Calefax’s An American Rhapsody

cover art for An American RhapsodyIt’s been a long time since I’ve covered “classical” music, perhaps going all the way back to 2003 when I reviewed Sony’s A Copland Celebration compilation in honor of Aaron Copland’s centenary year in 2000. So bear with me! This charming and offbeat recording from the Dutch reed ensemble is an homage to American music of the 20th century, arranged in classical style. Listening to and writing about it has been a delightful learning experience.

Calefax, “a classical ensemble with a pop mentality,” invented the reed quintet format, which they’ve been exploring to popular acclaim in the Netherlands for 35 years. An American Rhapsody is their fourth excursion on Pentatone, a Dutch label founded in 2001, which since 2017 has won a couple of Grammys for its opera recordings.

Calefax’s vision of both classical and American music is pretty expansive, and the album’s source music ranges from purely classical pieces (by Samuel Barber and Florence Price), through Gershwin’s music which is both classical- and jazz-adjacent, through the jazz of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn to Stevie Wonder’s funky rocking soul and Moondog’s eclecticism. Quite rightly it puts much of its spotlight on music composed by Black Americans and Jewish Americans, whose contributions in many ways dominated American music both popular and serious, for much of the 20th century.

The members of Calefax are Oliver Boekhoorn (oboe), Bart de Kater (clarinet), Raaf Hekkema (saxophone), Jelte Althuis (bass clarinet) and Alban Wesly (bassoon). They create a sound that is hard not to love, perhaps especially to one like me who played clarinet and saxophone in my school days. Listening to this record is like sitting in the middle of one of the best reed sections in the world. These players perform with exquisite control and yet with lots of emotion, whatever kind the music calls for. Hekkema did most of the arrangements and Althuis the remainder of them.

The program opens with a favorite, all five movements of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” It’s a natural for a reed ensemble, what with that iconic opening in which a clarinet makes a slow glissando through a couple or three of octaves before arriving at the majestic opening theme. A great introduction to the album, combining as it does both jazz and classical idioms and ideas.

Everything here is fine listening, always entertaining and frequently educational. As familiar as many listeners are with Gershwin, I suspect many will be unfamiliar with the others among the more classically inclined composers likek Samuel Barber, Harry Burleigh and Florence Price. It’s telling that Barber is probably the best known now, being an upper-middle-class Anglo-Scots man, but all three of these early 20th century composers rather quickly fell out of favor with the advent of modernism. But Burleigh and Price, both of whom identified as what we now call Black. Price’s work was decidedly in the European classical tradition, while Burleigh is best known for introducing African-based forms into the American and European serious music of the day, and his ideas were influential on Dvorák’s “New World” symphony. Their works here seem representative of their overall contributions and are quite engaging.

Calefax admirably casts its spotlight on America’s diversity in its selections. Duke Ellington is here represented by his and Billy Strayorn’s “Satin Doll,” probably my favorite on the album, and by the more pensive “In A Sentimental Mood.” Billie Holiday’s deeply swinging “God Bless The Child” is co-credited to Eric Dolphy, who himself is given credit for legitimizing the bass clarinet as a jazz instrument, for which I’m eternally grateful to him. This one’s another standout. Stevie Wonder’s melodic “Overjoyed” arranged by oboist Boekhoorn, is Calefax’s first foray into pop, and it stands up well in its neighborhood here, especially compared with Ellington and Holiday but also Burleigh. There’s some lovely swapping of leads from alto sax to oboe to clarinet, a nifty little arrangement by Hekkema that makes great use of the ensemble’s individual parts on this simple pop tune with gospel overtones.

The album wraps with a couple of more obscure contributors. The lone original contemporary work here is “Airports for Reed Quintet,” written for the ensemble by the Syrian clarinetist composer Kinan Azmeh, who has worked with the likes of the Silk Road Ensemble. And the only piece with vocals is Calefax’s take on “New Amsterdam,” by the the blind New York street musician known as Moondog, who was also a serious avant garde composer born Louis Hardin Jr. The Amsterdam-based ensemble frequently closes its concerts with this delightful little piece, with Hekkema taking solo vocal duties before being joined by the rest of the players intoning Moondog’s lyrical paean to an earlier incarnation of his hometown.

I hope Calefax would forgive me for thinking of their An American Rhapsody as “Sunday morning music.” It seems a natural to me … the tiny radio station in my hometown in the 1970s was owned and operated by a fellow who was also the Bishop of the local Mormon church. To keep the station running unmanned on Sundays, he had a small handful of playlists on which Gershwin featured heavily, and I can no longer hear “Rhapsody in Blue” without remembering those days. Everything about the music on this collection, from the arrangements to the production and recording, to the sounds of the instruments themselves, is guaranteed to light up any room in which it’s played.

(Pentatone Music, 2023)

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Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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