By definition, a bagatelle is a trifle, or something of little importance. When Ligeti wrote six little bagatelles, though, he created what is now a standard in the woodwind quintet repertoire. Each of these pieces has a unique personality of its own, and six different stories are told, with the help of a little imagination.
Imagine the first movement as a group of children discovering they have the house all to themselves. As they run wild, creating a huge mess everywhere they go, they do it with more vigor and chaos. Eventually, their parents come home and discover what has happened – they’re in big trouble.
Everyone has nightmares from time to time, and the second movement of this piece is just that. Picture yourself walking down a dark street, suspicious that someone is following you. You continue your path, until your pursuer is too close for you to escape. Just as he’s grabbing for you, your eyes clench closed in fear. They open back at home, in your bed, with the relief that it was only a dream.
In the third movement, a falling 7-note motif is passed throughout the ensemble, and it can be visualized as the falling of snow at the beginning of winter. Its accompanying melodies further illustrate the beauty associated with the changing of seasons, and it’s completely appropriate for this time of year.
The audience is called back to attention with the opening note of the fourth movement. It’s fun to picture this upbeat movement as a face paced jungle safari, or a trip down a winding river. This wild ride stops as drastically as it started, showcasing a single rhythmic theme throughout.
Movement five was written in dedication to another Hungarian composer, Béla Bartok, whose music Ligeti highly admired. While listening to this scary, somewhat disjointed interpretation of the life and career of Bartok, think about the scary and disjointed parts of your own life, and how, like this movement, it will end peacefully.
Playing in a sporting match, executing a large family function, or even raising a child can be considered tasks that have inherit frantic group qualities about them, and that is both the figurative story being told in the sixth and final movement, and the task at hand for the five musicians performing. Bassoon and clarinet act as the period at the end of the sentence, concluding Ligeti’s “Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet”.
Francis Poulenc’s career as a composer often presented a problem many composers have – being taken too seriously. Early in his career, the simplicity of his music translated in the minds of his critics to the idea that he didn’t take himself seriously, and his works were often rejected. In later years, though, musicians have returned to his works, with his chamber music for winds being amongst the leaders in the genre. His music is noted as containing simple triadic harmonies, sprinkled with spicy dissonances and witty interjections. His Trio for Piano, Oboe, and Bassoon contains all of those aspects, as well as mood that, I think, can only make you smile. The first movement begins with proclamations from the bassoon and oboe, respectively, moving into a youthful allegro. A middle section calms the mood, until the fast music resumes.
The second movement is amongst the most beautiful of compositions for woodwinds, and it contains feelings of comfort and affection, with hints of doubt and insecurity.
The final movement is youthful and light, with comedic interruptions throughout. When listening to this piece, think about all of the things in life that should be enjoyed, and not taken too seriously. Poulenc’s Trio for Piano, Oboe, and Bassoon is definitely one of those things.
When most people think of 20th century music, they think of people like Stravinsky and Berg, and their “crazy” avant-garde style of writing. Carl Nielsen, although a 20th century composer himself, did not take part in that new phenomenon, and kept his compositions more conservative and easier on the ears. His quintet for winds was his last chamber work, and was inspired by his five friends In the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. Each of these musicians had a specific personality of his own, and this is portrayed in each instrument throughout the piece. Just as the use of each instrument was adapted for the musicians of the Copenhagen Winds personalities, the Cooper Young Winds musicians can identify with this music as well:
The first movement is full of contrasting sections, which are like my many different moods.
I identify with the fifth variation of the third movement because I can be loud and argumentative at times.
After I play English Horn in the Praeludium, I get to sit out the next movement. I like sitting out.
I enjoy being in charge, so it warms my heart to not only start the piece, but to extend my instrument at the end of the piece to provide the fundamental.
I identify with the second movement because I enjoy its classical structure and melodic content with modern harmonies that contemporize the movement.
On my last visit to Memphis I was afforded the honor of having brunch with conductor of the Memphis Repertory Orchestra, William "Buddy" Langley. It was a great time, and we discussed everything from Tchaikovsky Symphonies to designer winter scarves. I look forward to our relationship developing and growing over the years, and I hope our professional paths continue to cross. A topic that also came up was the musical culture of the city we both call home, and where it's going.
As everyone has seen over the past couple of years, the arts are under fire. Orchestras across the country have gone on strike, and some have even ceased to exist. Many people who don't happen to live in the artistic capitals of the U.S. simply don't have access to live classical music on a regular basis, and it's this situation I think about and consider when I travel home to play with Cooper-Young Winds, MRO, and other various groups, because the people of Memphis deserve free access to world class music and musicians just like the people of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. Buddy said to me, "You know you're above doing this, and I really appreciate your service." Remembering a scenario from last spring, I smiled gratefully, but let him know that it is my duty.
The scenario I had in mind happened after my performance of Shostakovich 9 back in April outside of the concert hall. A woman, very excited about what she had just heard, ran up to me and said, "That was amazing! I'm sure a great orchestra job is your next move, huh? Where did you come to Los Angeles from?" I told her, and she replied, "Wow! It's really something to see people who come here from no where really make it big!" Now that's what we gay people would call SHADE.
In the third part of Disney's "Aladdin" trilogy, Aladdin and Jasmine sing a song called "Out of Thin Air", in which Aladdin doubts his worth based on his cloudy background, and doesn't know where life will take him next. Jasmine reaffirms that there's no way that someone who "showed her the world" and changed her life could possibly just come out of thin air. I mention this because it's true, and applies to us. I didn't come from "no where", and neither does any Memphian, like that woman suggested. I came from parents who made great sacrifices to buy me my first flute in 9th grade. I came from a public school system that set me ahead of the curve musically. I studied Music Education and bassoon at a university that opened my eyes to teaching and performing, and from a city whose arts community is constantly growing and providing music for everyone. I'm sure anyone from Memphis can share this sentiment, and share their stories as well.
Buddy gave me the ultimate compliment by saying I was above his own orchestra, but at the end of the day I don't think any of us are above anything we do, especially if it's for the place and the people you love. (Plus, when I take lessons up here in Detroit they read me for filth and let me know I still have a lot of work to do! haha). Never let anyone demean who you are, or where you come from. Be quick on your feet and know how to respond to back handed compliments like the one that lady gave me in Los Angeles with class and poise, and put all you've got into everything you do, whether it's preparing to be the world's next super star or playing with your community orchestra - I know I do. Plus, I love playing with y'all down in Memphis, because people like you don't come out of thin air. :)