The history of Calefax began in 1985, when the Amsterdam grammar school Barlaeus celebrated its century-long existence with an opera by Willem van Manen. It was performed by the pupils of the school. Four boys from the school orchestra decided to further develop themselves musically in a wind quartet. They dared to ask Willem van Manen, an established composer, to write a piece for them. In fact to their surprise he contacted them in the Summer of 1985 with the message that he had finished the piece. He had added a clarinet to their ensemble, which appeared to be an enrichment of the sound spectrum.
This piece, Barlaeus Blaaskwintet, was premiered on 21 November 1985 in the Ysbreker, an event now marked as the official birth of Calefax. The German teacher from the Barlaeus, Geert Kapteijns, played the clarinet on this occasion. He quickly left the scene, however, and after some personnel changes on the clarinet Ivar Berix joined the quintet in 1987. With Berix they recorded their first CD in 1992, brought out by Channel Classics. The CD featured Circusmuziek by Ton ter Doest, still by far the most played original piece for reed quintet. With two saxophones the middle of the sound was over-represented. When Lucas van Helsdingen started to play the bass clarinet, a better balance was achieved. With the musical instruments Oboe, Clarinet, Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, and Bassoon, the current instrumentation was established. The ensemble is so fond of this instrumentation that it aims to make it as common as the string quartet and the saxophone quartet. And with good success, signified by the many positive reactions and the creation of reed quintets from Argentine to Japan, and from Denmark to Australia.
The position of bass clarinet was, after some personnel changes, taken by Jelte Althuis in 1994. With him, Calefax recorded a CD of works by Debussy and Ravel. This was the first of eight CD’s on the German MDG label, and the first recording to attract international attention. The position of oboist was taken in 1997 by Oliver Boekhoorn, completing the current personnel line-up of Calefax. Inspired by the Riciotti ensemble, the illustrious Dutch street orchestra that has for some time included some Calefax members, the reed quintet played standing, and often by heart - a practice that is kept to this day. The Riciotti also had the custom to loudly introduce the pieces. Bassoon player Alban Wesly still introduces the pieces, but now with a more modest volume. In the beginning the group tried to play mainly their own compositions; headstrong thinking - “What Van Manen can do, we can do as well.” Quickly, however, they realised that arranging existing pieces was easier because of their higher quality.
Amsterdam bravado was characteristic for the young quintet, and in fact it still is. Or maybe it is now better to speak of a mature and professional collective characterized by an innovative and original, contemporary yet timeless vision of, and interpretation of, classical music. Calefax also feels at home outside the boundaries of classical music, as shown by the fruitful collaboration with the Tony Overwater Trio in recent years. Their latest CD was released in January 2009, featuring the works of Conlon Nancarrow, the result of years of study and musical pleasure with pianist Ivo Janssen.
From the school group back then at the Barlaeus, to the ensemble of world-reknown today, took a long development. Sometimes progression appeared to be slow, sometimes – above all in recent years - development accelerated fast. The very nature of Calefax’s steady and extended development means their success is bound to be long-lived. Not least in terms of the enormous repertoire that has been built up over the years.
Calefax has, in the course of its existence, received various awards and prizes. In 1997 they won the Philip Morris Kunstprijs, in 2001 the Kersjes van Groenekan-prijs, exactly four years later they received the VSCD-prijs 2005.
Calefax are now in great demand worldwide, not least because of their unique instrumentation. The quintet performs standing up and introduces itself and the program to the audience. Most importantly, the five musicians arrange, recompose and interpret music from eight centuries to suit their unique constellation: from early music to classical and jazz to world premières; in the hands of Calefax it all sounds fresh and new. The Amsterdam based ensemble has won a number of prestigious prizes and can be heard frequently throughout Europe and further afield in Russia, China, India, Turkey, Japan and the USA.Through master-classes and workshops the Calefax musicians pass on their specific ways of working and musical experiences to new generations. For musicians as well as composers, for audiences and press alike, Calefax continues to be an inspiring chamber music laboratory.
Calefax enjoyed co-operations with amongst others pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, trombonist Christian Lindberg, mezzo soprano Cora Burggraaf, Jungle Boldie (formerly the Tony Overwater Trio), trumpet player Marco Blaauw, percussionist Arnold Marinissen, Zapp String Quartet, Kinan Azmeh (clarinetist Syria/US), Claude Chalhoub (violinist, Lebanon), jazz singers Denise Jannah and Astrid Seriese, and choreographer Sanne van der Put.
Calefax has released 16 CD’s for the reknown German label MDG as well as for their own label RIOJA Records, which without exception, applauded by the international press: "A sublime sense of timing [...]. In short: here are five souls playing as one. These are … masters!" Recently two CD’s appeared. One with recordings of the CalefaXL(Calefax Extra Large)-project for which Calefax was extended to a formation of twelve reed players. Only months before the CalefaXL-release a CD with repertoire from the much praised family performance The Music Factory appeared. The Music Factory was premièred in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and has since been performed throughout The Netherlands and in the Philharmonie in Cologne. In coming seasons The Music Factory performances in the Luxembourg Filharmonie and the Wigmore Hall, London (tbc) are scheduled. For this season a release of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg variations (BWV 988) is foreseen.
Members of Calefax have built a reputation with their own reed quintet arrangements. In addition to this some eighty new works written for the group complement the repertoire which spans many centuries of music history. In 2004 Calefax started publishing (for online sale) its most successful arrangements in the CalefaxEDITION. As a result of this several reed quintets have been formed all over the world. Through masterclasses and workshops the Calefax musicians pass on their specific ways of working and musical experiences to new generations. For musicians as well as composers, for audiences and press alike, Calefax continues to be an inspiring chamber music laboratory.