Nobody struts like the Akropolis Reed Quintet. The ensemble stands up when they play—unusual for wind players—and there are moments when they walk around the stage. Even when they stay in one place, they shake and shimmy and groove with the music. But mainly I mean that they metaphorically strut. When they play, the music has this brisk, bouncy, breezy, easy strolling quality…something the stuffy old term andante is supposed to signify, but usually doesn’t.
Akropolis, a Project Protégé Artist with Chamber Music Northwest, is a pretty ambulatory group in another way. Their October 8 Portland performance was the second time I’ve seen them this year, and they perform in Portland often enough to call it “a second home.” Sponsored by CMNW and Portland5, it was the ninth and final concert of this tour, and they’ll be on the road again next week. I caught them at Mount Hood Community College out on the far side of Gresham over the summer, playing for a bunch of suburban college kids in a venue that could hardly be more different from the Dolores Winningstad Theatre in bustling downtown Portland’s Center for the Arts. The Michigan-based group, which prides itself on reaching out to new audiences (and especially students), seems to love playing just about everywhere they can.
There’s something special about the tour-tightened, battle-sharpened vigor that a musical group acquires when they hang out together, play frequently, and tour obsessively. The Landrys—Matt on sax, Kari on clarinet—just got married, making this tour their honeymoon; the quintet feels very much like one of the vagabonding family bands of old. Yet they are also savvy entrepreneurs who maintain a busy schedule and an engaging social media presence, and they are about to release their third album.
And it’s not just concerts. The Akropolis members are highly focused on their educational outreach endeavors, making clinics and workshops as much a part of their touring priorities as their more conventional concerts. They give workshops about the challenges of the music business in addition to their other outreach programs. In fact, this tour’s ninth concert coincided with the tour’s tenth educational event, a clinic Akropolis gave earlier in the day for local homeless youth advocacy groups New Avenues for Youth and p:ear.
This unity of education, performance, community engagement, and professional development is central to Akropolis’ mission. Despite all this “yeoman’s work,” as saxophonist Landry called it, when they took the stage at Winningstad Theatre, he gracefully thanked us for coming to their concert and not one of the myriad other shows happening nearby (some of them in the same building). “We’re glad you found us!” Landry, said with an easy grin.
The strutting began in earnest right away with a suite by composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. French Baroque music is known for its spry rhythmic sensibilities, and although Rameau’s Suite in E minor appeared first in a method book on proper ornamentation in harpsichord playing, it is also an enjoyable and popular concert work. This arrangement by Calefax Reed Quintet saxophonist Raaf Hekkema translates Rameau’s clear, elegant counterpoint and carefully defined ornamentation into a suite of perfectly delightful concert dance music.
Akropolis is great at balancing expressive lead playing—especially by oboist Timothy Gocklin, playing an English horn on this piece—with clear, richly-textured, well-rehearsed group dynamics. This group really knows how to breathe together. And then there’s the strutting… such gorgeous strutting! The whole thing, for all its old-fashioned sophistication, felt just like a Sunday walk in the park.
If Rameau is the beginning of what we call “classical” music, Chicagoan Marc Mellits is as present-day as it gets. Like most 21st-century composers, Mellits is not afraid of the past: while his eight-movement suite Splinter certainly sounds modern enough, it is clearly rooted in exactly the sort of 17th-century compositional practices that Rameau’s music exemplifies. And where Rameau’s suite bears the subtitle “Le Rappel des Oiseaux” (“The Conference of the Birds”), each of Splinter’s eight movements bears the name of a different tree. The first movement, “Scarlet Oak” is recognizably modern, with its major seventh chords and intricate 5/8 hockets (which Akropolis executed with not only astonishing precision but real swagger); the second, “Sugar Maple,” reels out a long melody in the oboe over thick, busy, interlocking ostinati, bringing to mind Jon Gibson and Jack Kripl’s work with the Philip Glass Ensemble—or, to choose a more recent example, the sax duets of New York buskers Moon Hooch, who are coming to Bend, Portland and Eugene in early November.
When introducing Splinter, Landry talked about having played it at their clinic earlier in the day, and seemed almost surprised that the kids loved it: “it’s kinda pretty exhausting.” Yet Akropolis showed no strain as they strutted their way through the music’s challenges.
After intermission, the group joked about their relationship with the next piece’s composer, David Biedenbender, whom Akropolis met as undergrads at the University of Michigan back when he was doing his doctoral work there. “We should have got him back then, when he was cheap!” Landry joked, adding that “we actually like paying people…then they give you their best work!”
Pairing Past and Present
Biederbender delivered three impressions of modern life, each with its own colorful title. Death Metal Chicken is based on a YouTube video of a rooster crowing to death metal music; Kyrie after Machaut and Pärt is a tribute to tributes, Arvo Pärt being another living composer with a shameless enthusiasm for the music of the past, including that of medieval French composer Guillaume de Machaut; and Goat Rodeo “refers directly to a chaotic situation that might come to a resolution, but not willingly so” (Landry referred to it as “a new agey term”).
Refraction fully explores the sonic possibilities of the wind instruments. The oboe squeaks, the sax squeals, the bassoon squonks; the clarinetists walk offstage to produce monasterial echo effects. Kari Landry isn’t the first clarinetist I’ve heard imitating a squabbling chicken, but she might be the best. Bassoonist Ryan Reynolds and bass clarinetist Andrew Koeppe played nasty power chords on Death Metal Chicken that would make Morbid Angel jealous. The group’s powerful intimacy came to the front in the Kyrie’s imitative counterpoint, brief melodic figures and quick little mordents ricocheting around the ensemble like antiphonal motets in a medieval cathedral. When Akropolis performed Refraction at MHCC, both clarinetists started out the Kyrie playing in the concrete-arched hallway, outside the small theatre altogether, before strutting back in to rejoin the group.
Akropolis closed the concert with another from their summer program, Hekkema’s arrangement of George Gershwin’s classic tone poem An American In Paris. They played this one at MHCC too; hearing it for the second time, I really could see it becoming a signature piece for the group. When introducing the piece, bassoonist Reynolds described the original as “extremely academically sound music,” and indeed it is that, though Gershwin’s snooty critics at the time didn’t think so. Nevertheless, its jazzy roots and metropolitan imagery come across in this version no less than in the original. Even without Gershwin’s famous taxi horns, the music sounds like a stroll down a busy Paris street.
Reynolds was clearly proud of the ingenious arrangement, in which Hekkema deftly condenses an entire orchestra down to five wind instruments, and just as proud of their ability to play it. He talked about the challenge of arranging and performing such an arrangement: “when you take the blur of 60+ players out of it, you can hear more of the mechanics,” and made the statement of the evening: “there’s fun in the challenge.” Challenging though it may have been, they pulled it off, and as the audience sauntered out I heard more than a few folks humming Gershwin’s catchy tunes to themselves. That’s what I call a successful concert.