My new piece, Quintet, is written for a mixed ensemble—oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and contrabass—whose repertoire has (like several of my other recent chamber works, it occurs) a singular, large-looming precedent. In this case, it’s a pretty obvious one to those who take a connoisseur’s interest in rarities like the mixed wind/string chamber repertoire: a piece of the same name by Sergei Prokofiev—his Op. 39. So much so, that one, in naming the piece (“the Schubert Octet”; “the Prokofiev Quintet”; “the Debussy Trio”, etc.) actually describes the ensemble, no matter whose music is being played. There are plenty of reasons for and against in the great debate on whether attempting to surf the turf of a masterpiece is wise, but as someone who revels in feeling as a close as possible to one’s idols as possible, I jumped at the chance to work with this quirky, colorful, versatile group of instruments and Mr. Shepherd ended up with a Prokofiev Quintet.
Quintet appeared first on a St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble program called Spin Paris, which also featured works by Ravel, Saint-Saëns, and Debussy. Prokofiev was himself, for many years (starting in the early ‘20s, when his Quintet was written), a Parisian. Propelled and drawn by strong forces (not unlike Picasso, Hemmingway and so many others) to that fertile ferment of artistic activity, he both absorbed and influenced the work of those, both French- and foreign-born, around him. He embraced, for example, both the high restraint of Neoclassicism and the fascination with machines and mechanical environments so thick in the air at the time, as evidenced in his first two symphonies. The contrast between them is stark, and startling, and yet they are both symphonies that could have been written by no one else. To my ear, therein lies the essence of Prokofiev; he’s somehow akin to a character actor. Happy to highlight certain eccentricities and quirks, it’s moody stuff he’s made. And not a generic sound or sentiment goes by; like all greats, the beating heart of a defined artist can always be heard, no matter what the costume.
The short character pieces that make up my Quintet are intended as homage only in approach—by just that: from the point of view of character. I’ll claim these as my own, but after 20 years of keeping his music close, I’m sure Prokofiev is never too far away.
Quintet was commissioned by the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, and premiered on March 3, 2013 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
— Sean Shepherd
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.