The saxophone was invented in 1840—a fact which makes it a veritable teenager among the traditional instruments of Western classical music. Far from being enfant terrible via its long kinship with popular idioms, the saxophone has been enfant cheri to many composers—due in particular to its singular lyrical voice. The timbres of a fine saxophone tone are brushed with a veiled fluorescence which is vibrant, sensual and inherently legato. The sum of this tonal melange has endeared the instrument to the treasury of the orchestral repertoire. Consider the record: Bizet—L'Arlestenne Suites; Prokofiev—Lieutenant Kije Suite; Shostakovich—The Golden Age; Ravel—Bolero; Rachmaninoff—Symphonic Dances; Milhaud—La Creation du Monde (a partial list). Each of these examples calls upon the saxophone to intone a descant that dwells among the loveliest in all of music.
But the Saxophone has a 'past' of another kind; its latent lyricism and potential for technical bravura have also made it a great vehicle for jazz expression. From the earliest days of Tin Pan Alley in New York City the instrument has been solidly identified with popular music in most of its myriad forms. From before Wiedoft to Parker to Desmond to Coltrane and beyond, the saxophone has been nonpareil as the preferred wind instrument among many of the world's greatest jazz artists.
Finally, though far less noticed, the vision of Adolphe Sax has also found its way into the mainstream of today's serious chamber music. And, although saxophone ensembles are now scattered around the globe, the ASQ is one of the world's leading advocates for commissions and premieres of serious new music for saxophone quartet.
It is appropriate that this MCA release is highlighted by the work of American composer Lukas Foss (1922- ) [Editor's Note: (1922-2009)]. Once a pupil of Hindemith, Foss, a 'wunderkind' of his generation, left his position as pianist with the Boston Symphony to succeed Arnold Schonberg in the composition chair at UCLA. It was there that Foss formed an experimental chamber group to explore the diverse excursions of the musical avant-garde, Following close to the tempo of Foss' compositional work was the emergence of his distinguished conducting career as maestro of the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony, the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Milwaukee Symphony. But there is more: among aficionados, Foss' extraordinary keyboard facility has become legendary for his celebrated recordings of Bernstein's Age of Anxiety, the Bach Piano Concerti and his own Echoi. He therefore brings to this recording an informed musical persona which is perhaps without peer in our time.
Chamber music can only rarely assume the metier of the classical concertante, To do so it must retain the intimacy of a small ensemble as well as command the instrumental flamboyance typically found in works for full orchestra. But this is Mozart (1756-1791), and his Piano Quintet in B, K.452 provides a seamless example of just how gracefully those diverse qualities can be entwined into the runes of a separate work. Moreover, it is often suggested that-no matter what the medium-Mozart always composed with his heart in opera. Indeed, the music here does have a theatrical sense. The keyboard and quartet of winds seem to convey character roles as if rendered from a dramatic scenario on-stage.
The formative idea for this restatement of K.452 came from composer/pianist Leo Smit. The incentive was the possibility to score a verbatim translation of the original wind parts (clarinet, bassoon, horn, oboe) into the ideally suited registration of the classical saxophone quartet. The original concert key of Bb has been maintained and the piano score itself remains untouched. The challenge now met by the saxophonists requires them to tap the preserve of inspiration, elegance, and freedom which together comprise the autograph of Wolfgang Amadeus.
K. 452 was completed in March of 1784, and Mozart held a special enthusiasm for the work. In a letter to his father on 10 April 1784, he wrote: "The concert I gave in the theater was most successful. I composed two grand concertos and a quintet, which called forth the very greatest applause; I myself consider it to be the best work I have ever composed."
Except for the stately and declarative Largo at the opening (a favorite device of Haydn), the overall structure of this quintet bears a kinship to Mozart's concertos for piano: three movements of which the first is assertive and engaging, the second purely lyrical, and the last—in this case a delightful rondo—charged with breezy pyrotechnics and panache.
Lullaby by George Gershwin (1898-1937) (transcribed for this recording by Stephen Rosenthal) was initially scored for string quartet in 1919 or 1920. The principal melody of this little gem was later appropriated by Gershwin himself for an aria in his one-act opera titled Blue Monday. But with some irony, Lullaby was not publicly performed in its original form until 1967 at the Library of Congress by the Juilliard String Quartet. The piece begins with a demure introduction marked Molto moderato e dolce. The gossamer ambiance created here by the quartet offers a most unexpected insight into the feathery nuance that can be adumbrated by saxophones.
A brilliant new addition to the repertoire is Foss' Saxophone Quartet, composed for the ASQ in 1985 during the composer's residency at the American Academy in Rome. The work, infused with musical contrast, consists of four movements played without pause.
