Prairie Winds perform 20th century material

Posted: Thursday, May 20, 2004

Back in 1996, when the Illinois wind quintet Prairie Winds was forming and looking for a name, it didn't have to look much further than Oak Park's historic Unity Temple.

The church was the site for Prairie Wind's first show. And the building, built in 1905, was one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most popular "prairie houses."

"That coupled with the fact that our flutist was living in Oklahoma, and we were spanning the prairie whenever we wanted to have a rehearsal," clarinetist Susan Warner said.

Things are easier now. Three of the group members (Warner, David Griffin, French horn, Jelena Dirks, oboe) live in Chicago. Two (Jonathan Keeble, flute, Timothy McGovern, bassoon) live in Champaign, Ill.

Prairie Winds will perform twice on Sunday, May 23 - 3 p.m. at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, and 7 p.m. at the Baranof. They will join a free brown bag concert at noon Wednesday, May 26, at the State Office Building, then play at 7:30 p.m. that night at Chapel by the Lake. The group's final show is in Tenakee, 7 p.m. Thursday, May 27.

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"Usually when people think chamber music, they think of the typical string quartet or piano trio," Warner said. "But for us as wind players, traditional means wind quintet: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. So we're traditional for us, but not entirely. There's a certain body of literature that we play that tends to be from the 20th century."

Warner and French horn player David Griffin, husband and wife, met in Rochester, N.Y., when she was attending the Eastland School of Music. Soon thereafter, they married and moved to Montreal, where they both had positions in the city's orchestra. They met Tim McGovern, now the Prairie Wind bassoonist.

About five years after moving to Montreal, Griffin and Warner were living in the Chicago-area and McGovern had relocated to the a teaching job at the University of Illinois. The trio decided to form a quintet. They invited flutist Jonathan Keeble. He lived in Oklahoma at the time, but now teaches at Illinois. Jelena Dirks, a freelance musician in Chicago, joined on oboe.

"The goal was just to play with our friends, and it explored into way more than we ever expected," Warner said. "We all have careers that a lot of people would be happy with, but we all find this funny little money-losing venture of a wind quintet to be the most rewarding part of our careers. We're able to express ourselves individually and really make music, instead of feeling like we're 1 of 100 players in the orchestra."

Prairie Winds plays 12 to 15 concerts a year. They've developed a loyal following in the Deep South.

"For some reason, they seem to really love us there," Warner said. "I don't know if we seem exotic to them. I certainly think we seem Midwestern.

"We work really hard at including our audiences by talking to them," she said. "We try to include a joke here. We often get comments at the end of a performance, 'You guys look like you're having a lot of fun.' It goes back to us all being good friends."

Wind quintet repertoire is quite limited compared to string quintet repertoire, Warner said.

"It kind of goes way back in music history," Warner said. "Our instruments certainly weren't technically developed until the mid-1700s. The clarinet wasn't in its final form until that time, and so composers weren't thinking to write for these instruments. It really started catching on, and the composers started using different tone colors, in the 20th century. And I think that's when it exploded as far as written chamber music."

Prairie Wind's first compact disc, "Gale Force," collects works by five North American composers: Samuel Barber, Vincent Persichetti, Aaron Copland, John Harbison and Jacques Hétu. Their second work, which they hope to record this summer, will have an Eastern European theme, and material by George Ligeti and Andre Szervansky.

"We found ourselves performing these two pieces in particular," Warner said. "When you say Szervansky, people will have no idea who you're talking about. But it's really tuneful and lovely, and I think it just deserves to be out there and heard."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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