Phantom Melos (1981), Rocco Di Pietro

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Phantom Melos (1981), Rocco Di Pietro
Year of Composition: 1981     Composed for the ASQ

Review

Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Friday, September 26, 1997
Horns of Plenty
Mary Kunz

The Quartet, still fine after 20 years
THE FIRST clue that the Amherst Saxophone Quartet isn't your average chamber ensemble comes in the group's program notes. Right after a windy rundown of grants and funding, a footnote reads:
Members of the ASQ met with the Governor and County Executive last night, threatening to move the Quartet out of town unless its new multimillion dollar stadium is built. The ASQ also insisted that all proceeds from beer sold at the concerts would go to the owners of the Group.

On a different page:
It is no more accurate to suggest that an animal doctor who has served overseas is a veterinarian of foreign wars than it is to imply that an eye doctor who lives forever is an eternal optometrist. (An excerpt from the self help book When Good Puns Happen to Bad People.)

This isn't to imply, of course, that the group is a joke. The ASQ, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, is a tremendously success. The four sax men - Salvatore Andolina on soprano, Russ Carere on alto, Stephen Rosenthal on tenor and Harry Fackelman on baritone - have sold out Carnegie Hall. They have played in lincoln Center. They've been praised by everyone from Time magazine to Johnny Carson.

But back home in Buffalo, they're free to let down their hair.

Thursday night in Slee Hall, the ASQ presented a program called "Our First Concert Ever." It's part of the group's season-long anniversary blowout, and will be repeated Oct. 1 at Olmsted School 64, Oct. 15 at the Bijou Grille and Nov. 19 at Iroquois High School.

"Our First Concert Ever" is a repeat of the music the ASQ played at its first recital on March 12, 1978. There's a bit of everything on the menu, all in bite-size portions. "You can talk between pieces, and nothing's over seven minutes, so you'll still be able to remember the end of  your sentence" said Rosenthal the group's charming spokesman.

The beauty of the ASQ is diat it will be whatever you want it to be. It can sound like an elegant cafe group, as during a whimsical piece by Jean Francaix. It can be a smooth wind ensemble, as in a Tchaikovsky andante. It can resemble a jazzy ragtime outfit.

What never changes is the musicians' precision. Every crescendo, every twist and turn is smoothly choreographed. At the end of a piece, the musicians have an uncanny ability to finish their notes at exactly the same instant. You can tell these guys have been playing together for 20 years. They've learned to breathe in sync.

A stately Sarabande by Bach began the evening. The famous Boccherini minuet, which followed, is something we've all heard hundreds of times - but rarely, I'll bet, as briskly as the ASQ tossed it off. Led by Andolina, this was one bouncy dance - nothing sedate about it. It was a delight.

The highlights were the pieces written particularly for saxophone quartet. They capitalized best on the peculiar textures of the instrument. Pierre Lantier's "Andante et Scherzetto" was a kick, as was Francaix's "Petit Quatour Pour Saxophones." Both works had a slinky grace - so very French. The first movement of the Francaix had a nightclubby raunch, while the second part was of dark drama. The conclusion, "Serenade Comique," skipped along with hiccuping good cheer.

Should anyone feel cowed by unfamiliar music, the irresistible Rosenthal did a witty job of explaining what we should listen for. He described the Francaix first movement, for instance, as "like Jabberwocky without the long toenails," and let us in on a secret: "A composer's idea of a joke is suddenly to change the volume level."

He explained that another work, Rocco DiPietro's "Phantom Melos," was a tone poem about Buffalo. Composed for the ASQ in 1983, the work was written by DiPietro on the roof of a downtown hotel. ("And later he transcribed it to music paper," Rosenthal added, deadpan.)

"Phantom Melos" is supposed to suggest voices from Buffalo's past, from Canal District roustabouts to priests and presidents. To aid our imaginations, the ASQ cut the lights so only their music stands' were illuminated. The piece proved fun to interpret. It began with long honks - aha, Canal District foghorns - followed by a friendly cacophony that could have been the city's church bells, all clanging .together. Staccato blasts implied car horns. And the composer saved the best for last: We heard revving noises which had to be - trust me on this - someone on the West Side trying to start his wreck on a snowy morning.

