For the concert program at Jordan Hall on February 21, entitled “Music of Spain, the United States, and South America,” saxophonist Kenneth Radnofsky and friends played a selection of twentieth- and twenty-first-century works. Radnofsky is celebrated for helping to expand the saxophone repertoire with the commissioning of new works, and this evening held no exception: five of the seven pieces presented on the concert were composed specifically for him, three of which were world premieres. Much of the music performed was by composers Radnofsky became acquainted with last July, while teaching at the Conservatório de Tatuí in Brazil. In some opening notes in the program, he summed up the connections between himself and the composers, illustrating each of the pieces as a memento of new and old acquaintances, in a way that made the whole of the program much more personal to the audience.
Jaime Fatás’s Flamenco sin Limites for solo saxophone opened with a lyrical fantasy, wittily reinforcing the piece’s inner tension between idiomatic Flamenco elements with more free-improvisational style. The first, most abrupt exclamation of this comes as unexpected foot-stomping to interrupt an otherwise timeless and flowing musical surface. The piece was short and sweet, but in its limited duration featured evocative use of timbral trills, short micro-tonal colorations, alongside some more typical harmonies reminiscent of Spanish/Romani styles.
Two pieces for alto sax and cello by the youngest composer on the program, Juan Ruiz, followed Fatás’s solo piece. The more interesting and successful of the two, Avenida la Playa, opened with acrobatic percussive use of the cello, effectively executed by Diana Flores. The sax joined in for a brief, syncopated rhythmic dance that was the entirety of the piece. It seemed restrained, as if more energy was on the page than on the stage, and might have benefited by a more up-tempo performance.
The following piece, Lejanias, opened with an thick, consonant lament ripe with some adept and sensitive use of dynamic contrast but soon transgressed into a series of rather unremarkable pseudo-tonal sequences. Both pieces seemed to inspire (or be inspired by) original poems by the composer included in lieu of program notes, both of which were beautiful pieces of literary art in their own rights.
In Radnofsky’s notes, he professed a recently found affinity for early-twentieth-century Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s Trio, Op. 35. The piece, originally scored for piano trio, worked well as edited by Radnofsky for flute, sax, and piano. Flutist Marcos Granados and pianist/composer John McDonald joined for the performance. The adapted instrumentation seemed to aid the Prelude and Fugue during duet passages between the flute and saxophone. The color of the wind instruments provided a deeper level of intrigue than the typical homogenous sounds of violin and cello for which the piece was originally scored. Despite its attractive moments and exceptional performance this evening, the majority of the piece is painfully uninventive and falls into timeworn maxims and nearly exhaustive levels of predictability at every barline. In my ear, the piece does little to integrate late-nineteenth-century Spanish popular music into a post-Romantic style, but rather uses popular music’s influence as an excuse for half-baked musical ideas and poorly executed formal structures.
The second half of the concert opened with a far more satisfying exhibition of elegant simplicity. Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileras No. 1 (originally for orchestra and solo cello) received a wonderfully sensitive performance. Set for string quartet and alto sax by Jorge Hoyo and featuring a string section of members of A Far Cry and Discovery Ensemble, this arrangement seemed to be tailored for Radnofsky’s whispery thin, delicate tone. The blend between the quartet and saxophone provided an interesting new perspective in this lush, beautiful piece.
John McDonald’s Reunion in Solos and Duets, five miniatures alternating between solos and duets, were written in celebration of the composer’s chance to again play with Radnofsky (on flute) and Marcos Granados (as pianist on the Turina and closing pieces by Cristian Yufra); McDonald became acquainted with the other performers in his high-school and college years. The pieces intelligently mingled the two instruments using very limited — but decidedly not limiting! — material from the slow movement of Bach’s fifth Brandenburg Concerto. Featuring palindromic inner solo movements, the set as a whole was mostly characterized by restrained, often meditative developments. As if being suddenly awakened from a trance, the fifth miniature, “Duet: Maestoso” allowed the flute and saxophone to dance excitedly around enticing and erratic rhythms, closing playfully with a satisfying quip for the premiere performance of a truly exceptional piece.
Cristian Yufra’s longer movements, also in a set of five, were characterized by familiar modality and persistent consonance (often to the point of excess). Amancer (Dawn) opened with exuberant Lydian melodies in Radnofsky’s soprano sax. The consistent, regular rhythms of all of the movements were aided by the addition of Juan Ruiz (the multi-talented young composer heard on the first half) playing the bombo leguero, a large Argentine folk drum. The program notes, which were entirely in Spanish (and I shall not let my upbringing in Miami go to waste!) briefly describe the folk roots and inspirations of each of the movements. The playful second one, Ayelen, is dedicated to the composer’s young niece. La fresca was something of an Argentine pastorale. Most of the pieces were enjoyable and understated, if under-stimulating (and perhaps too fatiguing, judging by the unfortunate case of conspicuous snoring from the audience). The quartet of Granados, Radnosky, McDonald, and Ruiz proved a good blend, most effective in the final movement, Desesperación. It contained some of the few moments of the evening that featured the more compelling sort of rhythmic constructions one might expect from a program featuring contemporary Spanish and South American music.
The program as a whole was quite successful, as it allowed Radnofsky and the fine musicians that accompanied him to share their music with a receptive audience. My only grievance (which may, no doubt, be the source of many other audience members’ praise) is that the program offered only a narrow extreme of the spectrum of Spanish and Latin American-influenced contemporary music. I celebrate Kenneth Radnofsky’s right, especially at his level of stature, to commission and perform the types of music he prefers. But in a program boasting multiple world premieres and predominantly newly commissioned works, I would have expected to hear much more music outside of the ultra-conservative vein. Of course, it’s not every performer or concert presenter’s obligation to challenge the audience. But after the concert, I couldn’t help but feel that a the vast majority of Spanish and South-American compositional styles were severely underrepresented.
Ed note: This fine review was received “at the editor’s desk” a week ago, then was transferred to a laptop to be worked on while on-flight from San Francisco. This proved unworkable. From hence this soldier was “hors de combat” for two days and the review in limbo until reclaimed.
Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.