Riches aplenty for sax quartet — with one exception

Works reviewed: 
Saxophone Quartet (1985), Carlo Pinto
Housing Project (1985), William Ortiz
Buffalo News
Buffalo, NY
Dec 7 1992
Kenneth Young

This concert in the Nichols School Boocock Library found the Amherst Saxophone Quartet in a particularly mellow mood, though Stephen Rosenthal's usual tongue-in-cheek commentary was tinged with a bit of wry gallows humor as to the financial state of the arts in general and the ASQ in particular.

Rosenthal even threatened to go the way of Madonna and publish a book of intimate photos wrapped in mylar with the title — you guessed it — "Sax."

Artistically, there were riches aplenty, with the quartet's trademark liquid blend and easy virtuosity everywhere evident. With one exception, the program leaned toward the lighter mode, from the opening French delight of Pieme's "Introduction and Variations Sur Une Ronde Populaire" to the closing group of jazz and ragtime transcriptions. That one exception was the late Carlo Pinto's "Saxophone Quartet," composed for the ASQ in 1985.

Rosenthal stated that the group considers the work a masterpiece and Herman Trotter, music critic of The Buffalo News, admires its "strong' sense of integrity."

Perhaps it was the contrast with the lighter music, but I found the piece entirely unattractive, even granted its stark, intense and probing quality. The three movements fairly bristle with musical information and sophisticated compositional technique, but there is a sense of conscious effort throughout that leaves the impression of dutiful craft rather than inspired imagination - an admittedly subjective reaction which nevertheless trumps any "masterpiece" notions for this listener.

The piece was beautifully played by the ensemble. The other contemporary work composed for the quartet was William Ortiz's "Housing Project" (1985), a bit of musical autobiography from the composer's upbringing in the New York City Projects, It was apparently a happy childhood — no screaming graffiti, despair of poverty or sudden violence. Rather, a dreamy pastiche spiked with the occasional sound of traffic noise, then lapsing into a Latino folk tune, altogether pleasant.

The opening Pierne variations were brilliantly played, the affable diatonic tune getting some wild chromatic treatment with the theme slyly peeking through cascades of passagework. In Debussy's "Golliwog's Cakewalk," the quartet caught the rinky-tink quality of the piece, with rubato sounding like a clown playing kick-the-can.

A transcription of Bach's "Air on the G-string" was pretty enough, but the jazz numbers were much more comfortable and idiomatic — Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight" just dripping with style, Joplin's "Paragon Rag" equally smooth and slippery — and Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers" tight and bright, a close-harmony jazz scherzo.

Riches aplenty for sax quartet — with one exception