Music as Temporal Art: Orchestra 2001’s Woodwinds Across Centuries

Wes Willison '12 and Cameron French '14 battle to win the first task
Wes Willison '12 and Cameron French '14 battle to win the first task

For those who’ve pondered the conflicting sonics of contemporary and Renaissance woodwind compositions, Orchestra 2001, an ensemble for modern classical music, provided just the food for that particular thought in Lang Concert Hall this past Sunday. For those uninterested in the disparate sounds of Western wind instruments, you didn’t miss much.

Sunday saw Orchestra 2001, Swarthmore’s professional orchestra in residence, perform “The Winds of Yore… And Now,” a collaborative concert along with Renaissance wind ensemble, Piffaro, a Philadelphia-based group that performs Renaissance compositions using dulcians, sackbuts, recorders, and other traditional instruments.

“The initial idea was of collaboration between the two groups,” said James Freeman, Artistic Director of Orchestra 2001 and the conductor of Sunday’s performance.  “From there we joined forces and tried to find ways to combine and oppose the groups.”

The concert presented the two groups playing Renaissance material together, found Orchestra 2001 playing 20th century pieces exploring Renaissance tropes, Piffaro playing Renaissance compositions, and many combinations in between.  The concert was a rare stimulus for extended contemplation of the wind instrument and of classical music’s development over the past 500 years, but didn’t offer much for patrons simply seeking enjoyment of pleasant musical aesthetics.

Freeman said that he hoped the concert, which is by nature a bit more removed from the contemporary soundscape than the group’s typical repertoire, would leave listeners “entertained, as this was a concert with as much great humor as academic musical ideas.”

And however infrequent, the concert did offer moments of baser pleasures.  A performance of Arne Running’s “Renaissance Redux,” a contemporary meditation on the pleasures of Renaissance musics filled the hall with swirling crescendos of baroque melodies stricken with modern clave rhythms.  And Orchestra 2001’s subsequent airing of Peter Schickele’s classical music spoofs written under the pseudonym P.D.Q Bach injected silly refrains of modernism into pastiches of self-serious classical arrangements.

Yet these moments were too few throughout a performance that exceeded two hours.  Although a deeply intellectually engaging performance, “The Winds of Yore” amounted to one of Orchestra 2001’s least approachable concerts of the last few seasons.  And even though all of the joint performance’s pieces were thought provoking at the least, the intended intellectual conversation seemed less essential than it has with past Orchestra 2001 concerts.

Orchestra 2001’s fall concert, a retrospective of difficult 20th century composer John Cage, whose oeuvre often toes the line between music and performance art, provided a comparable balance between chin-stroking and heart-stirring, but the questions the concert asked seemed much more essential.  While Cage’s works inspired questions about the nature of performance and the very perceptions of sound, “The Winds of Yore” posited more esoteric questions of irrelevance to the average listener immersed in the contemporary world of music.  Connecting the dots between Renaissance sounds and today is an important exercise for chronicling musical evolution, but it’s difficult to escape the feeling that this exercise is more than purely academic.

In any case, the concert was a slog of interesting materials, and at a certain point, interesting isn’t enough.  Sure, the concert rerouted neural pathways to places they wouldn’t have reached otherwise, but at some point post-intermission it was hard not to be reminded of the adage, art should entertain and instruct.  One isn’t much good without the other.  

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