The Capitol Woodwind Quintet, celebrating 25 years together, opened its season at Temple Micah on Sunday with the sort of companionable musicmaking it has become known for. The five friends, who hold day jobs as members of the National Symphony and Kennedy Center Opera House orchestras, embody the ideal of what chamber music playing is all about -- first of all, the pleasures of playing together, and only then, the pleasures of performing.
The program offered all sorts of ensemble challenges: arrangements that re-scored well-known pieces into entirely new musical frameworks, sonorities that highlighted inner voices that rarely see the light of day, and textures that revealed fascinating glimpses into structures that knowledgeable listeners tend to take for granted. Some of it worked and some of it didn't.
Horn player Laurel Ohlson's arrangement of Stravinsky's "Pastorale," originally for voice and accompaniment, was a lovely recasting of the composer's wry but poignant lyricism. In this version the flute (played by Alice Kogan Weinreb) and the oboe (played by Kathleen Golding) shared the vocal line and floated easily above the textures of the others.
In taking on the arranging of "Alborada del Gracioso" from Ravel's "Miroirs," however, Jon Frederickson was faced with the task of translating delicate piano sonorities into the not-so-delicate idiom of the woodwind ensemble. Bassoonist Truman Harris drew out gorgeous and beautifully shaped lines, and the clarinet (played by Lora Ferguson) and oboe conversed gracefully, but they couldn't save the piece from a clunkiness that was far from the elegance of the original.
The arrangement of the Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel was fascinating, first for the theme's vivid metamorphoses as it was taken up by different instruments, and then for the distorted balances of some of the more far-flung variations, which unearthed some rather strange sonorities. Keeping the ensemble tidy here was a tour de force, but there were whole passages that sounded more like Richard Strauss than Brahms.
The Danzi Quintet in F, which opened the concert, may not have been the most inspired music on the program, but it was the one piece written originally for woodwinds and it brought the most comfortable performances from all five artists.
-- Joan Reinthaler