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Goldmine of Saxes, Bonus of Horns Adorn Alea III Program at Tsai


Alea III lent its name and venue, BU’s Tsai Performance Center, to what was actually a showcase for some formidable playing by soloists Tsuyoshi Honjo on saxophones, Eric Ruske, French horn, and the members of the Radnofsky Ensemble and the Boston University Horn Studio. The April 28 concert afforded, as well, a chance to hear a highly varied repertoire of works for these groupings, some aided by electronics and/or percussion, mixing lighter fare with some surprisingly meaty content.

The program began with Saksti (a made-up word from sax + T) for tenor saxophone and electronics by Paris-based Greek composer Georgia Spiropoulos. The electronic part includes vocal sounds, clicks, rushes of air, etc., which the player (Mr. Honjo) cued with a pedal. The sax part combines pointillistic utterances with sustained tones, all in lively counterpoint with the recorded sound. Mr. Honjo, who began his musical career as a jazz-rock bass guitarist, has, under the guidance of Kenneth Radnofsky and others, become a formidable saxophonist in modern classical repertoire. He demonstrated remarkable control and technical prowess, beautifully shaping the dynamic swells, glissandi and other tone-bending the piece required. The work, which despite the composer’s typical IRCAM-speak jargon, is rather frothy and ends notably with a shout from the player and a charming morendo from the electronics.

Another lighthearted work, Perpetuum Mobile, a quintet written in 19xx for four horns and tuba by the then-22-year-old Gunther Schuller, was intended as an homage to Poulenc and Françaix and masking its 12-tone structure in jazzy intervals and rhythms, and fleet-footed patter. When the composer, who was present, was asked how he felt about confronting his younger self, he merely shrugged and said, “… just don’t take it seriously.” He was, however, paternally proud that the work was unique in being entirely for muted instruments. The performers, Horn Studio members Janie Berg, Keyondra Price, Samantha Benson, Jeremy Moon, plus Justin Worley on tuba, kept this short work, well, perpetually moving and light as a feather.

One would be forgiven for thinking, upon hearing the insouciant descending major scale that begins Sofia Gubaidulina’s Duo Sonata for Two Baritone Saxophones (a transcription, made with the composer’s approval, of her sonata for two bassoons), that one would be hearing another light piece; but one would be wrong. This was far and away the most substantive work on the program. The piece, which takes much of its material from that scale, builds inexorably to a searing climax of great emotional and moral force, alternating melodic fragments with sonorous hymn-like homophony. Both the timbres and ranges of the baritone saxes, played thrillingly by Mr. Honjo and Jared Sims, correspond quite closely with those of the bassoon, so that even the multiphonics replicated the original version. This is a work worth repeated hearing.

The first half returned to a lighter vein with la grenouille by Eric Hewitt for saxes, horns and percussion (including one uncommon item called a “lion’s roar” used here for the much less threatening purpose of evoking the titular frog’s “ribbits”), originally conceived as a dance work, and quietly evoking a frog pond at dusk. It makes some lovely sounds, opening with an undulating background of horns and quiet percussion (tympani and ribibts), enriching the mix with some portentious motifs for horns and bass saxophone. The music seems largely textural and densely polyphonic, evoking classic Ligeti without the angst. The ensemble, conducted by the composer, included Radnofsky ensemble members Brenna Noonan, Anthony Balestar, Rebecca Wellons, Lauren Haley, Ben Sorrell, and Brandon Valerino, the entire BU Horn Studio comprising Berg, Price, Benson and Moon plus Laura Carter, Daniel Doyle, John Anderson and Young Kim, plus percussionists Rob O’Brien and Miles Salerni.

The second half began with a work by Alea’s music director Theodore Antoniou, Music for 9, a type of Romanza-cum-concerto-grosso for horn solo (Mr. Ruske) and an “orchestra” of eight more horns. The solo part carries most of the melodic interest, while the tutti provides a variegated color field with occasional percussive effects (slapping the mouthpiece to provide something like pizzicato bass sounds). The principal sections are slow-ish, with a fanfare-like more rapid midsection. This climaxes on a mighty bells-up unison. The closing section, described in the composer’s program note as a series of dialogues between soloist and ensemble, did seem a bit prolix. Mr. Ruske, a performer of wide renown who directs BU’s Horn Seminar, conveyed the formidably virtuosic writing for the part with an almost casual air, magnificent tone, and subtle phrasing. Mr. Hewitt, conducting, held all together perfectly.

Another duet for saxophone (Mr. Honjo) and electronics (this and the Spiropoulos ably engineered by Gabriel Solomon) ensued, this from Pierre Boulez, the Boston première of his Dialogue de l’ombre double. This is also a composer-supervised transcription, this time from a clarinet original made in 2001 by Vincent David from Boulez’s 1985 original, an homage to Luciano Berio incorporating material from the latter’s Sequenza 9b and Chemins IV. The Boulez transcription embraces spatial as well as purely sonic concerns, with the speakers for the electronics arrayed around the hall. Supposedly, there was purpose-designed lighting as well, but frankly we didn’t notice anything special. The work begins and ends with a “sigle” (meaning an initial letter or acronymic series of initial letters), the first of which is an attractively jaunty rhythmically-pronounced phrase for the recorded sound (the closing one is for both the live and recorded sound, all tracks recorded by Mr. Honjo), which together encase a series of strophes for the live player interspersed between prerecorded transitions from one strophe to another. The overall effect is like a set of rondo-variations, the strophes sounding like jazz riffs on the opening tune. Appropriately for its origins, the piece does not convey a sense of deep introspection and cogitation, rather that of a consummately crafted divertimento. Consummately crafted as well was Mr. Honjo’s performance, a virtuoso turn at all levels.

The final item was Saxissimo by the American expat in Paris Drake Mabry. As the title suggests, this was another knees-up for the Radnofsky Ensemble (which, more credit to them and their eponymous director, performs unconducted), with a clear invocation of the Big Band sound—shades of Harry James! Mr. Mabry provided delightful jazzy dialogues between upper and lower registers, rippling waves, and pizzicato-miming pad clicks. Deep it wasn’t, but fun it was.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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