Offbeat Amherst musicians provide a musical adventure

Works reviewed: 
Quartet in e minor, Giuseppe Verdi
Saxophone Quartet, Chan Ka Nin
Blue Monk, Thelonius Monk
Jilly Bean Walk, Russ Carere
Reading Eagle/Reading Times
Reading, PA
Feb 22 1993
Susan L. Pena

In a concert that showed just how well-deserved their Chamber Music America award for adventuresome programming was, the Amherst Saxophone Quartet inaugurated the Gertrude Sternbergh Concert Series of the Star series Association Saturday night at the Albright College Meridian Theatre.

Besides hearing the rare sounds of four saxophones playing both chamber music and jazz, the audience had a dollop of comedy thrown in unexpectedly by tenor player Stephen Rosenthal.

Blasting the stereotypical image of serious chamber musician, Rosenthal opened the program by deadpanning his way through a series of rules for the audience that included "no breathing allowed." His introductions to the pieces, often worthy of P.D.Q. Bach, had the audience in stitches; seconds later listeners would be raptly absorbing (or "audiating") the quartet's wonderful, unique sound.

Unsurprisingly, that sound is somewhere between a woodwind quintet and a brass ensemble; saxophones combine the burnished sound of brass with the flexibility and slight nasality of oboes and clarinets.

In the hands of these remarkable players - Salvatore Andolina on soprano, Russell Carere on alto and Harry Fackelman on baritone in addition to Rosenthal - the instrument becomes a natural conduit for virtually every style of music.

One can't help but wonder how Bach, who never heard a sax, would have liked their rendition of his Toccata BWV 913. Certainly he couldn't have asked for a more sprightly fugue, or a more precise, controlled, and often frisky rendering of the fast passages.

Hearing Verdi's Quartet in E Minor on wind instruments took some getting used to - it really sounded like a whole different piece; still, the group certainly captured the dramatic spirit of the work.

The second movement, a gracious, bittersweet waltz that Violetta might have sung, worked especially well in this reading, as did the elfin Prestissimo. They negotiated the final, quasi-fugal movement with élan, in spite of its being tricky to play, especially when you blow it rather than bow it.

They opened the second half of the program with the winner of their own composition competition, Chan Ka Nin's brilliant, quirky Saxophone Quartet, subtitled "Among Friends." Busy and replete with effects at the beginning, the piece mellows into a lyrical set of solos for each instrument, like walking from a marketplace to a quiet park. It showed what can emerge when a composer writes expressly for this ensemble, using all of the instruments' capabilities.

The rest of the program was given over to all kinds of jazz, from Thelonious Monk's Blue Monk," which included a wonderful duet for soprano and baritone and great soprano solos, to ragtime with a bow to Eubie Blake. All of it proved they could groove as well as the next sax player.

A delightful departure was Carere's "Jill[y] Bean Walk," a Chaplinesque cakewalk of the golliwogish persuasion dedicated to his three-year old daughter and her peculiar gait. All four obviously enjoyed playing this number.

Also included were a splendid arrangement of "When the Saints Go Marching In," a familiar syncopated morsel whose name no one could remember (and they wouldn't tell), and, as an encore, Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther."