Q&A With Notus Winds

Last week, we held another of the Two Moors Festival’s famous residencies, this time with amazing wind quintet Notus Winds coming down to Barkham in Devon for a few days to enjoy some much-needed respite and lots of rehearsing in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

The week ended with a brilliant performance in our gallery (fans of classical music concerts will no doubt already have popped along to check out the venue!), so we thought we’d catch up with the group one final time to find out how it all went.

classical music concerts
2MF: How long have you been together as a group?
NW: We started playing together in our first year at the Academy. Our first, rather ambitious, venture was learning Barber’s beautiful Summer Music. Needless to say it wasn’t our most successful performance but we revisited the work last year, more successfully, for the final of the Academy’s Patrons’ Award. It’s always interesting coming back to repertoire after a break – in this case we had all matured both personally and in our playing to a point where we could do the music more justice.

2MF: What brought you together?
NW: We’ve known each other in various combinations ever since NCO in 2005. Some of us met in the following years through the NYO, the Purcell School and the Junior Department of the RCM. The idea of forming a quintet was discussed by a few of us at an NYO course just before starting at the Academy, and the rest is history!

2MF: What’s your biggest concert to date?
NW: Last year we won the Academy’s Patrons’ Award, resulting in an evening recital at Wigmore Hall last June. This was an incredible opportunity to play some of our favourite music at a beautiful and prestigious venue. Another close contender has to be our debut at the BBC Proms for their Portrait series back in September, when we performed Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Five Distances in front of the composer himself at a concert celebrating his 80th birthday.

The piece is one of our favourites (possibly because we are instructed in the score to stand as far apart as possible!) but the RCM Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall is the biggest space that we have tried it in to date, and it was being recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 – exciting and terrifying in equal measures!

classical music concerts
2MF: What’s the oddest thing that’s ever happened at a concert?
NW: This is a difficult one… Odd and extremely amusing things happen very often, and we always have a little chuckle about them (which we try to wait for until after the performance) but perhaps the most bizarre was when we were giving a recital at the Festival de Inverno in Brazil a couple of years ago. We had finished the final piece and the Brazilian audience, ever enthusiastic, requested an encore.

Luckily we had a little something prepared; unluckily not all of us had remembered to bring the music on stage. Whilst Jon, our bassoonist, sprinted off stage to find it, an awkward silence fell over the hall. Had the audience been an English-speaking one, we would have felt comfortable filling the time by talking about the music and making a joke or two.

This particular audience didn’t speak a word of English, but Carys could not bear the silence any longer so disregarded the language barrier and started talking anyway, to a sea of blank faces. When Jon eventually ran back out with the music the audience was as relieved as we were and welcomed him back with rapturous applause. Needless to say we all double check our music backstage nowadays!

2MF: What’s the best compliment you’ve been paid as a group?
NW: People often say very kind things about us, but a recurring compliment we notice is the observation about the blend of our sound. It is easy in chamber music for individual timbres and tones to stand out from a group – especially in a wind quintet where all the sounds are produced in different ways and have a huge potential for variation. It’s therefore very flattering to hear that ours are well-blended as it is something that can’t always be rehearsed.
classical music concerts
2MF: How did you hear about the Two Moors Festival residency programme?
NW: Back in October 2014 we were fortunate to come to the Two Moors Festival to give a lunchtime recital. Penny Adie approached us after the concert and talked about the residency programme. She said that if we had anything coming up for which we could use an intensive week of rehearsals to prepare, we should get in touch.

2MF: What do you think the appeal is?
NW: In the busy music world it is often extremely challenging to find a window of time to bring five musicians together to rehearse for concerts and learn new music. When it is possible it is often a couple of hours squeezed in between other rehearsals, concerts and teaching.

The residency offers musicians the luxury of having not just a few hours but a few days to intensively rehearse in a constructive, efficient and thorough manner. It also allows freedom to experiment with new ideas (in our case, performing from memory) without having to keep one eye on the clock.

2MF: Do you think coming down to such a part of the world helped your rehearsal process? 
NW: Definitely! Just as the length of the residency gave us freedom with time, so the picturesque views and tranquil surroundings allowed us all to relax with our music making and forget the stresses of everyday London life, which can subconsciously affect all of us.
At Barkham you are forced to disconnect from London life (partly due to the lack of phone signal!) and this allowed us to focus on our music more fully.

2MF: Do you feel refreshed as a group after spending a few days at Barkham?

NW: As individual members relax, it affects the dynamic of the whole group. We certainly felt a difference not only in our playing but also in our peace of mind, which sent us away with a renewed sense of creativity and confidence.

2MF: How did the concert go?
NW: You’ll have to ask the audience! From our point of view, we really enjoyed performing in the gallery, and it was fantastic to be able to showcase all that we had been working on over the week. We had focused a lot of our time on learning Carl Nielsen’s famous Wind Quintet, a core work of the repertoire, and it was a huge benefit to be able to consolidate our rehearsals so soon with a performance.

We had also aimed to experiment with learning some repertoire by heart over the course of the week, and so we played the first of Ibert’s Trois Pièces Brèves from memory as our encore – just dipping our toes into what is a new concept for us!
classical music concerts

2MF: How do you feel the gallery compares as a concert venue to others you’ve played in?
NW: It was absolutely beautiful! We commented during our stay how much we enjoyed the clarity and enhancing quality of the acoustic, and how the space captures the intimate feel of a 19th century chamber music salon. We also thought it would be very appropriate as a venue in which to record certain works, and wished we’d brought some equipment with us.

2MF: What would you recommend about the residency to other groups?
NW: The obvious benefit of the residency is having the undivided time to focus and rehearse as much as you need to. You are at liberty to spend the time however you feel most beneficial, and not feeling under the usual amount of pressure makes for much better-quality work.

It’s also an incredible part of the country where we could really relax as well as explore the surrounding nature. Another huge attraction of the residency is John and Penny themselves. Penny is caring, wise, genuinely interested and ever helpful – and an incredible cook! John is a hugely entertaining personality with a plethora of jokes and intriguing stories. We really were made to feel at home in their beautiful house, and came back to London with slightly tighter waistbands!

2MF: How much do you love Flora and Pip?
NW: So much! They’re amazing animals who were welcomed into most of our spare time during the residency. They have definitely made five new friends for life! We spent the last morning Googling ways of fitting a German Shepherd into a suitcase…

2MF: What else did you do apart from music-making?
NW: Apart from eat? Not much. No, we went for several walks in the beautiful Devon countryside. We were blessed with stunning weather for the week and took advantage of that during our rehearsal breaks, usually dragging Flora along with us! On one day Penny gave us some instructions on getting to a particular part of the moor, and an hour later was totally shocked to drive past us on the road going in completely the wrong direction. Who knows where we might have ended up had she not put us right!
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