Program Notes: Music for Winds

Updated: Nov 6

By Tim Munro


Sunday, November 1, 2020 at 3:00pm

Saturday, November 7, 2020 at 11:00am


Ann Choomack, flute

Cally Banham, oboe

Tzuying Huang, clarinet

Andrew Cuneo, bassoon

Julie Thayer, horn

IBERT Trois pièces brèves (Three Short Pieces)

BARBER Sumer Music, op. 81

LIGETI Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet

VALERIE COLEMAN Tzigane


As a collection of instruments, the wind quintet should not get along. There are disagreements about shapes, materials, tuning, and volume.


Oddly, this mismatched group makes beautiful music. Variety might be the key to its success, able to captures an entire kaleidoscope of ranges, colors, textures: from screaming piccolo to subterranean horn, from dusky trio (clarinet, bassoon, and horn) to gleaming duo (oboe and flute).

Jacques Ibert

Born August 15, 1890, Paris, France

Died February 5, 1962, Paris, France

Trois pièces brèves (Three Short Pieces)

We begin with a glass of French champagne. Not poured too generously, mind. Short, tart, with an edge of sweetness.

Jacques Ibert was a Parisian through and through. He was born and died in the city, living through two World Wars: the first as a naval officer at Dunkirk, the second as a banned composer.

Ibert’s music brings the tang of twenties jazz and popular song within the boundaries of acceptable classical manners. Ibert’s orchestral music remains popular, but he produced dozens of dramatic works: operas, ballets, film scores, and incidental music for theatrical productions.

The Trois pièces brèves (“Three Short Pieces”) began as incidental music for The Beaux’s Stratagem, by the Irish playwright George Farquhar. The plot is simple: two (awful) young men seduce a range of women. Farquhar’s play aimed to offend, thumbing its nose at the conventional mores of time.

Ibert’s pieces are bright and extroverted. The work is performed thousands of times across the world each year. It stretches amateurs and high schoolers, while still striking sparks for professional players.


First performance: March 21, 1930, as part of a theater production in Paris

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Scoring: Woodwind quintet

Performance time: Approximately 7 minutes

Samuel Barber

Born March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania Died January 23, 1981, New York, New York

Summer Music, op. 81

We find ourselves on a hot, muggy day. Our view shimmers, our mind fogs.

When he came to write Summer Music, Samuel Barber was at the apex of his career. American musical trends swirled around him: experimental, nationalist, minimalist. But he resisted them all. “Sam is essentially a romantic personality,” wrote his partner, Gian Carlo Menotti.

In public, Barber seemed withdrawn, stand-offish. But with friends he was warm, observant, and attentive, and his music matches this spirit. Menotti wrote that he had “always been an intimate and introverted composer.”

When Barber was asked to write a work for winds, he liked that the wind quintet has a relatively small repertoire. He worked closely with the New York Wind Quintet, absorbing their ensemble sound and their ideas. “We were completely gassed!” wrote flutist Samuel Baron. “[He] has written some of our favorite effects.”

Summer Music is in one continuous movement, dominated by heavy-lidded torpor, “evocative of summer,” wrote Barber. The music escapes into brief perky outbursts, only to be pulled back to the haze.

Barber had strong feelings about tempo. His music evokes summer, “meaning languid,” he said to a friend, “not killing mosquitoes…[someone] once told me they heard a performance that dragged so, it should have been called ‘Winter Music.’”

First performance: March 20, 1956, by the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, James Pellerite, flute; Arno Mariotti, oboe; Albert Luconi, clarinet; Charles Sirard, bassoon; and Ray Alonge, horn

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Scoring: Woodwind quintet

Performance time: Approximately 12 minutes

György Ligety

Born May 28, 1923, Târnăveni, Romania

Died June 12, 2006, Vienna, Austria

Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet

We find ourselves at a protest. Shouts of defiance burst in the air.

At first, Ligeti believed in the ideals of the new communist Hungarian government. Calling himself “a socialist,” he strived to write music that “everyone can understand.”

But then the “awful dictatorship” banned much of Ligeti’s music. Feeling hemmed in, he made a decisive shift. “I began to experiment with very simple structures of rhythms and sonorities—as if to build up a ‘new music’ from nothing.”

The result was a set of eleven piano pieces, Musica ricercata. Ligeti made rules for himself: The first piece uses just two different pitches, the second piece three, and so on. Six of these pieces were arranged by Ligeti to form the Bagatelles. From restrictions, creativity: the Bagatelles a riot of dark and bright colors, wild rhythms, extreme virtuosity.

Writing Musica ricercata (and the Bagatelles) was an act of protest. “I decided to write music which was built on the forbidden minor seconds [two adjacent keys on the piano],” wrote Ligeti, who created dissonant music “because it was forbidden.”

First performance: October 6, 1969, in Södertälje, Sweden, by the Stockholm Philharmonic Wind Quintet

First SLSO performance: June 20, 2005, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, Jennifer Nitchman, flute; Lisa McCullough, oboe; Diana Haskell, clarinet; Felicia Foland, bassoon; and Jennifer Montone, horn

Scoring: Woodwind quintet

Performance time: Approximately 12 minutes

Valerie Coleman

Born 1970, Louisville, Kentucky

Tzigane

Valerie Coleman is a Grammy-nominated flutist, composer, teacher, and advocate. Recently named Performance Today's 2020 Classical Woman of the Year, she is the founder, and former flutist of the Imani Winds, a wind quintet whose history is now represented in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Coleman’s music is performed by ensembles and musicians in every state in the nation. Her work embraces the full range of humanity: from tragedy and triumph. She has works that celebrate the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, that pay tribute to the life of Muhammed Ali, that cry with pain after the death of Eric Garner.

Tzigane journeys through Eastern Europe. Our guides for the trip are the Romani people, historically referred to as “gypsies,” a pejorative term. Coleman was also inspired by her collaboration with a Palestinian virtuoso on the oud, a short-necked lute played across the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia.

The music, inspired by Middle Eastern scales and gestures, buzzes with a wild, free spirit. Bold, virtuoso solos for every instrument alternate, some coy, some show-off-y, some filled with passion.

First performance: 2011, at the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival in New York, New York

First SLSO performance: These concerts

Scoring: Woodwind quintet

Performance time: Approximately 9 minutes

Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.

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