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Who’s Heard a Classical Saxophone Quartet?


If you were looking for something different in the way of classical music, you might have been one of a respectable number of adventurers at the Shalin Liu Performance Center Tuesday night to experience the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet. Recasting the string sound of Schubert and Barber, the Quartet succeeded in the former while coming up short in the latter. Compositions written expressly for this less familiar combination of instruments ran the gamut from a mature and mainstream opus of Glazunov to a recent work by the Quartet’s competition’s young prize winner.

Shortly into the program, soprano saxophonist Dan Graser let it be known how grateful he was to be performing for us adventurers in what he described as the most beautiful venue the Quartet has ever played. His commentaries throughout the evening, though brief enough, needed better preparation—too many hmms and uhs, a bit too many thank-yous.

Amid the talking came one question. It was golden. He wondered who amongst us had ever heard a classical saxophone quartet. Chuckling all about the room underlined the sight of so many hands waving in the air. Such a reaction suggested to me a classroom of sorts with the kind of joyful learning—fun—that can spontaneously occur in the best of environments.

What more did we neophytes learn?

First off, we must recognize Rockport Music’s Rising Stars Series, which afforded us this rare opportunity to hear four young musicians who, themselves, are self-confessed aspiring stars. Along with Dan Graser were Zach Stern, alto, Joe Girard, tenor, and Danny Hawthorne-Foss, baritone, forming a tight-knit ensemble exploding with power and virtuosity and an un-concealable ambition to connect with its newly found listeners.

Schubert’s C Minor Quartet Movement (1820) opened the saxophone exhibition with short-fused dynamite, shocking the intimate walls of the otherwise serene venue. Another lesson, four saxophones can seem to sound as big as an orchestra. Next came a hushed blend of magical notes eventually spreading out into realities sounding as familiar harmonies and textural collocations intended to conjure up phantoms. Eluding logic as they would, Phantomes (2012) from the pen of the then 22-year old DSSQ prizewinner, Natalie Moller, materialized in trills and other flirtatious figurations.

Samuel Barber’s much played and oft arranged Adagio for Strings began with an improbable and inorganic single tone from out of nowhere and proceeded to move too quickly, too conscious of the saxophone’s potential. The chord expressing deep reprieve following the climax was made hastily and felt shallow. Problems with contrast here and elsewhere in the remaining pieces would point to another lesson about this instrumental idiom.

That lesson involving contrast, especially repose, would not show up in Recitation Book V Fanfare/Variation on “Durch Adams Fall” of David Maslanka. Here, the four young professionals were obligated to pursue the trendy bigger and faster that is called for in this brash score of rehashed clichés.

The Quatuor pour Saxophones, Op. 109 of Gazunov hit highs and lows. Fabulous instrumental intertwining of the four, rather than peak or climax, would go into decibel overboard, blurring contours and eventually nullifying harmonies. Michael Nyman’s Suite (1993) included two pieces from the 1993 movie, “The Piano,” arranged by Graser and a third, Songs for Tony, originally written for saxophone quartet. Noisy, repetitive, and rock simple, the only pleasure—or lesson—I could derive was the complete devotion these four players gave the thankfully short pieces. Speed Metal Organum Blues (2004) by Graser’s former theory teacher, Gregory Wananker, was even shorter, but far smarter and performed with utter clarity and flair.

Donald Sinta Sax Quartet (file photo)
Donald Sint Sax Quartet (file photo)

A summary of this brief exposure to the saxophone quartet should first point emphatically to the utterly impressive work of the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet. All are virtuosos and musically informed, and all are highly capable of delivering a knockout punch, which they did, but only microcosmically. Imagine, they had all the pieces memorized down to the last note.

But why not “stretch” into the jazz repertoire where the saxophone has seen so important and idiomatic a role, making perhaps a more natural connection than the classical stretch? Rather than staying with the four in concert, why not also program an occasional trio or solo for variety? Finally, considerably more delicacy and nuance are needed−more white coals than red. The encore, Tango Virtuoso, explored a bit more of this side of DSSQ’s art.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


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