Excerpts from SCRUTINY | Blythwood Winds Shows Off Five Female Composers On The Rise (Sara Schabas, June 12, 2017, Ludwig Van Toronto)*

"It is no secret there is a crisis surrounding gender balance in classical music composition. But in Toronto’s Heliconian Hall Saturday night, the scales were tipped, at least temporarily.

Blythwood Winds, a woodwind quintet founded in 2010 by five Toronto-based wind players, presented a concert of all Canadian female composers entitled “Voices of Canadian Women.”  The program included works by Abigail Richardson-Schulte, Ana Sokolović, Anna Höstman, Norma Beecroft, Elizabeth Raum, Linda Caitlin Smith and Bekah Simms.

The five composers featured varied in levels of age and experience, yet each composition displayed a unique and vital compositional voice, brought to life through the vibrant playing of the Blythwood Winds.

Pieces ranged in levels of tonality and use of extended techniques, beginning with Elizabeth Raum’s “King Lear Fantasy.” Originally composed for a production of King Lear, Raum’s piece featured a playful dialogue between instruments as well as a distinctly medieval flare, transporting the listener into the Shakespearean age.

Following Elizabeth Raum’s piece, Anna Höstman brought the audience to a more meditative landscape with “float,” a piece based on François Couperin’s Les barricades mystérieuses. Pianist Cheryl Duvall joined the ensemble onstage as the woodwind quintet encircled the audience, playing clumsy, dissonant interjections through Duvall’s French-flavoured wash of colour and tonality.

Abigail Richardson-Schulte, who has served as composer-in-residence for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra since 2012, next presented her first ever professional composition, “emerge.” Originally composed for the Festival of the Sound in Parrysound, Richardson-Schulte admitted to the audience she had been commissioned to compose based on a painting she “wouldn’t have chosen for herself.” Her composition played vibrantly by the Blythwood Winds, features distinctly narrative qualities and a true Canadian feel. It’s not hard so see why Richardson-Schulte has enjoyed so much success in Ontario and abroad.

The next piece we heard was by Norma Beecroft, a pioneer in Canadian composition in the 1960’s and 70s, particularly in the realm of electronics. She remarked in the program notes that her piece, “Images,” found inspiration in the music of Debussy. Beecroft’s “Images” felt much more bombastic and less meditative than Debussy’s Images, though the fragmentary qualities and ambiguous tonality of her work could be considered a nod to French music. Tim Crouch’s lovely flute solo loosely evoked Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.

One of the most exciting works of the night came from emerging composer Bekah Simms in “The Formula.” Commissioned by Blythwood Winds in 2016 as part of a series inspired by Toronto’s graffiti art, Simms describes in the program that her piece depicts an anti-capitalist mural by Joel Richardson which was “unceremoniously buffed” by the City of Toronto. Simms’ musical depiction brimmed with frenetic energy. Musical lines were punctuated by sharp, angular rhythms while tonality and melody emerged for fleeting moments out of a fog of extended techniques. Even when writing for an ensemble as classic as a woodwind quintet, Simms’ music felt distinctly of our time.

After Simms’ piece we heard another meditative, still work by Linda Caitlin Smith, whose works have been recorded by ensembles including Tafelmusik, Tapestry Opera, and the Penderecki and Bozzini string quartets. Her piece’s effect on its audience was penetrable, as the air in the hall fell still and tranquil.

Finally, we heard Sokolović’s Chansons à boire, a set of drinking songs for woodwind quintet.

Sokolović has gained much acclaim for her vocal works, and the Canadian Opera Company recently announced a commission of Sokolović for a mainstage work to premiere in the 2019/2020 season. Sokolović’s story-telling abilities came through in these six, short songs, filled with frenetic energy and evocations of debauchery. The piece’s melodies emerged in and out of Sokolović’s subtle usages of extended techniques and hiccup motives.

The concert presented by Blythwood Winds on Saturday night certainly demonstrated the wealth of riches Canada possesses in the way of female composers. Now it’s up to us to hold our arts organisations accountable and make sure we hear more and more of them."

* Formerly Musical Toronto

Excerpts from Art Music: Blythwood Winds Toast the City (Sharon Lee, April 18, 2015, Toronto Guardian)**

“Blythwood Winds is certainly creating a name for themselves with superb chamber music playing and their dedication to commissioning and performing new Canadian works.

The show started with an easy-banter-style interview with...each of the three composers present... remark[ing] on two common challenges of writing for the Wind Quintet: the non-homogenous ensemble sound (unlike a string quartet where you have four stringed instruments that create sound the same way, in a wind quintet, you have five distinct timbres), and the wind players’ need to breathe.

William Rowson’s 9-minute Quintet for Winds spanned 20 years in its creation. The delicately gestured piece takes full advantage of the lowest register of the bassoon, showcasing Macaulay’s deep and gripping sound – kind of like a giant fuzzy peach in aural form. Later in the piece, Rowson toys with a joyous and trotting but fragmented motif, creating a sense of agitation and making each little bit of Vander Hyden’s soaring horn calls that much more effective, like giant gulps of air for the ear.

Kevin Lau’s piece, Living Miniatures, explores the darker stereotypes of Toronto in three movements titled Spring Gate, Oakenshield, and Road to Aberdeen. The piece opens with a stunning flute cadenza performed brilliantly by Crouch, and later gives way to a soulful English horn solo by Eccleston, the newest Blythwood member. Lau had also mentioned the difficulties of writing for a non-homogenous ensemble, but there was a point where I blinked and the brilliant flute trill had turned into Thompson’s fluid, almost watercolour-esq clarinet melody with no apparent seams or stitches between the two. Lau also uses the very distinguishable sounds of each instruments to his advantage in a fugal passage, creating a texture that is complex but not dense.”

** Formerly published by Toronto is Awesome

Read about Blythwood Winds' activities in the Canadian Music Centre publication: Notations Summer 2015