Borealis Wind Quintet Beats the Odds

Woodwind quintets have never had the glamour of other small groups. Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven didn't write much for that combination of instruments. But members of the Borealis Woodwind Quintet have been nominated for a Grammy.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Borealis Wind Quintet also received the uncommon recognition of a Grammy nomination. It's only the second woodwind ensemble every nominated for Best Chamber Music Performance. The category has been dominated by big name string quartets and famous soloist. And as Diane Orson of member station WNPR reports, this nomination may reflect a larger change taking place in the chamber music world.

DIANE ORSON reporting:

When the phone rang and his friend told him to drop everything, go to the computer and check the Grammy nominations, bassoonist Wayne Hileman said maybe later. His friend insisted.

Mr. WAYNE HILEMAN (Bassoonist): So I look at the list and I pull it up online and I'm scrolling down through all the categories till you get to the bottom, which is where the classical categories are. And then we get to chamber music performance and there's our recording. And my first thought, very first thought was, Oh, he's playing some trick on me.

ORSON: Hileman says he never dreamed that the Borealis Wind Quintet CD Ala Carte would be considered for a Grammy. Wind quintets have always had a rough time competing with the real stars of classical chamber music, string quartets. That's partly because of repertoire, says Hileman. String quartets have volumes of great masterpieces by Hayden, Mozart and Beethoven to choose from.

Mr. HILEMAN: Quite honestly, there's a long list of famous composers that never wrote a wind quintet. Perhaps that's because the wind instruments lagged behind string instruments in development. I mean to this day, instrument makers of flute and clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon are still creating innovations for the instruments, where string instrument makers are trying to copy things that were done in 1700.

HANSEN: Each instrument in a string quartet produces its sound in the same way, by drawing a bow across a string. But flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and French horn are wildly diverse with single reeds, small double reeds, large double reeds, and no reeds at all. The French horn isn't even a woodwind instrument. But put them together and you hear a blend of tone and color that's unique and complex.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LAWRENCE VIDDES(ph) (Critic, Gramophone Magazine): Good wind quintet music is both a matter of their harmonizing together and their being individual.

HANSEN: Lawrence Viddes reviews classical CDs for Gramophone Magazine and Audiophile Audition website. He says woodwinds have become the heart of the modern orchestra, but quintets like Borealis offer an opportunity to hear these instruments outside of the orchestra.

Mr. VIDDES: You know, the clarinet came latest to the quintet and it sort of brought something -- you can hear it in Mozart. There's something sexy about the clarinet. And then in the 20th century the clarinet became a jazz instrument, and you hear it in Gershwin, and on this record you hear that, sort of. You hear it like Gunther Schuller piece. But there he lets the oboe be the sexiest instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Works by nine composers are featured on the "Ala Carte" CD and Viddes says Borealis is able to express each composer's individuality.

Mr. VIDDES: What's amazing is how beautifully they identify with the music they're playing. And it's hard to listen to it as background music because what they do is so involving. (Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Ala Carte is designed as a tasting menu with arrangements of 17th century dances to short works by 18th, 19th and 20th century composers. Margaret Leoy(ph), CEO of Chamber Music America, calls the programming smart and accessible, and says it reflects a larger evolution underway in the field of chamber music, where groups are combining instruments in new ways and blurring musical styles.

Ms. MARGARET LEOY (CEO, Chamber Music America): Chamber music is becoming much more reflective of our contemporary society. And by that I mean our world is becoming much smaller, with people moving around from continent to continent. And so chamber music has many, many different styles within it now than it did even 10, 15, 20 years ago.

HANSEN: And that's opening doors for more concerts and recordings by all kinds of ensembles, including wind quintets, says Leoy. Members of Borealis say they're always on the lookout for undiscovered wind quintet music. But they're also working to expand the repertoire by commissioning new works. And flutist Katherine Fink says audiences are gradually learning to give unknown composers a listen.

Ms. CATHERINE FINK (Flutist, Borealis Woodwind Quintet): There's been a huge change in composition in the last 20 years, and tonality and melody have been rediscovered. And there are just some fabulously lush and gorgeous works out there now by composers who are not yet household names. (Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The Borealis Woodwind Quintet will compete for the Grammy against three major string quartets and a world-renowned pianist. All play music by composers that are household names. But members of the group say the nomination alone is a triumph for wind quintets, an ensemble that's struggled for so many years for its chance to be heard. For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.

HANSEN: This is Weekend Edition for NPR News, I'm Liane Hansen.

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