The first is titled Introduction and is marked Agitato (explosive, but precise). Edgy figurines develop a nervous momentum, initially interspersed with sustained chords. The second movement is titled Canon and the pitch/melodic structure darts haltingly and with playful urgency, as if an atonal architecture banters with an impish hidden tune. Just before the intricate playtime comes to a halt we hear a caption in the style of the Introduction. What follows is the Chorale of the third movement, a sequence of transparent musical ciphers in the form of slowly progressing chords—a spiral of evolving tonalities which gleam like fragments of musically stained glass. But then Attacca commands the opening of the fourth movement. The title here is Canon B (backwards), i.e., essentially the same pitches and rhythms of the second movement played in reverse but with a catch: the players are required to play Niente, which the score defines to be "Activity felt but not heard". The shadowy effect generates an inscrutable energy which slowly graduates into full audibility. All the while the giocoso-styled lilt of the first Canon is maintained. Suddenly, quasi-souvenirs from the Introduction and the Chorale are briefly quoted as cantilevers into the quiescent C Major chord which closes the piece.
American rag-time pianist and composer Eubie Blake (1883-1983) led an astonishing musical life that found him still composing at the age of 99. His output of rags, songs and stage works has generated a catalog in excess of 2000 entries. With the blessing of Blake himself the ASQ has recorded an entire album devoted to a broad sample of his music. Two of those selections have been newly recorded to conclude this album. The first is Jassamine Lane (1924), a love ballad of lithe tenderness; the second is a delightful rag with an attendant story: the introduction and first strain of the work were composed as a gift to Blake (probably for his 90th birthday) by his friend Johnny Guarnieri (1917-1985), who also named the piece. In 1973 Blake deftly filled in the remaining blanks and voila: Eubie Dubie, another jewel from the crown. © 1990 Edward Yadzinski
The Amherst Saxophone Quartet has performed extensively throughout the United States, appearing at many of the country's major concert halls and chamber music venues.
The Quartet performs the standard works composed for saxophone quartet. In addition to this large repertoire, it has developed a unique library of manuscripts which includes many commissions, and also music of the Baroque and Classical eras, Avant-garde, Jazz and Ragtime. The group has worked closely with composers ranging from Eubie Blake to Lukas Foss. The ASQ frequently appears with symphony orchestras performing concertos the ensemble has commissioned.
The ASQ was formed in 1978, and has performed over 100 concerts per year on tour and at home in Buffalo, New York. The ensemble is in Residence at Buffalo State College and the City Of Buffalo, and was awarded Chamber Music America Residency Grants for the project.
In addition to their concert appearances they have been broadcast nationally on "St. Paul Sunday Morning", NPR's "Music in Washington" from the Kennedy Center and NBC-TV's "Tonight Show".
One of the long term goals of the ASQ is to encourage composers to write for saxophone quartet and create a twentieth and twenty-first century repertoire to rival that of the contemporary string quartet.
Amherst Saxophone Quartet
Salvatore Andolina, Soprano
Russell D. Carere, Alto
Stephen Rosenthal, Tenor
Harry Fackelman, Baritone
Produced by Thomas Frost
Executive Producers: Martin Fleischmann & Joel Hoffner
Engineer: Tom Lazarus
Photo: David Hiller
Visual Effects: Dale Sizer
Art Direction: Martin Fleischmann
Design: Wilson Design Group
Thanks to: Ethel Siegel, Bobby Short, Michael Trimboli, Michael McGee, Tom Frost, Tom Lazarus, Joel Hoffner, Martin Fleischmann, Ed Yadzinski, and the Members of the Board of the Amherst Saxophone Society, Inc.
Also available on MCA Classics: Amherst Saxophone Quartet: Bach On Sax
Amherst Saxophone Quartet MOZART TO MODERN
W.A. MOZART Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments in Eb, K.452 Trans. Leo Smit
I. Largo—Allegro moderato (9:32)
II. Larghetto (6:47)
III. Rondo: Allegretto (5:24)
Lukas Foss, Piano
GEORGE GERSHWIN Lullaby (7:30) Trans. Stephen Rosenthal for Giovanna Michelle
LUKAS FOSS Saxophone Quartet
I. Introduction (1:36)
II. Canon (2:57)
III. Chorale (4:01)
IV. Canon B (backwards) (3:19)
EUBIE BLAKE Jassamine Lane (5:29) Trans. Stephen Rosenthal
EUBIE BLAKE — JOHN GUARNIERI Eubie Dubie (3:09) Trans. Salvatore Andolina