North America
Frick concerts present music as lovely as its surroundings

The Frick Collection is the Manhattan home to some of the world's most famous paintings by the likes of Vermeer, Holbein and Turner. But music lovers also know the museum as one of the city's special places.

The Frick, fronting the east side of Central Park (and once the mansion of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick), has hosted an early-evening concert series in its circular, 175-seat Music Room for 70 years. The venue's intimacy and clear acoustic puts listeners in rare touch with chamber musicians and vocalists. The artists are high quality, and a Frick debut has helped make the name of many.

The Calefax Reed Quintet, one of the classical arena's best-kept secrets, returned to the Frick on Tuesday. Music played merely on oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet and bassoon may seem like an austere prospect, but the ingenious musicality of these stylish Dutchmen transcends format. Their program, exploring inspirations between composers from the French Baroque to the Jazz Age, was a marvel of color and line as beautiful in its way as the paintings just outside the door.

There has been little music written especially for a quintet of reed instruments, but Calefax has created a repertoire for itself. A wonderful series of recordings for the German label MDG documents the group's rearrangements of vocal and keyboard originals from Byrd and Bach to Shostakovich and Arvo Pärt.
The ensemble's textural makeover of harpsichord suites by Rameau made for one of this listener's favorite recordings of the past few years. At the Frick, Calefax played excerpts from Rameau's "Suite la Triomphante." The arrangement vivisects the music so that its inner workings are apparent in a piquant, plaintive way that the keyboard original can't match.

Saxophonist Raaf Hekkema, the group's most prolific arranger, also recast Ravel's 20th-century homage to another French Baroque composer with "Le Tombeau de Couperin." An elegant arranger himself, Ravel famously orchestrated some of his piano original. If the Calefax reeds couldn't hope to equal the orchestration's dynamic glitter, Hekkema's switch from soprano to alto sax was an ideally Ravelian touch. The music demands virtuosity and got it, with quicksilver fluency from oboist Oliver Boekhoorn.

The timbral expansions of fin de siè-cle piano études by Scriabin transformed the languid, Chopin-esque pieces into something rougher and Mussorgsky-like. Having charmed in a bit from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," Calefax then showed its rhythmic suppleness in excerpts from Ellington's kaleidoscopically hip rewrite of "The Nutcracker," including a cool, jazzy outburst from Hekkema's alto.

There were encores of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and a playful Conlon Nancarrow study in counterpoint. But the big hit with the typically attentive crowd was Hekkema's refraction of "God Bless the Child," a Billie Holiday tune later turned into an avant-jazz fantasy for bass clarinet by Eric Dolphy. Jelte Althuis played Dolphy's abstraction intact, framed by the others' blue notes. It wasn't exactly Dolphy jamming with the Ellington band, but as usual with Calefax, familiar music gained a new dimension, as if a painting had been turned into a sculpture.

The Frick summer Tuesday season ends Aug. 12 with Ensemble Caprice, which will perform Renaissance-era Gypsy music on period instruments. Tickets for Frick concerts are $25; go to frick.org or call (212) 547-0715. The museum is located at 1 E. 70th St., near Fifth Avenue.

Back to List
Back to Top