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Musicians Out of the Woods With Their Winds

Until four years ago, Ralph Williams, Patrice Langsdale and Gordon Lazarus, like most of their classical musician peers, only fantasized about playing chamber music on a regular basis. But the three, who studied music together at Cal State Northridge, formed the Whirling Winds Trio, and a career began. They started out playing retirement homes.

Since then, the Whirling Winds Trio has found that there is an audience for their music. This weekend, they will play at the McGroarty Arts Center in Tujunga, and they appear April 2 at the North Valley Arts Center in Granada Hills. In September, they are scheduled to perform at a music festival in Geneva. And like all good chamber groups, their services are in demand for weddings and parties--what they provide, after all, is an offbeat alternative to the usual chamber ensemble.

Woodwind trios--clarinet, bassoon and oboe--aren’t exactly common, even in the elusive world of chamber music. The standard configuration is a wind quintet, which includes flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn. Forming a chamber ensemble is tricky--just getting good, talented musicians isn’t enough. You need players who trust each other and can communicate nonverbally while playing.

“It’s an intangible thing,” Williams says, “but we were lucky--our trio sounded right from the beginning.” It helps that Williams and Langsdale are married and that Lazarus is a longtime friend of the couple.

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“People are quite surprised when they hear us,” Williams says. “It’s obscure music, music that was unknown even to us until a few years ago. It’s like discovering a forgotten gold mine.”

The trio found its musical mother lode in France not long ago when its members discovered that there was an incredible amount of music written for a Paris Conservatory-based woodwind trio called au Trio d’anches de Paris , which was famous in the music world during the 1930s and ‘40s. Before finding these Paris works, the trio arranged its own music, mostly light classic pieces and reworkings of popular tunes--Cole Porter, Gershwin, the Beatles. Or they would take a Mozart divertimento for two clarinets and bassoon or a Beethoven string trio, for example, and adapt it.

This weekend, the trio will perform works by Handel, Grieg, Strauss, Mozart, Heifetz and others. Their performance at the McGroarty Arts Center is part of a countywide arts festival, called Center Connections, which was formed to make residents aware of the arts resources available to them. Buses will provide free transportation Saturday and Sunday to the 10 centers in the county, including the Watts Towers Art Center, the Barnsdall Art Park and the Los Angeles Photography Center.

Other San Fernando Valley art center activities include a student-faculty exhibit from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the North Valley Arts Center, 16601 Rinaldi St. (818) 360-2211, and an exhibit, open house and reception from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Encino Photography Center, 16953 Ventura Blvd. (818) 784-7266. The Whirling Winds will perform at noon and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and there will be tours of the McGroarty Center, 7570 McGroarty Terrace, (818) 352-5285, on both days at 11 a.m., 1, 2 and 3 p.m.

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