For humor and sophistication the ASQ can't be beat, and everyone should try to catch at least a comer of their yearlong celebration. As Rosenthal said, "We still think we're students here, and when we're 21 we'll be able to go out." Musically, the ASQ are maturity personified. But I doubt they'll ever lose their sense of fun.

 

Andante et Scherzetto, Pierre Lantier
Petit Quatuor pour Saxophones, Jean Francaix
Phantom Melos (1981), Rocco Di Pietro
Horns of Plenty
Horns of Plenty
Stuart News (Stuart, Florida)
Friday, April 5, 1996
Amherst Saxophone Quartet lets loose at concert
Robert S. Butler

The Amherst Saxophone Quartet, which prides itself on presenting a decidedly unstuffy experience to its audiences, did just that March 29 at Stuart's Lyric Theater. The saxophone virtuosos, final season presentation of the Treasure Coast Concert Association, are always a delight., running the musical gamut from classical to jazz. Stephen Rosenthal, Tenor sax, serves as the Buffalo, N.Y. group's announcer and stand-up comic. Steve provides an ongoing humorous, iconoclastic commentary on the evening's music and other unrelated subjects. His wisecracks, jokes and hijinks relax and amuse. It definitely provides a unique approach and was to the audience's liking. The talented four are all serious musicians. They have a wonderfully rich, sauve, mellifluous tone. They began with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, playing with crisp articulation in the contrapuntal piece; almost putting Virgil Fox to shame. French composer Lantier's Andante et Scherzetto opened with an impressionistic conventionally harmonic Andante evocative of a rippling, meandering stream. The following Scherzetto was lively and droll. Alec Wilder's Saxophone Quartet (1967) displayed a jazz influence with an improvisational feel. A moody, undulating cantabile ... a fascinating and hypnotic, repeated rhythmic pattern in the second movement and a jazzy, free cacophony in the third movement. Eugene Bozza/ Nuages featured chromatic scales descriptive of clouds whirling and scampering across the sky. Rocco Di Pietro's Phantom Melos was a haunting modern composition on the cutting edge. The work was composed for the group in 1981. The evening concluded with some toe-tapping jazz selections, including a wonderful Duke Ellington piece. Ragtime selections of Eubie Blake concluded the concert with an especially fine rendition of Blake's Memories of You.

Andante et Scherzetto, Pierre Lantier
Phantom Melos (1981), Rocco Di Pietro
Toccata and Fugue, Johann Sebastian Bach
Saxophone Quartet, Alec Wilder
Nuages, Eugene Bozza
Phantom Melos
Memories of You, Eubie Blake
Amherst Saxophone Quartet lets loose at concert
Palm Beach Post (Palm Beach, FL)
Sunday, March 31, 1996
'Memories of You' are fond adieu for quartet
Bill F. Faucett

STUART - Upon taking my seat at the Lyric Theatre just prior to Friday night's concert by the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, I was reminded of a joke famous among musicians: "What do you call 10,000 saxophones at the bottom of the ocean?" Answer: "A good start."

But those of us with a less-than-tolerant attitude toward this oft-maligned instrument could not help but be thrilled with the work of the quartet. The ensemble played with confident virtuosity and superb musicianship; more importantly, they demonstrated there is much beauty to both the saxophone and its literature.

Most of the program comprised works composed specifically for a quartet of saxophones, which includes soprano, alto, tenor and baritone instruments.

The best among these compositions was Pierre Lantier's delightful Andante et Scherzino (1942). The lush first movement was highlighted by fine tenor saxophone playing by Stephen Rosenthal.

Saxophone Quartet (1967) by Alec Wilder, a songwriter whose significant achievements in instrumental music are inexplicably overlooked, was admirably performed.

Eugene Bozza's Nuages (1946) and Rocco DePietro's Phantom Melos (1981) were the most modernistic works on the concert. Bozza's dazzlingly energetic music borrowed from Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, while the DePietro piece, with its angular melodies and tired gimmickry, was of little interest.

