Artist Interview: Fergus McWilliam of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

By Patrick Burke on February 6, 2014
Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet was founded in 1988 as the first permanently established wind quintet in the orchestra’s history. Champions of the entire spectrum of wind quintet literature, the quintet makes its PCMS debut on February 13. I was lucky enough to connect with Fergus McWilliam (center), hornist and founding member of the ensemble, via email to discuss the group’s rich history, their flexibility with both orchestra and chamber music, the Philadelphia premiere of Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s Wind Quintet and much more.

Patrick Burke:  I’d like to start with saying congratulations, as this past October marked the ensemble’s 25th anniversary. As one of the quintet's founding members, could you discuss the history of the ensemble, and its importance in continuing the wind quintet tradition?

Fergus McWilliam:  When we first started, 25 years ago, none of us actually enjoyed wind quintets. We all shared a widely held opinion that a wind quintet is like a five-sided wheel that never runs true and smooth. The problem of blending the discrete individual voices of the five instruments had never (or hardly ever) been solved. Great repertoire never satisfactorily presented, in our opinion. That we were all Berliner Philharmoniker, however, meant we shared the orchestra's common musical language, and we discovered very quickly that we were going to able to "square the circle". We are more than a little proud of our success in this respect, and delighted that we have helped audiences throughout the world happily discover the tremendous wind quintet repertoire.

PB:  The quintet is made up of members of the Berlin Philharmonic, meaning most of your performing comes within a large ensemble. Could you touch on the musical, emotional and psychological differences in playing within the quintet rather than in the orchestra? And do you feel that as a quintet you are emulating the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic, or is your quintet work more an expression of the five members?

FM:  Our quintet sound most definitely derives from the Berlin Philharmonic's sound, one might even go so far as to describe us a microcosm of the whole. Naturally, in such an intimate setting as a quintet, our individual, our artistic voices can be more easily or more completely expressed, something not quite so possible in the "big band". But I think it is fair to say that we do represent the Berlin Phil wind sound.

PB:  Your recital on February 13 will be your first stop on a twenty day, eleven concert tour through North America–and, I believe that this will be your first appearance as a quintet in Philadelphia. Could you tell us what a tour of this nature means to the group, and what are you looking forward to while you are touring the United States and Canada?

FM:  Ha-ha! We're hoping to avoid bad weather on this tour. North America has been experiencing such a very hard winter, and our very tight schedule could be severely disrupted by winter storms. We have made many such tours over the years, and each time it is an adventure, exploring the length and breadth of the continent, with its fascinating mix of people, both young and old, curious, open-eared and adventurous.

PB:  Your PCMS program is a microcosm of wind quintet literature, featuring an arrangement of Mozart’s Fantasy for Mechanical Organ, film music from Darius Milhaud, an emotional work from Carl Nielsen, and the Philadelphia premiere of Kalevi Aho’s Wind Quintet. Could you talk about the program as a whole, in particular the Aho, a composer rarely heard in the United States whose works feature progressive compositional techniques and some interesting staging?

FM:  The Mozart is an arrangement by our flautist Michael Hasel of one of three surviving works for mechanical organ. Normally we avoid arrangements, but in this case we feel the work needs to be heard, and lacking any functioning instruments of the type for which Mozart created this piece, we felt we could justify an arrangement–a good one!

The Milhaud work is a standard in the quintet repertoire, and we feel a close affinity to the composer ever since our 2006-09 Philharmonic residency in his city, Aix-en-Provence, France. Our quintet continues to perform and teach there to this day and we feel almost at home there. We know the landscape, the light and the history. I think that all comes out in our performances of La Cheminée.

Nielsen's marvelous, expansive and colorful quintet demonstrates his skill not only as a symphonist, but also his ability to exploit reduced forces and still achieve a near orchestral palette. This is one of the mainstays of the quintet repertoire.

Finland's Kalevi Aho is just being discovered outside Scandinavia. I think he has something in common with his countryman Jan Sibelius in that each developed a highly dramatic and unique musical language. Nobody had heard anything like Sibelius before, nor did they afterwards. Aho is a contemporary composer but not a modernist in the classic sense; his is a unique and dramatic voice, and every time we have performed this work it has been an unmitigated success with our audiences.

PB:  On top of the ensemble’s commitment to education, you personally are very involved with music education. Your book Blow your OWN Horn!: Horn Heresies covers all aspects of being a professional brass musician. Could you tell us a little more about the book, and why did you feel the need to write a book of this nature?

FM:  I have taught horn for most of my career–over 40 years now–and I became increasingly aware of pedagogical errors being made by the majority of teachers, myself included. I started to note similar errors being committed by teachers of other instruments too. Eventually I decided to take the risk and publish my "take" on the teaching and learning of the horn, also with its implications for a great number of cross-disciplinary areas. My "truths" were to be other people's "heresies" and I hoped to ignite an intense debate. I seem to have failed miserably, because the only reaction I have been receiving (worldwide I must point out) is universal approval!

The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet appears on Thursday, February 13, 2014 at the Perelman Theater. For tickets and information visit the concert page.

For more information on the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, please visit their website.