Amherst Saxophone Quartet mixes quality with Sax Appeal

Works reviewed: 
Sax Appeal (1990), David Stock
Pittsburgh Press, The
Pittsburgh, PA
Jul 14 1990
Donald Rosenberg

A concert by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet is a blend of virtuosity and lunacy. The members of this ensemble bring musical purpose and technical flair to whatever they set their reeds buzzing, but they're certainly not afraid to have a grand time along the way.

The elements forced Summerfest to move its final concert of the season -- featuring the Amherst musicians -- inside Fox Chapel Episcopal Church last night, and the chapel's acoustics proved generous to the four gentlemen in sneakers (no kidding) who provided the evening's engaging artistry. The site actually couldn't have been more appropriate, in a way. When four crackerjack saxophonists merge their individual voices in chordal grandeur, the result sounds remarkably like a pipe organ at full tilt.

Lets not imply there's anything ecclesiastical about the Amherst. While these fellows take their music-making seriously, they're not purists about repertoire. How could they be, when the saxophone wasn't born until the 1840s? The droll introductions by the groups tenor saxophonist, Stephen Rosenthal, fortunately didn't spill over into the performances, except when wit was required.

Beginning with J.S. Bach's Badinerie and Concerto BWV 913, Rosenthal and his colleagues --Salvatore Andolina, soprano sax; Russell Carere, alto sax; and Harry Fackelman, baritone sax -- demonstrated how the timbral differences of their respective instruments can be put to vivid use in Bach's contrapuntal discussions. Some listeners might shriek at the sound of saxophones in this literature, but even Bach altered his instrumentation frequently.

A composer who'd also be unlikely to complain about the Amherst's agility and cohesiveness is Pittsburgh's David Stock, whose Sax Appeal received its premiere last night as a commission in honor of Summerfest's 10th anniversary. The appeal of this work lies not in any cheeky in-jokes, but in its rhythmic vivacity, elegant lyricism and affectionate nods to Stravinsky and Gallic composers of the 1930s. The saxophones are used in figures that swirl in rhythmic unison and travel through wild metrical changes. In two connected slow movements, Stock has the ensemble singing the blues in wailing phrases and then moving from chorale-like utterances to anxious flights. The urgent lines of the finale, Jump, test the digital precision of its players, which the Amherst almost negotiated on target. If Sax Appeal would benefit from some trimming, Stock has concocted many inventive ideas and dapper sax sonorities.

The Amherst's whimsy suited the insouciant melodies of Jean Rivier's Grave et Presto expertly. And when the players dug into four jazz vignettes by Andrew N. White III, their sense of interplay was nimble and irresistible.

For dessert, the musicians served several rags they'd studied under the late Eubie Blake, including Blake's Charleston Rag, in which Fackelman's baritone sax belched with aristocratic grace, and Joplin's Elite Syncopations. And although the Amherst disappointed by not performing its transcription of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony (not really, but Rosenthal made it sound enticing), the players did end the night with one of the most famous sax pieces of recent times. You know the composer -- local boy named Henry Mancini. The piece, of course, was The Pink Panther, which the fun-loving Amherst saxes gave a gleeful workout.