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Music Review: Armonica adds otherworldly sound

Tuesday, February 12, 2002

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

As brilliant as Benjamin Franklin was, he sure liked to nag.

We remember Franklin less for his crucial role in American political history and more for telling us, "Time is money," "He who lives upon hope will die fasting" and "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise."

As a concert at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium in Oakland made aware Sunday afternoon, however, Franklin also had something sweet to say. The Renaissance City Winds welcomed to the stage an obscure musical instrument that he invented in 1763, called the glass armonica.

The scientist in Franklin had his interest piqued one day while witnessing a performance of someone rubbing the lips of several water-filled glasses. Franklin, characteristically, figured he could improve upon this, so he attached graded glass bowls to a horizontal spindle. A foot pedal turns a flywheel that rotates the spindle.

The instrument was such a hit that even Mozart wrote for it. Eventually, it fell from favor (rumors were that those who played it went crazy), but it has seen a mini-revival in the hands of people such as Williamsburg musician Dean Shostak.

Shostak and his armonica joined the Renaissance City Winds for Mozart's Adagio and Rondo, K. 617. The flute, oboe, cello and viola players displayed great tone, despite the restraint they needed to balance with the armonica. It was a fascinating sound, though the armonica even when miked was still too quiet to fully be appreciated.

The highlights of the concert, therefore, came either when Shostak soloed, as in another Mozart Adagio, or when the group performed without him. In the second Adagio for solo armonica, Shostak gently coaxed an otherworldly sound from the turning bowls. It felt as if we were hearing beautiful music while submerged in clear water.

When it came to the Renaissance City Winds alone (plus a cello), two of three pieces made an impact. One, a product of a Meet the Composer grant, was a premiere by Carnegie Mellon University composer Efrain Amaya. His single movement "Aguaclara" was a joyous study in rhythm. Adding a cello to the traditional woodwind quintet created an attractive texture. The music -- sometimes cascading, sometimes monolithic -- bounced together over driving beats.

Three members of the Renaissance City Winds played an oddity by Gustav Holst for flute, oboe and viola, a multi-key work called "Terzetto." A wonderful find, this piece is never harshly dissonant, but since each player has a different key signature, it bestows a unique sound upon the ear. The playing here and throughout was precise and sonorous.

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