By GARY FERRINGTON
When the Emblems Wind Quintet lands in Eugene for a performance at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance on June 3, it will be a homecoming for two of its members. Bassoonist Brandon Scott Rumsey and clarinetist Clarissa Osborn are former Eugene and Damascus residents and 2012 and 2013 graduates of the University of Oregon.
Although Osborn now lives in Portland, the other members come from various corners of the world: Canadian-born flutist Merryl Neille (Monard) grew up in South Africa and, like Rumsey, now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the ensemble was founded in 2016. Las Vegas resident Alex Hayashi (oboe) has roots in Hawaii. Michigan native Caroline Steiger (horn) now calls San Marcos, Texas home.
When they converge in Oregon, the ensemble will be bringing music written by members of the first generation of mature 21st century composers. “A key component of our mission,” Rumsey notes, “is to share with the world fresh, exciting wind quintet gems that did not have a long life after their first performance or, in the case of commissions, have never been heard before.” That includes works by contemporary composers as well as composers who have been historically overlooked or brushed aside.
Emblems has been building a repertoire of new and existing works that they hope inspire other wind players to explore beyond the limited catalog of music most often selected and programmed today. The ensemble’s Eugene concert accordingly includes some of the the group’s favorite works, including the world premiere of a newly commissioned piece.
Sunday’s program presents a rarely played work by Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953), who was active in the American modernist movement during the 1920s and 1930s. Her Suite for Wind Quintet (1952) represented a return to composing after nearly two decades devoted to studying American folk music, teaching, and raising a family. (Her stepson, Pete Seeger, shared a common interest in folk music.) Crawford Seeger wrote it for a competition sponsored by the National Association for American Composers and Conductors, which she won. She hoped this would be a new beginning for her composing career, but it was her last piece before she died in 1953. To Emblems, Seeger’s suite, composed in a “loose 12-tone style,” presents a “textbook of fresh timbral possibilities for the group.”
The program also includes three 21st century compositions written by composers born in the late 1980s. Mirrors (2010) is by Finnur Karlsson (born 1989). Originally from Reykjavík, Karlsson is now based in Copenhagen, where he continues graduate studies at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. A founding member of the Icelandic collective Errata, he also performs with the balkan ensemble Orphic Oxtra and the Staka and Hljómeyki choirs.
Rumsey’s Emblems (2016) was inspired by the members of the Trade Winds Ensemble, which commissioned it, and who embrace “such joy, enthusiasm and dedication to social change through creativity,” he writes. Along with his University of Oregon degree, Rumsey (born 1987) holds a master’s from the University of Texas, and completed a doctorate in composition at the University of Michigan last year.
With the support of the Barlow Endowment for Musical Composition, Emblems commissioned Terms of Venery (2018) by Nathan Thatcher (born 1989). Thatcher, who is also an author, performer and arranger, has received commissions and performances from Kronos quartet, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Flanders Symphony Orchestra, and other ensembles. In 2017, Emblems flutist Merryl Monard premiered Thatcher’s flute duet The Sally-Anne Test, and the group knew his other woodwind works from performances in the Ann Arbor area. “We are captivated by his singular harmonic voice, appreciate his idiomatic writing for our instruments, and share his love of a great ostinato,” Rumsey explained to ArtsWatch. “When Emblems received the finished piece in January, the ensemble “was thrilled that he delivered such a cool piece with a great concept that really played to our strengths. Terms of Venery feels as though it was written for Emblems, and we are excited to play it in Eugene first!” Recordings of Thatcher’s earlier works can be heard on SoundCloud.
Emblems’s world premiere performance and commission demonstrates the group’s enthusiasm for cultivating and disseminating new music for winds via interactive concerts, masterclasses, and workshops. Rumsey notes, “We are passionate about placing composers’ voices at the forefront of our musical performances.”
Emblems Wind Quintet performs at 4:30 pm Sunday, June 3, in the UO School of Music and Dance’s new Tykeson Rehearsal Hall, 961 E 18th Ave. Eugene. Admission is free. Program notes for the Eugene concert.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.