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Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Last week the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet came to Pembroke for a very special performance in honour of Sir Richard and Lady Dearlove.

We spoke to Fergus McWilliam (horn) just before the concert began.

Fergus, welcome to Pembroke.

IMG_7005-001Thank you. This is actually the first time we’ve ever been to Cambridge. We’ve played at most significant places in the UK, including ‘the other place’. We’ve even played in the Royal Pavillion in Bornemouth, which is a very rare. The tragedy is that we often have to come straight from the station to the venue and don’t get to see much else. People imagine that we get to see all kinds of amazing places, but really we see lots of airports and hotels. We are on the road for five or six months of the year. When you’ve got family it is difficult, but it is just the nature of life in an orchestra that is in demand worldwide.

In travelling around the world, you get to perform in many different spaces. What do you think of tonight’s venue?

Performing in Pembroke College Chapel has an enormous significance. It is a space that brings everybody together symbolically, which adds something to the concert. I don’t want to use spiritual language just because it is a chapel, but in a space like this there is this confluence of background and atmosphere that gives the event a certain ‘frisson’. The first impression we had when we entered the room was that this is going to be very much like what chamber music is meant to be. It’s an intimate setting, almost a parallel to a jazz club.

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Does this make a big difference to the acoustics?

Everywhere we go we struggle with the acoustics. Sometimes you have to change the sound to suit the acoustic. For example, if you are playing in a very reverberant cathedral you might have to slow down a little bit to allow for the echo or to play the notes a little shorter. We learn to adjust; it’s part of the job. The challenge of Pembroke’s chapel is that it is quite cold, but that will change one the audience arrive. They’ll provide heat and also their good vibes give you something to play off.

How do you go about deciding on the repertoire for each performance?

For this gig it was made based on very pragmatic considerations. We wanted something that wasn’t very long but would show the range of the ensemble. All of the pieces needed to hang together, and we also wanted to introduce the sound of the wind quintet to people who are not familiar with it. That meant we chose music that moves from the late eighteenth-century to the twentieth century, but everything is very accessible.

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Does the Quintet echo the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra or it is unique?

Listening to the quintet, you really get a slice of the wind playing culture of the orchestra. Critics have been very kind in the past and said that we have a ‘quasi-orchestral sound’. We hope that you are really getting a concentrated version of the whole orchestra.

There is only about fifteen minutes to go before the concert begins. What do you usually do at this point?

Right before we go on stage I try to relax. I play as little as possible and might just sit drinking coffee. Other members of the quintet play instruments that use reeds, which can be finicky. They have so spend a long time working with the reeds and they’ll often be doing that just before we perform.

Thank you Fergus.

Not at all. Can I finish by saying that a special mention needs to go to Albrecht Mayer on the oboe tonight. He is not a regular member of the ensemble but has stepped in for this performance. Because he is part of the same orchestra and the same culture it has worked really well; he has done a fantastic job of fitting in with the rest of us, who have been playing together for over 25 years.

For more about the concert, see our news item.

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