The recital opened with an impressive performance of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for Organ (arranged for saxophone quartet), but more impressive was the finale, which included arrangements of music by Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake.

It was a splendid rendition of Blake's Memories of You that provided the best moments of the night.

Andante et Scherzetto, Pierre Lantier
Saxophone Quartet, Alec Wilder
Nuages - Scherzo, Eugene Bozza
Phantom Melos (1981), Rocco Di Pietro
Toccata and Fugue, Johann Sebastian Bach
Memories of You, Eubie Blake
'Memories of You' are fond adieu for quartet
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Monday, October 31, 1994
Amherst Quartet avoids all the potholes
Herman Trotter

Fresh from a tour touching down in Erie, Pa., and Beaufort, S.C., during which they played to capacity audiences, the Amherst Saxophone Quartet returned to its home base on Sunday evening to do its bit for the opening festivities at the new UB Center for the Arts and was greeted by a sparse crowd estimated at less than a quarter of a house.

They offered, for the only time in this area, the same program with which they will tour all season. It was comprised of transcriptions, original works for saxes and the ensemble's signature closing mix of jazz and ragtime.

The only work common to this program and the first of the ensemble's series programs offered earlier in October was the opening transcription of a composition by Bach, which the program erroneously identified simply as "K.592." Most listeners, of course, recognized this as a misplaced Mozart Koechel Number.

In his jovial verbal correction of this error, however, spokesman Steve Rosenthal never did fully identify the Bach work in question. It's the Bach-Vivaldi Concerto No. 1 for Solo Organ, BWV 592. Other than noting that the brief, three-movement concerto was played with a good pulse, pliant phrasing and very deft dovetailing of the Finale's lightning fast exchanges, I'd refer the reader to contributing critic Kenneth Young's review in the Oct. 11 for a unique viewpoint on this work.

The three original works for saxes at the center of the program were the meat and potatoes of this concert, but carefully varied in their flavors.

The form of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen's Saxophone Quartet was hard to discern — either a multi-movement work played without pauses or perhaps just a free fantasy. At any rate, it opened with the baritone sax in a rhythmic figure of a rather jaunty demeanor which set a sort of dominant tone. The music then proceeded through several contrasting sections, some with wonderfully fanciful and ornate lyric lines, in which serious and insouciant attitudes seemed to jockey for dominance. But over the longer pull that opening jovial, jaunty ambience kept returning like the rondo theme in a classical symphony or sonata. The extraordinary ensemble performance in the work's tricky rhythms held the larger' form together and emphasized both its serious overall intent and its more playful subsections.

Grand Island composer Stephen Parisi's Saxophone Quartet (11 years in the making, 1980-91) is of a lighter but no less intriguing intent. Its three movements evoked reminiscences ranging from updated old English dances with lots of assertive noodling overlays, to a restful and flowing center with a slight blues tinge, and an almost pointillist final movement, jabbing and assertive with rhythmic pitfalls everywhere. The ASQ avoided all those potholes, playing with technical brilliance while preserving the genial nature of the score.

Former Buffalonian Rocco DiPietro's "Phantom Melos" was quite different, very open in texture, groping and mysterious in its questing lyrical lines, and occasionally dropping an extended phrase with operatic aria resonances. Its apparent climax was reached in a complicated, chattery, cacophonous, staccato section, only to relax into ghostly harmonies and receding tension and the musicians, one by one, stopped playing and turned off their stand lights to end in total darkness.

Jazz and rags concluded the program, with works of Eubie Blake, Euday Bowman, ASQ member Russ Carere and Miles Davis. The latter's "All Blues" in an arrangement by Harry Fackelman was a standout, with its fanciful solos by soprano Sal Andolina and alto Carere over a rocking blues ostinato figure.
 

