Not many composers in musical history wrote music for the woodwind quintet, an ensemble traditionally consisting of clarinet, oboe, flute, French horn and bassoon. The reason is obvious to William Steed, leader of the Steed Woodwind Quintet, which has been playing local concerts for 18 years.
"The instruments just don't blend; they don't go together," said Steed, whose quintet will play a free concert, sponsored by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, on Sunday afternoon in Agoura Hills. "When you get right down to it, the sounds clash. Even the oboe and the bassoon, which are both double reed instruments, don't sound anything alike. The oboe has a high, piercing sound. The bassoon makes a low, almost comical sound."
But for Steed, the contrasts in the instruments are not a detraction. Indeed, the divergence of sound is truly music to his ears.
"I don't see it as a problem, not at all," Steed said.
"Take a string quartet. The instruments they use all make approximately the same sound; they just have different ranges and timbres. After a while, that can get to be a bit tedious.
"I think of a woodwind quintet as five different colors coming together to make a wide variety of sounds. There are so many variations and combinations to explore that you never get bored."
Steed, who plays clarinet, formed the quintet out of a group of musicians he met at a rehearsal in North Hollywood in 1972. Like almost all woodwind quintets, his group learned the pieces of Anton Reicha (1770-1836) early on. Reicha was perhaps the first serious composer to write for that combination of instruments.
As a young man in Bonn, Reicha became great friends with Beethoven when they played together in the band of Maximilian of Austria. Starting about 1817, Reicha, who played the flute among other instruments, began to write woodwind quintet pieces. "He wrote 24 woodwind quintet pieces in all," Steed said. "Since his time, nobody has written works for the ensemble comparable to his, not even Hindemith."
Paul Hindemith is one of a handful of prominent composers, along with Darius Milhaud and Jacques Ibert, who have written for the woodwind quintet. Sunday's concert will include Ibert's "Trois Pieces Breves for Wind Quintet," composed in 1930.
Most of the music that woodwind quintets play are arrangements of classical pieces that were written for other instrumental ensembles. The upcoming concert will include adaptations of pieces written by Beethoven and Scott Joplin.
Steed's group plays about 25 concerts a year, and the fact that a woodwind quintet will probably never hit the big time has taken its toll. None of the original members of the group, save Steed, are still in it. But he plans to press on.
"I can't help it," he said with a laugh. "I have to play in this kind of quintet. It's just something I feel I ought to do. I love the sound."
The Steed Woodwind Quintet will give a concert on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Strauss Ranch Amphitheater, 30000 Mulholland Highway, Agoura Hills. Tickets are free. For information, call (818) 597-9192.