Last Sunday, going stir crazy on a nasty rainy day, I took (dragged) my son and a friend of my daughter’s out to hear a woodwind quintet called PUFF! at South Orange Performing Arts Center in NJ ($10–15). The ensemble, in residence at Juilliard (an participants in the upcoming Focus! Festival, details after the jump), where all its members are graduate students, performed two of the better-known works for woodwind quintet—Barber’s Summer Music and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin—and after intermission they played a piece I had never heard before, David Maslanka’s Woodwind Quintet No. 3, which incorporated bits of Bach chorale melodies into its playful, inventive texture.
Our little threesome sat in the tenth row, and though I feared we would be by far the youngest members of the audience there were several other families with children ranging from gurgling babies and squirming toddlers to me with my 12-year-old and 16-year-old. I’ve typically seen woodwind quintets sitting down, but all of PUFF’s black-attired musicians stood to play. All the quintet members wore standard black concert attire, with added green and mauve accents (ties for the men, headband/scarves for the women). My youthful contingent (the 12-year-old plays the clarinet and is just starting the bassoon, and the 16-year-old sings) preferred Ravel’s color-drenched faux-baroque French homage Couperin over Barber’s wistful, bucolic Summer Music, but what they really liked was the slam-bang, virtuosic end to Maslanka’s piece. (So much for the old-style programming the “new piece” sandwiched between better-known repertory.) Flutist Emi Ferguson made most of the concert remarks from the stage, and all the musicians—oboist Jennifer Christen, clarinetist Xiang-yu Zhou, bassoonist Benjamin Moermond, and French hornist James Feree—joined in a post-concert discussion with Courtney Blackwell, who works at Juilliard’s career services division. (Number-one question: where does the name PUFF! come from? Turns out the musicians played Henrik Strindberg’s Puff at Juilliard’s annual Focus! Festival a few years ago, and the name stuck.)
The concert was part of Juilliard @ SOPAC, a three-year ongoing partnership between the conservatory and the arts center, which was built in 2006 and is in the same complex with a big Clearview Cinemas, next to the South Orange train station. The arts center presents a variety of events, from people like the a cappella group Chanticleer ($48-68) and saxophonist David Sanborn ($48-68) to pianist Jeremy Denk ($5-25), making the Juilliard concert series among the cheaper options. (SOPAC has thankfully lowered its prices since the inaugural season, when I remember almost everything costing $50.) After the concert, we grabbed pizza/nachos/fries at Bunny’s, around the corner from SOPAC, which, as any parent of teenagers will know, cost more than the price of the concert tickets.
On January 26, PUFF! will be among the performers at Juilliard’s free Focus! Festival, directed by Joel Sachs (January 22-30), where they’ll play Barber’s Summer Music again, on a mixed chamber-music program. At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll just point out again that like most Juilliard events, this one is free, making it one of the best arts deals out there for New Yorkers.
Check out the full program for Focus! below: