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The Science Survey

The Magic of Community Concerts: A Review of the Dorian Wind Quintet at ‘Music Mondays’

Join me as I attend a local community concert, an event that can often be overlooked but provides new insight into everyday life.
Anna Koontz
In addition to their evening program, Music Mondays recently launched a series of concerts that take place in the middle of the day. The organization aims to be inclusive towards those in all walks of life with different schedules. All of their performances take place at Advent Lutheran Church, pictured above.

It was a dreary, midwinter Monday that felt like any other day.  I woke up late, rushed through my morning routine, and hurried to school. I trudged through a physics test, left the school building while it was still light outside, and emerged from my local subway station into the gathering dusk. 

When I got home, however, I broke the pattern. I set down my backpack and asked my sister, “Do you want to go to Music Mondays with me?” 

She agreed. The city had just announced that tomorrow would be our first snow day in years, so homework and studying had suddenly lost its urgency. Even though the winter had been mild so far and a part of me doubted it would even snow at all, the day off was a welcomed pause in reality, a chance to reflect and relax and try something new. 

Music Mondays is a nonprofit organization that arranges monthly community concerts in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Each features a renowned chamber ensemble such as the Escher Quartet, which frequently performs at esteemed concert halls like Alice Tully, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center. The music is always world class, and it’s completely free.

These performances take place at Advent Lutheran Church, a small, humble structure dwarfed by nearby towering apartment buildings. As my sister and I walked down the street, predicting inches of snow and the upcoming failures of virtual school, we could easily identify our destination – partly because of its diminished size and partly because of the line of people wrapped alongside the building.  

We arrived at 6:45 p.m., right when the brightly-painted doors opened to let people in. Although the chapel was large enough to seat 300 people, it still felt bright and cozy. Handmade crafts lined the left wall – a butterfly collage, Jonah sitting in the whale’s mouth, a painted rainbow – and modest blue-green stained glass decorated the right. In the corner, where wooden pews gave way to padded folding chairs, lay a pile of beanbags and leftover Sunday school supplies. 

The room quickly swelled with people and a murmur of voices began to fill the space like the gathering storm clouds outside. By 7:15, fifteen minutes before the concert started, only scattered seats remained. “It’s okay – I don’t need to see,  I just need to hear,” one lady joked to her friend as she found a seat in the very back. 

On the stage, five empty music stands stood expectantly. The lights dimmed, and the cacophony of voices immediately hushed. Aaron Wunsch, Music Mondays’ Artistic Director, walked to the front to welcome everyone and introduce the ensemble.

“Wind quintets don’t receive as much love as string quartets,” he prefaced with a smile. “But if you’re willing to entertain the possibility that a wind quintet can elevate and inspire us as much as a string quartet can, the Dorian Quintet is the one to convince you.”

Unlike a string quartet, which has four instruments (first and second violin, viola, and cello), a wind quintet has five (flute, oboe, clarinet, french horn, and bassoon). The Dorian Wind Quintet was formed in 1961 and, twenty years later, became the first wind quintet to perform at Carnegie Hall. Although none of its founding members remain, its reputation has only grown through collaborating with other famous artists and embarking on international tours. Their name is a reference to the Dorian mode, a pattern of notes that inverts the familiar diatonic scale that most Western music is based on.

I was surprised by the variety in that night’s program, which included traditional Baroque and Romantic music as well as contemporary compositions. The performers jumped freely between style and time period, opening with the stately Prelude and Fugue in D Minor (written by J.S. Bach in the early 1700s) and closing the first half with the hilariously entertaining “Tuna Rap” (written recently by Karl Kramer-Johansen, the quintet’s french horn player).

In between those two pieces, the quintet performed a New York premiere of a contemporary piece that they commissioned.Avenue of the Giants” was composed by Jessica Meyers, the wife of the quintet’s clarinetist. Inspired by a family vacation to the redwood forest, each of the four movements focused on a different aspect of those ancient trees.

