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Posted on Sun, Feb 3, 2013 : 5:51 a.m.

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet offering a mix of old and new at Rackham

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett


The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

photo by Peter Adamik

All professions, including live performance, carry with them the risk of the habitual. We’ve all heard orchestras “phoning it in,” for example, offering routine playing, without any spark.

But “drudgery is not a risk in the Berlin Philharmonic,” according to Berlin Philharmonic horn player Fergus McWilliam.

McWilliam joined the Berlin Philharmonic under the celebrated Herbert von Karajan, is a former trustee of the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation and a founding member of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, whose five members appear here Saturday evening at Rackham Auditorium, along with Ann Arbor-based pianist Martin Katz. And McWilliam is quick to assign credit for the orchestra’s razor’s edge playing to its attention to chamber music.

“We listen to each other. The orchestra is a giant chamber music ensemble,” he said in a recent phone call from Berlin.

McWilliam is fond of a quote, erroneously assigned to him, that nonetheless “gets the point across,” he said. “We don’t follow conductors; we do pay attention to conductors.”

“We react like a chamber music ensemble, as if there were no conductor. That’s because everyone has these skills at hand and honed.”


The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

  • Who: Chamber group affiliated with the acclaimed orchestra. With pianist Martin Katz.
  • What: Music of Mozart, Danzi, Aho, Ibert, Milhaud and Poulenc.
  • Where: Rackham Auditorium, 915 W. Washington St.
  • When: Saturday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m.
  • How much: $26-$52, UMS Michigan League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538; and online at
The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, which has a “world’s best” reputation to match the orchestra’s own, has been honing those skills since its 1988 founding. It is one of some 35 chamber ensembles in which orchestra members regularly participate.

Last heard in Ann Arbor in 1995, for its 2013 visit the ensemble—composed of McWilliam; flutist Michael Hasel; oboist Andreas Wittmann; clarinetist Walter Seyforth; and bassoonist Marion Reinhard—brings repertoire both new and established.

On the bill are an arrangement, by the quintet’s Hasel, of Mozart’s Fantasy for Mechanical Organ, K. 608; Danzi’s Quintet in F Major, Op. 68, No. 2 (1813-14); Kalevi Aho’s Windquintet (2006); Ibert’s “Trois pieces breves (1939); Milhaud’s “La cheminee du roi Rene (1939); and Poulenc’s Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano (1939).

With Ibert, Milhaud and Poulenc on the second half, the program boasts not only three pieces from the same year, but three pieces by French composers.

“Each is a masterpiece of the French repertoire,” said McWilliam, noting the importance of the France to the wind literature.

“In the second half of the 19th century, the French pushed the envelop on wind repertoire,” he said, motivated by great virtuosos who could get more from their instruments as technical capabilities extended the range of what was possible.

“The players wanted more and more,” he said.

The Ibert and Milhaud are old friends for the quintet, figuring on their earliest CDs. And McWilliam said he and the other quintet members are excited about joining with Katz, the University of Michigan’s celebrated collaborative pianist, for the Poulenc, with its “exceedingly French 1920s sound.” “We’re really looking forward to working with Martin Katz on it,” he said.

The first half, in addition to the Danzi, brings a novelty in the form of the Mozart “Fantasy for Mechanical Organ, K. 608, one of three works Mozart composed for this instrument, which McWilliam desribes as a “wind player organ.”

Usually, said Mc William, the group eschews arrangements “at all costs.” But, he added, “when you analyze these pieces, they are remarkable explorations of baroque rhythms and forms. And then these instruments stopped being built, so nobody could ever hear them again.”

So the audience gets to hear a work that is, in a sense, otherwise condemned to silence. The most recent work on the program, the Aho Windquintet, is a piece for which McWilliam predicts a robust future, on the other hand. The group has recorded it for the Swedish record label Bis, which has a complete catalog of Aho’s work, and McWilliam describes it as “fascinating, physically very demanding, extraordinary writing.”

“It’s emotionally sentaimental, folksy, deep and inventive,” he went on, “and it is a chance for five musicians to sound like a large ensemble. It also has everything including the kitchen sink.”

At one point, he noted, the musicians move toward each other from backstage positions. “It’s captivating,” he concluded. “Everybody finds something that gets them.”