Akropolis Quintet pairs unusual instrumentation with new music

Akropolis Quintet

The term “acropolis” conjures up the image of an ancient Greek city on a hill walled off from its surroundings. Yet the Akropolis Reed Quintet, with its populist style and fresh, genre-defying repertoire, hardly resembles the crumbling beige antiquity of its namesake.

At 4 p.m. Monday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, the Akropolis Reed Quintet will perform a program called “Under the Influence.” The program will explore classical repertoire influenced by other genres.

The concert will open with a piece by post-minimalist composer Marc Mellits. The piece’s eight movements combine aspects of a Baroque suite with minimal procedures, such as slowly changing harmonies and overlapping, repetitive grooves seemingly gleaned from rock music.

Saxophonist Matt Landry said many composers are choosing to emulate aspects of popular music in their works.

“Composers are definitely using the world around them in wider ways than composers in previous eras did,” Landry said.

According to Landry, many composers are moving away from the quasi-despotic, abstract practices of the 20th century and writing music that aims to be “a little more populist.” That includes writing shorter pieces — roughly the length of a pop song — that are “digestible by a wider variety of audience members.”

But borrowing from other genres and cultures is hardly a new practice. In the 12th century, troubadours took liturgical tunes, replaced the sacred texts with their own bawdy Provençal stanzas, and toured them around the French countryside.

Eight centuries later, Jewish composers like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein adopted the conventions of jazz and blues in several of their works.

A clear example is Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs,” which Akropolis will perform Monday.

“It’s like jazz wrapped inside the Bernstein-Americana philosophy of composing,” Landry said. “It really allows all the players to interact a lot.”

The group’s instrumentation — clarinet, oboe, saxophone, bassoon and bass clarinet — might seem novel to concertgoers expecting a traditional wind quintet. In fact, this combination of instruments has been around for nearly three decades. Akropolis modeled itself after Calefax, a Dutch reed quintet formed in 1985, and became the first American chamber group of its kind.

Since its formation in 2009, Akropolis has promoted the creation of new works specifically for their unique blend of instruments. As the group’s saxophonist, Landry understands the problem of not having enough repertoire. Before the 20th century, when the jazz craze reached European composers, saxophonists had little hope of a career in classical music.

Akropolis started out performing music they heard Calefax play, including transcriptions of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

“Very quickly we started commissioning our own music and doing our own arrangements,” Landry said.

Big name composers like Nico Muhly, Marc Mellits and Rob Deemer have written pieces for the group.

“It’s something that would not have happened five years ago,” Landry said. “Only since we came about have new American reed quintets started to form, and therefore more prominent American composers are starting to write music for them.”

All five of the musicians got together while they were studying at the University of Michigan. According to Landry, the group immediately found “a magnetic core identity” and has been playing together ever since.

“We’re a bit of an anomaly even at our own institution,” Landry said. “If you look at the wind groups that tour regularly, the chances of them all being from one place are pretty low.”

Slightly less surprising is the fact that a top chamber wind group came out of a university music department, instead of Juilliard or the Curtis Institute of Music.

“There are a lot of practical reasons why that’s the case,” Landry said. “In a conservatory, those wind players are usually more interested in playing in orchestras or being soloists or pursuing traditional careers in wind playing.”

At a big university, music students tend to have a wider perspective that extends beyond music performance.

“There’s less of a culture in conservatories for wind players,” Landry said. “There’s less of an entrepreneurial mindset.”

The opposite is true “if you’re a hot string quartet,” Landry said. “There’s almost a mandate to try to pursue that. I wish that were more true for wind groups.”

Landry said audiences should expect to see more unorthodox groups like Akropolis performing new music.

“The audience is going to hear three composers who are alive today on the cutting edge of what’s going on with creating accessible new music,” Landry said. “(It’s) the kind of music people will look back on and admire and appreciate in the future.”

Tags : Akropolis Reed Quintetchamber musicMarc MellitsMatt Landrymusic

The author Philip de Oliveira

Philip de Oliveira reports on the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Logan Chamber Music Series for the Daily. He is the Walton D. Clarke Fellow at NPR member station 89.7 WKSU in Kent, Ohio, where he has filed stories for local newscasts and statewide for Ohio Public Radio. He occasionally contributes to Cleveland Scene magazine and Cool Cleveland.