.org.
A version of this story was previously posted at mv-voice.com, a sister publication of paloaltoonline.com.