Amherst Quartet hits peak on special night

Works reviewed: 
Saxophone Quartet, Lukas Foss
Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments in Eb, K. 452, W.A. Mozart
Concerto BWV 913, Johann Sebastian Bach
Lullaby, George Gershwin
Eubie Dubie, Eubie Blake
Buffalo News
Buffalo, NY
Oct 3 1990
Herman Trotter

There sure was a lot of non-musical activity attached to this concert. In addition to the dual preview that the performances represented, the Quartet's president, Mrs. Eleanor V. Millonzi, dedicated the concert to Philharmonic reed player Edward Yadzinski for long service to the ensemble as teacher, coach and program annotator.

Then when his Saxophone Quartet was played, Lukas Foss dedicated the performance to the memory of the late Seymour H. Knox, whose contributions to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are legendary. Foss described him as an arts patron of the caliber that his "beloved Buffalo Philharmonic" desperately needs right now.

With all this, did the music seem to take a back seat?

Not the way the Amherst Saxophone Quartet was playing. I have followed their progress through 13 seasons and have never heard them in better form. From a Bach Concerto through Foss' Quartet to the usual rags, intonation was immaculate, blend and balance were impeccable, ensemble was flawless, and all this was accomplished with an unerring sense of line and pliancy in phrasing.

Foss' Quartet was commissioned by the ASQ and premiered in 1985 and is now on the new CD. It consists of four movements: Introduction, Canon, Chorale and Canon B (backwards), all of which is helpful to know before hand but unnecessary as a road map when listening.

Foss' music speaks in wide contrasts. There are quiet and sonorous opening chords alternating with mercurial bursts of energy, evolving into a seemingly random staccato spray which nonetheless conveys a sense of architectural purpose and a groping, seeking forward motion.

Later the very measured equation of the slowly unfolding canonic lines is brought up short by purposely audible key slaps leading to jabbin pointillist thickets of sound, a busy texture which is relieved when the music sinks back into the rich chordal expanse from which it arose. In a less than pristine performance this music would sound disorganized, but the ASQ reconfirmed that this is a fascinating and significant addition to the saxophone literature.

Pianist Foss joined the ensemble for Mozart's Quintet in E-flat, K452 for piano and winds as transcribed for saxes by, Leo Smit. Anyone who thought the original scoring for woodwinds would lose textural bite and variety when scored for saxes didn't count on Smit's skill in instrumentation or the ASQ's finesse as performers.

This was apparent at the outset in the delicious contouring of the slow introduction's lovely pealing phrases. Throughout the faster sections the music had a rippling freedom superimposed over a rock solid strictness of line. An occasional turn by the piano seemed a bit brusque, but Foss' instinctive musicianship provided an engaging conversational partnership with die reeds and there was never a sense of formality, always a sense of form.

Another masterful transcription was Lowell Shaw's setting of Bach's Concerto BWV 913. Open and clean, so that every contrapuntal voice could be followed in detail, the performance was distinguished by phrasing that was both liquid and precise, and was supported from below by the wonderful baritone of Harry Fackelman; who has that rare faculty of knowing just how much pressure to apply and where in order to to keep the entire structure aloft and moving.

The 1961 Quartet by Claude Pascal fit the program well, with its chatty lyric lines, its syncopated jazz influence and its occasional venture into bracing and purposeful dissonance. The ASQ exerted exquisite control over the work's wide dynamic spectrum and an almost unbelievable ensemble in the finale's incredibly difficult headlong rush in detached, almost staccato tones.

After Gershwin's gently expressive "Lullaby," whose bluesy ambience is melded with a hint of Latin ostinato, the program concluded with the ASQ's signature, ragtime tunes, highlighted by the swaggering strut of Blake's "Eubie Dubie" and the perfect ensemble; in the runaway tempo of "Twelfth Street Rag."

Amherst Quartet hits peak on special night