Based in Houston, Texas, the wind quintet WindSync is known for their deep commitment to community and education. In 2017, they were awarded a Sound Places residency by CMA, a year long project that explored the possibilities of creative placemaking in Opelousas, Louisiana. Today, the group frequently includes tour stops at public schools and community spaces—offering programs ranging from children’s theater presentations of Peter and the Wolf to brand new composer commissions and thoughtful educational programs for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, redefining what community engagement can mean.

On June 21, WindSync performed the world premiere of Houston-based composer Nicky Sohn’s A Night At Birdland for the opening night of the Chelsea Music Festival in New York City. The new work was supported through a collaboration with the Houston Audubon Society and sublimates the composers open fear of birds with quotes and arrangements of four pieces by Charlie Parker (aka Bird). On the heels of this exciting collaboration, CMA’s Orchid McRae caught up with the ensemble to discuss this collaboration, how CMA’s Sound Places influenced their trajectory, and more.

How did your collaboration with Nicky Sohn begin? 

WindSync has a longstanding residency with the Houston Youth Symphony’s Coda Music Program, which provides Sistema-inspired after-school instruction for third through fifth graders. At the end of each school year, we join forces for a concert mixing beginner and professional performers, and in recent years, we’ve included a composer with Texas ties so that the students can begin their musical lives with a new music experience. Initially, we approached Nicky to help us create a piece for this residency. While she’s a personal friend of the ensemble, Nicky is also a bit of a musical “it girl” right now, especially in the tight-knit music scene in Houston, so we knew that our collaborative process would be fun and rewarding. 

In working with Nicky, we suggested our collaboration start and end with a short piece—but she had bigger ideas. Instead, she proposed that the piece be one movement of a larger, multi-movement work. (She is amazingly prolific!). It’s a performer’s dream to hear that a composer envisions a bigger life for a project, and we started to weave the collaboration throughout our season, adding a composer talk event for our hometown audience as well as a preview of the piece for Houston Audubon. A Night at Birdland has become an example of how the programming that we develop outside the main stage frequently ends up becoming a favorite concert work. 

What has the involvement of the Houston Audubon been in the collaboration? Will there be any performances in Houston? 

Time and time again, WindSync finds inspiration in partners from the fields of science and nature. Houston Audubon was very supportive of the creation of this piece, as many of its members appreciate the art of nature: photography and visual art of their bird finds, plus the rich world of birdsong. We knew that we wanted the piece to relate to birds, but we encountered a funny wrinkle: Nicky actually has a fear of birds. Instead of depicting the fauna, she wrote a tribute to a musical Bird: Charlie Parker, and in the work, bebop filters through her own colorful style. We previewed the movement “Yardbird Suite” for the Houston Audubon in the fall of 2023, and the Houston premiere of the work will take place in the fall of 2025 as part of a new partnership in development with a new music series. 

For the premiere of A Night at Birdland at the Chelsea Music Festival in NYC, what inspired the pairing of Francis Poulenc’s Sextuor? 

The Poulenc sextet is one of the great standards for wind quintet, and it we knew it would be uniquely satisfying to perform these two complementary pieces, one a classic and one brand-new, on the same night. Poulenc’s Sextuor is chock full of jazz and ragtime influences, related to his and his fellow Les Six composers’ weekend outings to the circus and the club. It is such sociable fun that one review of the premiere criticized it as “vulgar.” Nicky’s piece shares the same unapologetic sense of color and cheekiness. It is built upon quotes of Charlie Parker, with each movement named for the tune from which it grew. In a universe where time travel is possible, Nicky and Francis Poulenc would have a great time together at Birdland, which opened 10 years after the final revision of the Poulenc Sextet. 

Can you talk a bit about your CMA Sound Places residency? How did the residency help shape your engagement activities? 

We were honored to be a pilot ensemble for CMA’s Sound Places residency, which took place in 2017, with the purpose of activating and enriching the cultural district of Opelousas, Louisiana. It was an amazing crash course in the possibilities of creative placemaking through music, with leadership from the Project for Public Spaces, CMA, and the city of Opelousas helping us to meet with community members and identify public spaces that would be best served through musical programming. Over the course of four visits, friendships with residents blossomed as we designed concerts for the library and a jewelry store, supported a poetry class and a local morning show, and collaborated with local band students in the courthouse square. We still follow many of the practices from the resulting toolkit in presenting our annual festival in Houston, the Onstage Offstage Chamber Music Festival. Sound Places provided great training in listening and responding to community partners and their needs. It also highlighted our powers and responsibilities as a touring ensemble and as cultural cross-pollinators. 

CMA is headed to Houston for our 2025 conference in February. What is one restaurant we must try while there? 

WindSync’s go-to restaurant in Houston is Local Foods. Enjoy the crunchy chicken sandwich or garden sammie for lunch. 

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