WindSync Shakes Up World of Chamber Music

Acclaimed Houston wind quintet makes a name for itself by playing without sheet music and experimenting with performance styles.

By Michael Hardy March 4, 2014


March 7 at 8
Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby St

WindSync is not your typical chamber music group. For one thing, they’re a wind quintet, an unusual musical ensemble (consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn) with a tiny repertoire and almost no peer groups—there’s only one other full-time wind quintet in America, the Imani Winds, who performed in Houston last October as part of the Houston Friends of Chamber Music series.

For another thing, they eschew both music stands and sheet music, memorizing all of their pieces so as to better connect with the audience and each other. Among their other innovative performance practices are standing up for all concerts, occasionally performing in costume, dancing, and even singing. You certainly won’t see the Emerson String Quartet, or most other chamber music groups, try any of these things. Yet their experiment is working—last fall, the Houston-based group made their Carnegie Hall debut in a sold-out recital.  

Formed at Rice in 2009 by three master’s students in the Shepherd School of Music, WindSync quickly made a name for themselves with their energetic performances, extensive outreach efforts to schools, and custom arrangements of classic orchestral works. The group consists of Garrett Hudson (flute), Erin Tsai (oboe), Jack Marquardt (clarinet), Anni Hochhalter (horn), and Tracy Jacobson (bassoon). I spoke to Jacobson by phone about the group’s performance at Zilkha Hall later this week. On the program are the works they performed at their Carnegie Hall debut: David Maslanka’s Quintet for Winds No. 3 and original arrangements of work by Ravel, Respighi, and Bernstein.

Houstonia: How did this group come together?

Tracy Jacobson: Well, three of us went to Rice together, and we formed the group five years ago with the idea that we wanted to think about making chamber music our career. Often in conservatories chamber music is a requirement used to help musicians play better as a group, with the ultimate goal of getting a job in an orchestra. It’s not necessarily thought of as a viable career option.

H: Why is that?

TJ: There’s really just not a culture of wind players going into chamber music as a career. There’s only one other full-time wind quintet in the country, the Imani Winds. So I don’t really blame conservatories for not pushing it as a viable career option.

H: It’s more risky, right?

TJ: It definitely is. It’s the difference between being self-employed and starting your own business, or working for an established company.

H: Obviously that didn’t daunt you, though. Why was it so important for you and your fellow musicians to start a small ensemble?

TJ: We really liked the idea because it gave us total autonomy and freedom artistically to play any music that we wanted, and really to try new things. There are only five of us, so we only need to get five people on board to try something, whereas in an orchestra there are 100 people who need to agree on trying something. So we became known early on as risk takers. We tried using costumes, we did arrangements of pop music, we often will sing in programs, which is something that’s totally against the tradition of chamber music. It’s so exciting for us to just try things. And I think that’s what speaks to the audience—when they see us up there trying something new, they feel the excitement and the energy.

H: What was behind the decisions to not play with sheet music, and to stand during performances?

TJ: That evolved over time. Standing and playing we always felt was important, because we always looked at chamber music as a performing art. and if you’re performing for an audience it only seemed right that you should be standing. Sitting is so passive, and it just doesn’t engage. We took the music stands away initially because we were doing a lot of performances in schools, and for young children the only way to keep their attention is to look out into the sea of small faces and look them in the eyes. As soon as you put up a music stand they start to fidget, but if you look at them they’re with you, pretty much regardless of what you play. And then we realized that the same principle applied in recitals as well. If we were engaging children more, why would it not work that way for adults? So we began memorizing our concert programs as well. The other thing we really like about playing from memory is that it allows us to engage more directly with each other. Rather than looking at my music, I can look at Jack [Marquardt]’s fingers as he plays the clarinet, and we can play exactly together.

H: How long does it take you to memorize a piece?

TJ: It’s actually quite a lengthy process, but like all other skills that you practice, we’re much faster now. I would say it takes significant individual time, and then we get together in rehearsal and re-memorize it, but this time with all the other parts. Then we have several mock performances, because as everyone in the performing arts understands, playing something in rehearsal is very different from playing it in concert.

H: Have you ever forgotten where you are in the score during a concert? 

TJ: Oh, we all have. Our goal is to be at the point where the music is so deep inside that even if we lose our focus for a moment, our autopilot kind of kicks in. At the beginning we had some pretty big risk-taking ventures that didn’t quite pay off like we thought they were going to. But at this point when we’re out there performing without a safety net, we tend not to crash and burn.

H: How much music has been written for wind quintet? It seems like you have to do a lot of arrangements of other composers’ works.

TJ: That’s one of the big challenges, but it’s been a blessing in our career. The repertoire for the wind quintet is very small, and a lot of it is not that good. There are some incredible works, but there’s a lot out there that isn’t to our taste. So we decided collectively that that wasn’t going to be an obstacle for us, that we would take any piece of music that we love and adapt it for wind quintet. It was important to us that we would still be able to play all the music we loved, even if it wasn’t originally written for wind quintet.

H: How does the arranging process work? Do you do it collectively? Individually?

TJ: It’s almost like our memorization process. The resident arrangers in the group are Jack, the clarinetist, and myself. We start out with the outline of what we want—we write the notes on the page, and give it to the other members of the group. Then we come into the first rehearsal and play it through, and from there each musician kind of takes a Sharpie to their parts and changes everything that they think could work better in a different way. And that continues happening throughout the rehearsal process. At a certain point we memorize it, and after we’ve performed it several times it takes on its own life, and it turns into a very organic work. Some arrangements can be a little contrived, but once we’ve internalized and performed ours, they take on a new life.

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