Last night in the Osher Salon of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, The City of Tomorrow wind quintet gave a master class prior to the recital it will perform on Friday in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. The coaching was a collective effort handled in a sort of “tag team” style. At the beginning of February, violinist Donald Weilerstein and his wife, pianist Vivian Hornick Weilerstein, served as joint coaches for their master class in the Chamber Music Masters series; but I was curious to see whether five coaches might amount to a too-many-cooks situation.
The session I observed involved the first movement of Carl Nielsen’s wind quintet. I used to hear this frequently during my student days, so encountering this music was a bit like meeting an old friend. Nielsen provided his own program note for the score, which captures the spirit of the music perfectly:
The quintet for winds is one of the composer’s latest works, in which he has attempted to render the characters of the various instruments. At one moment they are all talking at once, at another they are quite alone.
All that is missing is the observation that Nielsen captures these “characters” with an obvious sense of affection spiced with a generous dose of wit, rather in the manner that Anthony Trollope dealt with the characters in his novels. Nielsen’s characters are simple folk, repeating both themselves and others frequently, each one determined to keep silence from taking over the room in which they sit. There is one big honking dissonance that climaxes the first movement from which all the characters abruptly withdraw and find the path to a polite conclusion.
None of the coaches explicitly invoked Nielsen’s character-based motives. However, much of the advice addressed issues of balance, making sure that the “thread of dialog” would not get lost in the mix of instruments. I was pleased to see that none of the coaches focused on their particular instrument. All attended to the ensemble as a whole and the need for each performer to listen acutely to the other four. It was clear that the four members of The City of Tomorrow who coached this particular piece had a shared vision of how it should be executed, so no broth was spoiled by involving those four cooks. Rather, one encountered more perspectives on a common theme than one usually finds in observing a master class.