Concerto No. 1 BWV 592, Johann Sebastian Bach
Quatuor, op. 122 (1942), Joseph Jongen
Quartet No. 1 (1992), Stephen Parisi
Phantom Melos (1981), Rocco Di Pietro
All Blues, Miles Davis
Amherst Quartet avoids all the potholes
Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Tuesday, October 11, 1994
Works for the sax work for Quartet
Kenneth Young

True to formula, the Amherst Saxophone Quartet began with Baroque and rounded off with ragtime, with all manner of contemporary sax quartet literature in between. Also true to type, they played superbly for the most part, with ensemble blend, rhythmic precision and a wonderful feel for the romantic sensibility that seems to touch most of the modern works in this idiom.

Frankly, I could do without the Bach transcriptions, which, without getting too purist about it, sound thick, leaden and often unbalanced in this instrumentation, no matter how skillfully arranged and played. The Concerto No.1, BVW 592 suffered from all of the above, despite some honest attempts to vary the solo-orchestral textures and a good sense of style in the delivery. Bach's more linear, dance-like keyboard pieces translate better, as do works of other Baroque composers like Handel, for example, whose works could be performed by a hog-choir passing wind to good effect.

The real meat of the concert, though, was the works actually written for saxophone quartet, two of which were composed specifically for the Amherst ensemble.

Allen Sigel's brand new "Flapper Era Dances" was one of these — a dance suite in four movements paying tribute to Roaring Twenties styles. These were quite charming, without having, perhaps, the easy inspiration of Sigel's fine "Homage to Gershwin" premiered last season by the ASQ. The Tango had a layered-on introduction denoting the dance's formal, "serious" status - then turned quirky, with a lot of writing in the harsh upper register of the soprano sax. The Fox-Trot Variations were inventive, with variations flowing into each other smoothly, always, retaining a delicate prancing gait through the playful counterpoint. The Hesitation Waltz was somehow graceful in its multi-meter whirl of extra beats and luftpauses, and the Charleston finale seemed a concentrated, shorthand summary of both the ingenuous romance and flamboyance at the heart of the dance and the era.

Rocco Di Pietro's "Phantom Melos," which was written for the Buffalo Centennial in 1982, has aged rather well, its haunting calls seeming more plaintive and nostalgic with the explanation of its origin - the composer wrote it from the roof of a hotel while contemplating the Buffaloscape. The ASQ played it in the dark, Halloween style, giving a spooky boost to its bent-tone cries and rustles.

The big work on the program was Ida Gotkovsky's "Quatour de Saxophones" (1988), beautifully played by the quartet, from the sassy walking bass and chorale opening, a kind of chromatic blues second movement, darkly searching tendrils of melody in the "Lineare," to the ritualistic mystery of the "Cantilene." Only in the supercharged finale did one feel that the performers were sacrificing something for control - that run-away, hurtling, damn-the-mistakes performance that can be breathtaking rather than merely impressive. The delightful "Ophelia Rag" and "Rigamarole Rag" closed the program.

Concerto No. 1 BWV 592, Johann Sebastian Bach
Flapper Era Dances (1994), Allen Sigel
Phantom Melos (1981), Rocco Di Pietro
Quatuor des Saxophones, Ida Gotkovsky
Works for the sax work for Quartet

Composer Biography

Rocco DI PIETRO is an artist whose work as composer-pianist, essayist, educator and habilitationist, has crossed various disciplines boundaries. He has found that the path of the creative life has taken him like a 'traveler' in interdisciplinary studies. As a result of various mutations in the life course much of his recent work is unclassifiable. The journey, through the accumulation of experience has continually led him back to a renewed sense of musical composition. He studied in Buffalo during the hey day of the New Music scene with Lukas Foss, performing with the Philharmonic in one of those now legendary marathon "Battle of the Bands" with the Grateful Dead. In these early years his music was involved in the textural music that he heard in Xenakis, Ligeti, Cage, Brown and Nono, composers he heard live in the "Festivals in the Arts Today" held in Buffalo in the sixties.

Composition Notes

Rocco Di Pietro wrote Phantom Melos for the Amherst Saxophone Quartet in celebration of the
centennial of the City of Buffalo 1882-1982.