A use-it-or-lose it research grant for University of Kentucky director of bands John Cody Birdwell turned into a pretty sweet opportunity for his students and Lexington area music lovers this weekend.
Birdwell decided to use the grant to observe a conducting workshop in the south of France with an ensemble known as the Berlin Philharmonic — hey, if you are arguably the best orchestra in the world, you can hold your workshops pretty much wherever you want.
During those few days in the French paradise off the Mediterranean, Birdwell made friends with some of the wind players, particularly horn player Fergus McWilliam, and they started discussing the possibility of bringing the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet to Lexington.
"They perform at a very high level of artistry — a very high level of technique and musicianship, a mastery of their instrument and their ensemble," Birdwell says of the quintet, which comes to UK for a quick tour that has also taken it to the University of Virginia, University of Texas and Clemson University, in the past week. "And being in the recital hall, the audience can be close to them. It's a rare opportunity for a real personal experience with them.
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"They'll be amazed at how they interact so naturally, and how organic the process is. They're so in tune because they've been doing this for 30 years or so, dating back to when Herbert von Karajan was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic."
A few members have changed, but the group is pretty much the same one launched in 1988 under von Karajan and continuing through the ensemble's other marquee conductors, the late Claudio Abbado and current conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
The program for Friday's concert sort of reflects the group and the meeting that led to the Lexington engagement, starting with Austrian and German works by W.A. Mozart and Paul Hindemith and then moving to France with works by Jacques Ibert, Darius Milhaud and Jean Francaix.
Birdwell says the music faculty is particularly interested in hearing the Hindemith Kleine Kammermusik, and he notes that the arrangement for Mozart's Three Fantasies for mechanical organ is by the group's flutist Michael Hasel. Rounding out the ensemble are oboist Andreas Wittmann, clarinetist Walter Seyfarth and bassoonist Marion Reinhard.
And while this is a Berlin group, no translators will be needed when the musicians work with UK students Saturday morning in a master class, as most are native English speakers or are fluent in English.
Birdwell reflects on last December when world renowned trumpeter Arturo Sandoval performed with his UK Wind Symphony.
"He turned the whole end of the show into a jam session, and he got the concert band playing these things off the top of their heads," Birdwell recalls. "When it got going, it was really cool. And the students had no idea it was going to happen, but when it was done they said, 'That was incredible.'"
Birdwell says students will have a chance to see the group Friday and then work with the members the next morning. And those can be "life changing moments" for students, Birdwell says, where they find motivation and direction for their careers.
"It's so uplifting and motivational," Birdwell says. "It's all of those good words, all those good things."