Amherst Saxophone Quartet rises to the occasion

Works reviewed: 
Saxophone Quartet (1997), Theodore Wiprud
Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, Antonin Dvorak
Toccata in d minor, Johann Sebastian Bach
Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Buffalo News
Buffalo, NY
Apr 10 1999
Herman Trotter

The 1997 Saxophone Quartet composed by Theodore Wiprud was jointly commissioned by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet and several other ensembles, and has had prior partial performances and has undergone considerable subsequent revision.

The final version of the work was given its initial airing during Friday evening's concert, with the composer on hand to offer comments and listening guides.

The composer says it relies heavily on the whole step as a building block, and sure enough, right at the opening rising whole steps were successively hurled at us in angry bursts by the baritone, tenor, alto and soprano.

The movement's expressive marking is "assertive," and although there eventually was an island of repose in a prolonged slow section, its dominant character relied on music's vertical elements. The key interval appeared in canonic fashion, chordal segments, with a lot of syncopation and key silences, all with intriguing development.

The second movement is marked "Punchy" and is obsessed with staccato playing, much of it undergirded by unfolding lyrical lines. A simple three-note riff swung with increasing energy into a rather bluesy slow section, which Wiprud called an encapsulated slow movement. The staccato dominance returned both as a focus and as support for a series of cadenzas with a decidedly wailing jazz slant. some toneless key slaps and a quick, chirping ending.

The final movement ("Brisk") had a rather "scattered" texture reminiscent of the previous movements, then waded into a sonorous chordal passage and concluded with lightning rising scales and an energetic final fillip.

Although the work showed a lot of originality, imagination and truly held one's attention, the predominance of vertical concerns over sustained linear musical thoughts tended to make the first hearing a bit one-dimensional.

Another premiere was Stephen Rosenthal's transcription of Dvorak's String Quartet in F ("American"). Although the playing of the ensemble, here and elsewhere, was technically and musically superb, it seemed that the translation of string writing to saxes resulted in everything sounding two markings louder than usual: for example, "mf" sounded like "ff."

In addition, there is something about the impingement of the sonorities of the four saxes on each other that produces resonances and overtones which sound alien to those of us who are familiar with the string original. Even the gentle opening trill on the soprano saxophone was so out of character with one's memory of the string quartet that it was almost a "squeaky chalk on the blackboard" experience. And when the soprano in ensemble was pushed into the upper register, there was a reaching quality to the projection which made it sound flat.

It all fell together better in the final movement, leaving a good ring in the ear, but the overall experience was a disappointment.

Lowell Shaw's transcription of Bach's Toccata in D minor for clavier was far more successful, and the superbly articulated supporting lines by baritone Harry Fackelman were a continual pleasure.

Belgian composer Jean Absil's brief, sassy and scampering Quartet, Op. 31 made a fine concert closer, with its intriguing sequential entrances in the slow movement and the finale with an alto opening reminiscent of the famous clarinet solo in "Rhapsody in Blue."

Amherst Saxophone Quartet rises to the occasion