When Giovanni Cambini composed and published what scholars believe were the first woodwind quintets, back in the last years of the 18th century, he could not have dreamed of the techniques and sounds that have become regular procedures today to the five players in the Aulos Wind Quintet.
What would he have thought, for instance, of the way Alexandra Heller explains how he plays some fast bassoon staccatos in the Villa-Lobos Choros. "Sometimes I go out to the end of the reed to get this certain marcato quality. That's part of the technique of playing the instrument. And I alter the cavity inside my mouth."
The result of that particular altering and going out is a fascinating kind of fast, repeated "pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa" that gives the passages a bubbling effect that fits the music perfectly.
How do five top-flight players of five very different instruments get started in the tough world of a professional woodwind quintet - Rudolph Vrbsky, who handles the oboe assignment in the Aulos Quintet, says, "We got together in Philadelphia," at which point flutist Judith Mendenhall breaks in, "actually it was in Marlboro, wasn't it?"
Vrbsky agrees with the switch. "Right. I think we can give Rudolf Serkin the credit. It was his idea, at Marlboro."
"This is our fourth year," says clarinetist David Singer. "And the third time we have played here," adds Mendenhall. "The NIH (National Institutes of Health in Bethesda) first, and then here at the Kennedy Center." Not one of the five mentions their playing at the White House at the time of the Carter Inaugural.
The quintet was asked about technical problems: "Can you all play anything you want to on your instruments?" There was general laughter and a unison, "Oh sure!" - as if it was all easy.
"I think one of the problems," Heller begins, "is from the very nature of our instruments. Each has a natural kind of way of producing the sound, whereas we also have the difference between the flute and the oboe, a completely different way of producing the sound, and the idiosyncracies of each instrument. When there are crescendos and decrescendos - there is a lot of give and take. In intonation."
Mendenhall explains one problem: "When the clarinet gets soft, it goes high; when the flute gets soft, it goes low."
Vrbsky goes further: "There are different problems that are inherent with each instrument. I mean, that's the way you pick it up. We all spend years taking our instruments to expert repair people, or work on them ourselves to try and overcome certain basic intonational things, things that are more possible when you are playing by yourself, let's say a sonata with the piano. These idiosyncracies of intonation, and the sounds, are not even on all the instruments. You put your fingers down on the right places, but some notes will speak out more than others.
"And when you're working with four other people especially - it's different if you go to the brass quintet for an analogy, where you have two of each instrument, two trumpets, two trombones - but this!" He pauses for breath and off again. "The oboe's problems are not the same as the horn's in intonation. You've got to spend hours working these things out. Sometimes we go chord by chord, tediously, and it's not always a matter of intonation. Because we can play in tune.
"But it's a matter of each separate key: E flat, E, whatever. We've got to sit down and work it our."
How, in the Nielsen Quintet did they produce an extraordinary tone, different from any other sound in the whole concert?
Heller puts in some history before talking about the tone. "The biographical background of the Nielsen is that the first movement is akind of portrait of his childhood, in the country, like a pastorale.The second is when he goes to live in the city and learns how to dance the minuet and civilized manners.
"Then in the last movement, the preludium is the men out there on the rocks, in Denmark, very stormy. He comes inside, goes over to his harmonium and plays that hymn that Nielsen wrote - I forget the title. We tried to get a sort of harmonium sound, no vibrato, the quiet color."
Mendenhall takes over. "What we started off by doing was not vibrating - any of us - Which was hard because we're all used to playing with vibration."
All at once, several speak up simultaneously, as if each one had thought of the same thing at the same moment: "Blend. Blend is the hardest thing to work out." Singer, going back to the Nelsen, talks about "blend" in the hymn. "That's pretty much the ultimate of what we try to do. When the music does call for such a homogeneous sound - " and Vrbsky interjects," as to be like one instrument, that's one of the places we spnt time going over chord by chord."
At that point the question of who gives the cue to start comes up. Mendanhall, who sits in the front seat, stage right, in the quintet, explains. "I was noticing tonight how little we were using any cues. Oftentimes if we are playing in a movement, I'll start it: for example, the opening of the Reicha Quintet. Also, it depends on who is playing the melody instrument, who has the leading voice. But as we play more and more together, we need less and less physical indication."
Asked what the hardest piece they had ever played might be, Mendenhall is emphatic. "The Schoenberg Quintet; we played it here last year." French horn player Robert Boutch adds, "That and the Ligeti Ten Pieces." Vrbsky chimes in, "The Schoenberg took us the longest time. It was unbelievable. Just for the ensemble work. And we still had not played it all the way through without having to stop until - what? - the day before the concert!"
With a rueful sigh, Mendenhall picks up on the Schoenberg: "And that was three years ago. And that piece is also a problem. That's our major piece, a very important work for us, and it's so hard to play. People hate to hear it! And managements tell us we can't play it. It's so disheartening."
All this leads naturally to the next question: "Have you all the repertoire you want?"
Routch moves in fast on that one. "I'm trying to get the people to play some transcriptions, but . . ." His voice dies away amid some mild, slightly tolerant smiles.
The Aulos musicians pride themselves on the extra care they take both in repertoire and in performance. "We do a different version of the Reicha Quintet," Heller points out. "What we play is the original edition, which is much longer than the usual printed edition. That whole fugue in the middle of the slow movement is cut out of other editions, and it is one of the best parts."
There are other woodwind quintets around these days. But when you hear the Aulos five talk about spending hours going over a passage chord by chord, and using original editions and working on blend, you know why they are different from the rest.