They are soldiers preparing for a door-die campaign, these five young musicians known as the York Winds. They leave Toronto next month for a five-week assault on the musical bastions of England, Scandinavia and Spain. Their few remaining rehearsals should, in the circumstances, be tense. But it’s clear, as woodwinds, flute and French horn are unlimbered, that the seven-year-old quintet is undaunted by the international music-scape and its litter of broken soloists and groups which failed to duplicate on a global scale the success they had won at home.
After a season of nearly 100 engagements in Canada, “we have to get out of the country or die—not financially as much as emotionally,” says 29-year-old flutist Douglas Stewart. There’s little more to be gained at home. Even The Globe and Mail’s crusty music critic, John Kraglund, concedes “they’re cer-
tainly among the top woodwind quintets in the world.” Moreover, their Feb. 11 foray into the musical frying pan— their Carnegie Hall debut—earned a good review from The New York Times, which hailed them as “clearly superior instrumentalists . . . who play with
precision, smoothly blended tones, and a sensible understanding of stylistic matters.”
Such is their confidence of European laurels that the sounds bouncing off the white cinder-block rehearsal cell at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music would be appropriate at an audition for stand-up comedians. The Falstaffian guffaws of Harcus Hennigar, the 26year-old horn player, punctuate the session like a basso continuo. Banter out of
the way, Hennigar gets a practice session going with a booming, “All right, let’s rock!”
As a warm-up for Europe, the York Winds are playing 21 concerts in 21 days, from March 12 in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, working east to St. Pierre et Miquelon. Though the quintet’s membership is now fixed, the evolution from artists-in-residence at York University, Toronto, to a full-time performing ensemble required five personnel adjustments. Some opted for the security of teaching rather than the uncharted waters of woodwinds performance. “There’s no one else in the world doing what we are,” exults clarinetist Paul Grice. “All the other top quintets—like the Danzi in Holland or the Dorian in the U.S.—are affiliated with orchestras or universities. We have no musical models to follow, so we’re expanding our repertoire, or boiling down scores and commissioning new works.” The most spectacular of their new pieces was a radical orchestration for J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue that teamed the Winds with the renowned Orford String Quartet.
The Winds’ diversity makes them more an arts complex than a chamber ensemble. Grice is enthused about the international prospects for Borduas, a musical drama based on the life of Quebec painter Paul-Emile Borduas which will consist of the Winds, actors and back-projection of the artist’s works. “We should have the premiere next year, 32 years after the celebrated Borduas artistic manifesto which many feel was the first shot in the Quiet Revolution.”
All five players are acclaimed orchestral and solo performers with experience ranging from first-desk positions in Canadian orchestras to engagements abroad. Such fast musical company has prompted clashes over musical ideology because “all our decisions are democratically made,” explains oboist and founding member Lawrence Cherney. “We’ve no musical leader—or any other.” There are no prima donnas or ego monsters here, which helped on the night before their Carnegie Hall appearance. Several of the Winds were wandering the streets of New York in search of a beer but found instead the leader of the Opposition, Joe Clark, “who backed away as if we were going to mug him,” Cherney recalls. Clark hadn’t heard of the York Winds, nor did Carnegie or the consular reception following interest him. “He was another Canadian tourist,” sighs Cherney, “in town for the hockey game.”
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