Campers perform worldwide debut of piece for woodwind quartets

The Interlochen Arts Camp experience is deeply steeped in tradition: The same rustic cabins that have housed campers for the past 50 years, the same knickers that have been a mandatory fashion statement since the camp’s founding and the same songs that generations of musicians have been playing for the past 50, 100 or even 200 years. This summer, however, a group of four students is trying something new.

Flutist Hanna Liao, oboist Adair Kelley, clarinetist Eva Grunblatt and bassoonist Jay Lopez are the four members of the woodwind quartet JEAH!, which derives its name from their initials. Their faculty instructor, bassoonist Hank Skolnick, has been working with ensembles of the same instrumentation at Interlochen Arts Camp for the past several years. Each year, said Skolnick, there was a recurring problem.

A typical woodwind ensemble is a quintet that includes a horn player. “We often do not have enough horn players, and so turn to woodwind quartets of flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon,” said Skolnick. As this type of ensemble is less common, finding repertoire for the young musicians in a woodwind quartet can be a challenge.

Over the winter, Skolnick discussed this difficulty with his good friend, recently retired St. Louis Symphony clarinetist James J. Meyer. Since his retirement, Meyer had continued his career-spanning interest in composing music, especially for young musicians. “I mentioned that I would be returning to teach at Interlochen,” said Skolnick. “He wanted to know more. He asked what we needed in the repertoire for this age group.”

Skolnick explained the difficulty that young woodwind quartets had in finding music. Meyer offered a solution. “He told me that he had been collecting folk songs all his life from around the world, and would be interested in composing a suite of folk songs set for the woodwind quartet grouping,” Skolnick said. By late spring, Meyer had completed a six-movement folk song suite for woodwind quartet, dedicating it to “the 2015 Interlochen Arts Camp wind students.”

Liao, Kelley, Grunblatt and Lopez are those students. Since their first week of camp, the four high school students, under Skolnick’s direction, have been practicing for the world premiere of Meyer’s composition.

According to Lopez, the students are excited to be a part of the world premiere of a new composition. “We’re a bunch of 16-year-olds, and we’re performing a new piece,” he marvelled.

The students also had a chance to meet Meyer when he visited campus during the first week of camp. Meyer sat in on two rehearsals and offered the musicians advice and background about each song.

“It was really cool to meet the composer,” said Grunblatt. “He had a lot of different insights for us.”

Those insights included the context of each folk song. “We talked a lot about the meaning of each song in its original culture,” said Skolnick.

The cultural insights helped clear up some confusion that the students had about one movement in particular. “We thought that ‘Goodbye, Old Paint’ was about house paint,” said Kelley with a laugh. “It’s actually a cowboy song about a horse!”

“Goodbye, Old Paint” is the fourth movement of Meyer’s completed work Folk Song Suite, which also includes the folk songs “Two Guitars on a Lazy Afternoon,” “Bolero,” “Something Irish,” “Sakura” and “From the Hills.”

The students premiered the piece at their recital at 9 a.m. on July 18 in Dendrinos Chapel and Recital Hall.

—Melissa Luby