The first movement set the scene, gradually transforming the small chapel into an expansive forest thousands of miles away. The melody seemed to sketch out the shape of a redwood, the majestic sound rising upwards towards the church’s vaulted ceiling. Then the music accelerated into a triumphant, energetic theme before falling back into its original slower pace. The piece seemed to shift between two contrasting forms of excitement – irrepressible joy and solemn awe.

The second movement opened with a duet between the bassoon and clarinet, jabbering and dissonant like scattered bird songs. The music was jazzy and chromatic, full of call and response between instruments and interlocking melodies. Just like the ecosystem it was imitating, each of the musicians’ parts were individually interesting yet dependent on the others. 

The third movement, representing the “unbelievable quiet” of a redwood grove, was a paradox – how do you write a song about silence? It opened with all the musicians collectively taking one deep breath, then another. The french horn played two single sagging notes into the ether. They took another breath, in and out, as the sound dissipated into the air. During each pause the french horn continued the melody a few notes further until the other instruments gently joined in. 

Finally, the composition ended with an imitation of the life cycle of a tree, energy draining away as a tree falls down and seeping back in as new life grows from the log. At the end, the oboist pulled out her reed and blew directly into her instrument, a long rattling whoosh that closed the piece.

Another piece that fascinated me was their finale, Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 14 in A Major. “Dvorak never wrote a wind quintet,” said the bassoonist, Adrian Morejon, when he introduced the piece. “But much of what he did write was based on folk songs, and we feel a wind quintet brings a bit of color to that.”

The arrangement was created by the french horn player, Karl Kramer-Johansen. I was interested in how he transposed a four-player piece to five. The different wind parts loosely matched with their string-instrument equivalent – the flute part mirrored the first violin, for example, and the oboe generally corresponded with the second violin. But it wasn’t a direct correlation; different instruments swapped roles to better fit the tone of a particular moment. For example, at one point in the original piece, the second violin plays harshly on its lowest string. In Kramer-Johansen’s version, the french horn plays this melody instead of the oboe, because it has a deeper, darker sound.

Morejon was right in observing that their wind quintet shifted the palette of the piece. With a thicker, richer instrumentation, moments that I was familiar with from the original were cast in a new light. The oboe offered a different, brighter tone; the flute produced a distinctive, airy texture; the french horn added a unique heft and assertiveness. 

To some, this may have felt wrong or uncomfortable. For me, however, it allowed me to finally identify the unusual feeling that I had been experiencing throughout the evening. It wasn’t just this Dvorak arrangement offering a new perspective on standard repertoire; the entire concert had provided a fresh outlook from mundane, everyday life. Like a snow day, it was a suspension of reality, the small chapel becoming a hidden pocket safe from the stress of life, work, or physics tests – except for this, I didn’t need the mayor’s permission.

There was a reception afterwards, but my sister and I didn’t stay. As we walked through the crowd of people towards the exit, it became apparent that we were the youngest in the room by far, surrounded by heads of white and gray. This frustrated me, not because I felt out of place but because I didn’t want others to be hindered by that feeling. Community concerts, no matter the genre or stereotypes surrounding it, can be a breath of fresh air for anyone in any stage of life. To a retired senior citizen, it could be the highlight of their day. To a middle-aged adult, it could be a way to decompress after a long, busy schedule. To a high schooler, maybe it could be both. 

I walked home with my sister, realizing that this evening was the first time in too long that I’d had a meaningful conversation with her. We talked about her worries for high school applications and my worries for college applications. We reminisced on the magic of hot chocolate and sledding hills and the music that we had just heard.

It was late by the time we returned, and we went to bed soon after. When we woke up the next morning, it was snowing.

Community concerts, no matter the genre or stereotypes surrounding it, can be a breath of fresh air for anyone in any stage of life.

About the Contributor
Anna Koontz, Staff Reporter
Anna Koontz is a Copy Chief and Social Media Editor for ‘The Science Survey.’ She loves the variety of perspectives in journalistic writing. She also appreciates the beauty of capturing moments through photography. A single photo can have so much to offer, with nuances in composition, subject, and meaning. In her free time, Anna plays viola and helps to maintain her school's garden. She especially enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with her family. Anna is unsure of what she wants to study in college, but hopes to continue writing no matter where life takes her.