The Art of Arranging

When you are five grown men who play oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon together for a living, you need a lot of flexibility when it comes to repertoire.  There are just not very many pieces written for oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon.  Yet to the creative mind, this situation presents more opportunities than obstacles.

Calefax, a Dutch quintet appearing this Friday, February 24, at Sunset Center in Carmel, has established itself as a highly original band of musical adventurers over the last 25 years, choosing and arranging music from the last eight centuries to fit their unique constellation.  For their performance in Carmel, they will perform their own arrangements of music by Debussy, Grieg, Shostokovich, and J. S. Bach.

Bach is a composer whose music sounds good on any instrument, in any combination—its matchless structural integrity can survive any form of manipulation.  I am greatly anticipating Calefax’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of the most staggering achievements in the history of art.  Bach’s Variations, originally written for solo keyboard, are composed of multiple and contrasting voices that harmonize and play against each other, and it will be fascinating to hear how Calefax has divvied up Bach’s gorgeous weave of voices among the five reed instruments.

The other works on the program, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, selections from Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, and Grieg’s Holberg Suite, were also originally written for piano (Grieg later arranged his Suite for string orchestra), and it is interesting to look at this connection through the lens of jazz.  While the piano is the quintessential jazz instrument, appreciated for its depth and range of textures, sounds, and colors, for many jazz musicians, the heart of the jazz experience is the small-knit jazz combo.  The structure of the small ensemble creates a space for endless invention and improvisation, an interplay of distinct and individual voices combining in creative, always-shifting counterpoint.  This is one reason Bach continues to be so cherished and influential among jazz artists.

Debussy and Shostakovich are among the many 20th-century composers who were influenced by the new rhythms and harmonies of jazz—Shostakovich even wrote a Suite for Jazz Orchestra—and while there is nothing notably jazzy about the music of Edvard Grieg, his Holberg Suite is a collection of pieces inspired by courtly dances, evoking a time when listening to music meant getting up to dance, or at least tap your toes.

I expect there will be a great deal of tapping toes at Calefax’s concert, including those of the musicians, who always perform standing up, like jazz players.

Calefax Reed Quintet, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Friday, February 24, at 8:00 pm, at Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel.  (831) 625-2212.