in: Reviews

February 17, 2009

“Saxtravaganza” with Radnofsky and Friends Showcases Saxophone’s Varied Possibilities

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The saxophone is a fundamental resource in the jazz band and in the symphonic wind ensemble, but it is generally considered the orphan of instruments in classical music; it is too recent an invention to have been readily welcomed into the modern orchestra, and only a few well-known masterpiece of orchestral music dare to use it (at that, usually in its alto size). The earliest well-known appearance of the saxophone in the orchestral repertoire is in Bizet’s l’Arlésienne of 1872, and the number of great concert works using it is small ?- I think especially of Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (1940), and of course Ravel’s Boléro(1928), which calls for three different sizes; nor should one overlook Milhaud’s ballet, La création du monde (1923), in which the saxophone actually substitutes for the solo viola in the string section. There is a considerable solo repertory as well, especially of concertos with orchestra. The moving force behind many of these was the German-American Sigurd Rascher (1907-2001), who did more than anyone else in the first half of the twentieth century to make the saxophone a serious and cherished concert instrument. I still remember, too, a fine appearance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra of the French saxophonist Marcel Mule in 1958, playing solo works by Jacques Ibert and Henri Tomasi.

For the last quarter century and more, the banner of the classical saxophone has been proudly carried by Boston’s own Kenneth Radnofsky of the New England Conservatory, who has played all over the world with orchestra and without, who has faithfully served composers by commissioning and performing dozens of new works, and who at least in this writer’s opinion plays the classical saxophone more beautifully than anyone else in the world, though he had some heartwarming competition from some of his students at the fascinating “Saxtravaganza” in Jordan Hall on February 19.

Copland’s Quiet City (1940) is usually known as a concert piece for English horn, trumpet, and strings. What we heard was advertised on the program as a premiere of incidental music “with original orchestration” in a “concert adaptation” by Christopher Brellochs, in which the saxophone substituted for the English horn. Whether Copland’s own sketch for the piece included a saxophone instead of the English horn, Copland himself did not remember when asked years later; but I found that the saxophone’s tone blended extremely well with the other instruments — clarinet, trumpet, and piano — perhaps even more effectively than the English horn would have in this small grouping. In the familiar orchestral version, this contemplative, undramatic piece is more about the trumpet than the English horn, which is one reason I particularly enjoyed this unfamiliar version with saxophone. Accompanying Radnofsky were  Jonathan Cohler, clarinet and bass clarinet; Terry Everson, trumpet; and Eliko Akahori, piano.

Another felicitous arrangement was Harold Shapero’s Saxophone Quartet, which was originally his String Quartet of 1941, but adapted by Pasquale Tassone with Shapero’s advice and blessing.  The grouping of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes has been tried by many different composers, but success always hinges on a good performance, and this one, by the NEC Quadrivium Saxophone Quartet, was really excellent, with outstanding ensemble and perfect blending of tone, sensitive to every nuance. If there was a difficulty with the arrangement, it was with the inescapable need for the B-flat soprano instrument to sound in its highest register, following the course of the original first violin, and there were times when one might have preferred a clarinet in those very high and somewhat strained reaches. But this was hardly ever a serious problem in the total sound, which was as effective and convincing, indeed, truly beautiful, as I have ever heard from a saxophone quartet. (All too often the sax quartet medium is poorly blended, rough, poorly in tune, and too aggressive; just listen to NPR’s “All Things Considered” for an example.) The players in this fine group were Michael Couper, Derek Beckvold, Ryan Marsh, and Jon Amon, reading from the top down.

The Quartet itself is in four movements, a strongly neoclassical work with pandiatonic harmony such as Shapero’s somewhat older American contemporaries like Berger, Carter, and Copland particularly enjoyed, or even a little like Stravinsky’s American works of the 1940s. The craftsmanship is solid at every point, the counterpoint vigorously rhythmic, and the melodic writing spacious. This was especially evident in the warmly expressive third movement, which begins with a dialogue of upward major thirds, followed by a middle section in different layers of thirds, and concluding with answering upward minor sixths.

In this year when we celebrate Elliott Carter’s centennial, it was natural to hear an early work of his, a Pastorale for saxophone and piano (1945). This may be identical with a Pastorale for English horn or viola or clarinet with piano, listed in Grove as written in 1940. It was displayed in several successive sections of quite different character from slow to fast to slow to very fast, with recitative-like dialogue between sax and piano and including two cadenzas, finally winding up with a jazzy section in fast staccato. One could hear in this little work that Carter’s path-breaking Piano Sonata was not far down the road. Radnofsky was ably accompanied by Eliko Akahori, piano.

Two recent commissions made up the second half of the program. Gil Shohat, a composer from Israel, offered a Quintet for saxophone and string quartet (2008) that met with only mixed success. Much of the time there was an insuperable problem with balance: the tone of the saxophone, even in soft dynamics, so completely dominated the entire quartet ensemble that it was difficult to discern what was the total sound. I heard a mixture of very fast chromatic fingerwork, densely-packed chordal writing, and dance rhythms in an almost inaudible pizzicato. I especially liked the occasional transparent triadic harmony, opulently spread out as an accompaniment to warm, even sentimental melody which might remind one of songs of a century ago. Yet it was hard to be convinced by the eclectic assembly of styles. Nor could I tell whether the exceptionally wide vibrato in much of the cantabile string writing meant that the composer included microtones in the score. The Italian tempo markings given in the program were as tantalizing as they were elaborate: “Lento cantabile, dolce ma diabolico” had echoes of the beginning of Beethoven’s C major Mass, op. 86. Kenneth Radnofsky played with admirable control and restraint; the Portland String Quartet (Steven Kecskemethy and Ronald Lantz, violins; Julia Adams, viola; and Paul Ross, cello, whose fortieth anniversary was honored by this commission, collaborated valiantly.

Yuan, a saxophone quartet (2008) by Lei Liang, was a relentless study in savage timbres of all kinds. Kenneth Radnofsky’s own group (Philipp Stäudlin, soprano; Eliot Gattegno, tenor; Eric Hewitt, baritone; and Radnofsky himself on alto) performed expertly, with remarkable technical virtuosity. The composer provided a program note describing the work’s motivation from a tragic event during the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s. The piece itself began with wild arpeggios and scales in parallel clusters at high velocity and insistent fff dynamics. This yielded eventually to long sustained tones, much softer and widely spaced from top to bottom, so that it was possible to hear one note at a time and one harmony at a time. Constantly on display were a full arsenal of avant-garde techniques, including some admirable multiphonics, tongue-popping, fluttertonguing, fingers rattling the keywork, blowing air through the instruments, trills, tremolos, and at least two passages where all four players played only the mouthpieces, detached from the instruments, in long, sirenlike squeals — at one point expertly matched in pitch by the soprano sax, his mouthpiece by then reattached. (Perhaps Ravel said it for all time with this technique a century ago when, in l’Heure espagnole, he wrote a high B flat above the treble clef for contrabass sarrusophone, or, rather, just for its double reed.) The one technique that I missed in this work was playing the instruments without the reeds, using the bocals like cup mouthpieces, rather like the wooden cornetto or the ophicleide; but although I’ve heard this technique demonstrated on the clarinet I haven’t heard it on the saxophone.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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