Saxophone Quartet (1991), Michael Sahl

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Saxophone Quartet (1991), Michael Sahl
Year of Composition: 1991     Composed for the ASQ


Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
Monday, November 25, 1991
Saxophone Quartet plays Perry prize winner
Herman Trotter

It's hard to characterize this concert succinctly, because in addition to unveiling the third prize winner in the ensemble's composition contest, there was also a world premiere and a quasi premiere. Bear with us.

At the center of the program was the Quartet for Four Saxophones in the Classical Style by British Columbian composer Anita Perry, second runner up in the ASQ's composition competition. The ASQ thinks well enough of this work that it has already been recorded for the ensemble's next MCA compact disc, with release scheduled for next year.

Perry's Quartet is absolutely unpretentious, a lightweight work with ingenuous running lines, quiet mood painting, unashamed horseplay and a lot of canonic chasing. One gets the feeling of honesty and spontaneity. Because of this, the music has a very individual and memorable profile.

On my second exposure I am still enchanted by the pulsing beat Perry uses to buoy up the first movement's repeated rising motif as it courses through a series of satisfying and occasionally unexpected modulations. A similar pulsing figure is used more sparingly to add texture to the slow movement's lovely pastel reverie, while the scherzo takes that word literally. It's a joke, with unexpected pauses, strange intervals and ornamentation, horse laughs and one surprise best left unexplained.

The world premiere was Michael Sahl's 1991 Saxophone Quartet. In the composer's notes he says that the soul of the piece is harmony, but he gives no clues as to its structure.

After a languorous introduction, a jumbly, eccentric allegro emerged, touching off a series of interludes in which all four instruments were almost continually playing, thereby enriching that harmonic soul.

Texturally, these interludes were not all that differentiated one from another, and I had the strong visual imagery of a succession of highly detailed carved wood panels or rich tapestries passing before my eyes, not so much like a theme and variations as a simple parade.

The musical content of these panels/tapestries was highly lyrical, warmly and throbbingly sonorous and it came as something of a jolt when there was a complete break, a resumption in more intimate sonority and slower tempo, followed by a furious prestissimo to conclude.

What's a quasi premiere? Well, it's Verdi's 1873 String Quartet in E minor, which the ASQ has played before, but which was being heard on Sunday in the first performance of a new transcription by quartet members Harry Fackelman and Stephen Rosenthal.

Contrasts abound in this transcription, from the smooth-as-glass opening movement to the jocular Andantino which gradually turns serious and the treacherous Prestissimo third movement.

It was here that the ASQ had its only technical problems of the evening, some of the articulation losing its crispness. It was only a momentary lapse, because in the equally difficult scampering, staccato Finale the ensemble's virtuosity in keeping those precipitous passages clean was remarkable.

Quartet for Four Saxophones (1989), Anita D. Perry
Saxophone Quartet (1991), Michael Sahl
Quartet in e minor, Giuseppe Verdi
Saxophone Quartet plays Perry prize winner

Composer Biography

1934 —

MICHAEL SAHL was born in Boston in 1934 and began to play and make up little pieces around the age of five. He began serious musical training when he was eight with teachers including Louise Talma and Israel Citkowitz. By college he had developed an interest in modern music, studying at Tanglewood and receiving his MFA from Princeton. He then went to Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship to study and compose 'modern music'. Sahl writes: "But i. was not to be. My desire to write old-fashioned tonal melodies kept me from really participating in the then reigning style, and from displaying the necessary astringency in my work. Returning to America with a wife and child in 1963, I found 1) that some of my folk-friends had gone into what was becoming "folk-rock", and 2) that my tonal abilities could help me (perhaps) make some kind of living in music. Eventually, after an episode in Buffalo playing avant-garde music for Lukas Foss, I became the pianist and arranger for Judy Collins, and was thrown in with "folkies", who had the same ear that I did, if not the same musical education. As I look back over my work now, it seems to me to be dominated by the hybridization of those two musics that commanded my deepest heart's affection, namely Romantic music, and jazz/rock. "Romantic" melody lines appear in conjunction with "rhythm-section grooves".

Composition Notes

"The Saxophone Quartet was written for the Amherst Sax Quartet after a number of performances of Storms, ('86 for sax quartet and string quartet), and was finished on February 3rd, 1991. It was premiered the next January, (the day the Bills lost the Super Bowl). In writing this piece I had to struggle from falling into the string quartet mannerisms that I had absorbed from years of string writing. Probably the most important thing I had to concentrate on was maintaining the tenor and the baritone as BREATHING lines. You will hear that there is quite a bit of hocket in the piece, as well as other moments which require a lot of attention to balance. Coming from the world of jazz saxophone playing, I was always at them to play louder and nastier, something which classical sax players hate to do, so much so that they leave the' other' mouthpieces at home in a drawer somewhere. However, as you either are about to hear or have already heard, they eventually synthesized their natural sophistication and delicacy with some moments of exquisite vulgarity." — Michael Sahl