Amherst Saxophone Quartet/Mendelssohn String Quartet: Sahl "Storms"

Musical America

The Buffalo-based Amherst Saxophone Quartet, now in its ninth year of championing the sparse literature for four saxophones, has embarked on an intriguing exploratory mission, treading where no saxophone ensemble has gone before. Through funding from the NEA Consortium Commissioning Program, they have commissioned three major works for combined saxophone quartet and string quartet, the first of which was unveiled last October 21 in the Terrace Theater of Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Collaborating in the debut of Michael Sahl's Storms was the Mendelssohn String Quartet.

The composer says that Storms is about "storms of passion and anguish ... the turmoil of inner life." This aspect is easily distinguishable, but equally prominent are counter-balancing relaxed and genial emotions, heard at the outset when a lyrical tenor saxophone flight emerges from a languorous introduction by the full ensemble. The wedding of saxophones and strings proved felicitous. The lingering after-impression of their sonority is akin to that of a chamber orchestra, but with a somewhat creamier, more homogeneous timbre and texture. Sahl doesn't use the full ensemble all the time, of course, but mixes solos for different instruments with groups of varying makeup, and occasional antiphonal sections for saxes vs. strings. His idiom is rooted in conventional tonality, highly accessible, with resonances of Ravel, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos, jazz and Latin rhythms, but with a distinctive voice of his own dominating.

Still awaiting premieres under the same commission are Classical Music by Nils Vigeland, described as a mini-symphony, and an as-yet unnamed work by Earle Brown. The significance of this experiment lies in the possible new avenues it opens, first to composers who feel the pressure to maximize chances for performance by writing for smaller but innovative ensembles, and second for string quartets looking for ways to expand the horizons of their own literature.

HERMAN TROTTER

Amherst Saxophone Quartet/Mendelssohn String Quartet: Sahl "Storms"