The New Century Saxophone Quartet has established itself as one of the leading sax quartets in the country through rigorous touring and the active commissioning and performance of new works. But the group’s players have a knack for not taking themselves too seriously. Their performance Saturday evening, July 16, at Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s Shalin Liu Performance Center was ripe with the group’s idiosyncratic personality that meshed well with the jocular nature of the evening’s featured world premiere, David Cutler’s Weekend Traveler, commissioned by NCSQ. The commission, as well as the rest of the pieces on the program, shared a common thread of folk or world influences. This gave the program a sense of broadness in terms of musical influence (though the program remained rather limited in terms of musical aesthetic). The concert also acted as an initiation for Drew Hays, who will be permanently replacing Connie Frigo as the group’s baritone saxophonist.
The four movements of David Cutler’s Weekend Traveler were spread throughout the program, which made it difficult to note any particular large-scale continuity within the piece as a whole. Nonetheless, I’ll share my views on the piece as a whole. The concept of the piece included asking each of the ensemble’s players to choose a style from somewhere around the globe, which was then composed as a movement featuring that player’s instrument. Beads, Bourbon, & Binoculars featured the baritone sax in an off-axis, quirky tribute to early New Orleans jazz. The movement quickly verified Hays as a formidable addition to the ensemble’s permanent roster. The second movement, No Patios en Los Patios was the most interesting number of the evening. While the opening clapping of the hallmark Cuban son clave rhythm may have seemed gimmicky at first, the development of familiar Afro-Cuban rhythms into dense, interesting polyrhythmic composition was exceptionally compelling. As alto sax player Chris Hemingway topped of the movement with a spectacular breakneck cadenza, it became clear Cutler was taking full advantage of the virtuosic capabilities of his ensemble. The movement ended with an interesting commentary on its derived style; the clapping returned, but this time in son clave montuno form (a sort of backwards son clave, which was vastly important to the development of salsa). Any Cuban music purist will say that the two fundamental rhythms are incompatible in the same piece – it’s either one or the other – so Cutler did his duty as a contemporary composer in combining the two.
Tenor saxophonist Stephen Pollock’s movement, En Route to Edinburgh – Trapped at Carousel C, featured a sensitively interpreted Scottish tune with some jazzy ornamentation, while Wedding Crasher, the final movement featuring some heavy virtuosity on soprano saxophonist Michael Stephenson’s part, deconstructed Bulgarian wedding music into an eccentric joyride. Most of Cutler’s music heard in this piece relied heavily on repetitive bass lines and “looping” of rhythmic figures, which may have limited the pieces expressive potential at times. But for the most part the composer managed to develop these ideas into really interesting and eclectic musical narratives. Cutler and NCSQ have surely contributed a worthy and addition to the growing repertoire of new music for sax quartets.
Other notable performances included Piazzolla’s Bordel 1900 from L’Histoire du Tango, which featured some smart use of key clicks in the arrangement. A Paul Harvey arrangement of a suite of set poems by Robert Burns had its moments. Stephenson played an impassioned melody over My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, and the ensemble provided an uncanny mimicry of bagpipes in Bannocks O’Bearsmeal. There were a number of arrangements of folk-inspired tunes arranged by Glenn Haynes spread throughout the program. Though some of them were quite beautiful (in particular My Lord, What a Morning), the tended to homogenize the program in the direction of tiresome folk music arrangements.
The ensemble’s final piece on the program was a well-arranged rendition of Shostakovich’s Folk Dances, which the group played from memory. Though not among the composer’s masterpieces, the work (originally the third movement of the Native Leningrad suite) has become popular among wind ensembles and orchestras in the U.S. New Century’s performance of the piece was energetic and impressively tight. The group returned for an encore of a jazz/gospel tune that featured more of Hemingway’s consummate jazz chops.
The quality of performance by NCSQ could hardly be drawn into question, yet the overall programming may be another issue. In an interview published on Gloucester’s Wicked Local site, Pollock noted that “this concert might be lighter in nature, but we definitely don’t think it’s trite.” But with the Cutler premiere broken up throughout the concert, the rest of the program was ultimately filled up with rather short crowd-pleasers – many of which fit comfortably into the category of ultra-conservative arrangements of folk tunes. Add that to the general excess of comic rituals throughout, and it might be safe to say that the ensemble underestimated the audience’s ability to appreciate a wider range of musical styles. The want for some more adventurous programming aside, the quartet provided an evening of performances that was engaging, nuanced, and relentlessly entertaining.
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.