Serenade Melancolique, Robert Clérisse

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Serenade Melancolique, Robert Clérisse
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Review

News-Gazette (Lexington, VA)
Wednesday, November 4, 1987
Quartet's Showmanship Dazzling
James W.H. Stewart Jr.

"And here we go with another classical saxophone recital," tenor sax maniac Steven Rosenthal mock-solemnly intones, a seemingly matter-of-fact introduction. But, as a matter of fact, can you state the place, time of day, month and year when you last attended (let alone stayed awake at) a classical saxophone recital? You might be hard pressed to remember, unless you saw the Johnny Carson show in 1985 when the Amherst Saxophone Quartet unleashed its brand of impeccable musicianship and P.D.Q. Bach showmanship on insomniacs everywhere.

The volatile ingredients of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet are Salvatore Andolina, soprano saxophone; Michael Nascimben, alto saxophone; Steven Rosenthal, tenor saxophone; and Harry Fackelman, baritone saxophone. This configuration parellels that of the string quartet and adds to their argument that European classical music had a repertoire and tradition for saxophone well before Amencan jazz made the saxophone America's premier instrument. On Wednesday, Oct. 28, the quartet Seminary Junior College.

Essentially, European composers have treated the saxophone as a woodwind instrument from the invention of the family by Adolph Sax in 1846, while jazz and popular styles treated saxophones more as brass instruments with harsher, brighter sonorities. The Amherst Quartet's program explored the saxophone's remarkable potential for chamber music with a wide variety of delightful pieces by regrettably obscure composers.

The Introduction et Scherzo and "Serenade Melancolique" by Robert Clerisse alternated roundlike among the instruments with smooth neoclassical tunes, suggesting what Mozart might have written for the saxophone had he lived to hear it. The "Serenade" also showed the influence of Debussy with its piquant, whole tones.
 
"Sevilla," a transcription of a piece composed by Isaac Albeniz around the turn of the century, featured typically Spanish rhythms in 6/8 time. But the development of the piece was anything but typical, with some shining soliloquies for the soprano sax, while baritonist Fackelman honked amusingly in the deep register.

Rosenthal introduced the next piece as "the brilliantly entitled Quartuor por Saxophones," which means quartet for saxophones, by Joseph Jongen (1942). In one movement, the piece's gradual transition to an eloquent andante, then to a final snake dancelike allegro, gives the impression of three distinct movements. Oddly, the soprano and alto saxes foreshadowed the four-note "Twilight Zone" motif, written almost 20 years later than this piece, while a smooth melody for tenor sax floated over. But there is basically nothing otherworldly about this sociably droll music. Like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, whose music the piece also predicts, the impression is given that each member of the cast will get up and shake hands after the cream and seltzer' water have been mopped up.

The Introduction and Capriccio by Steven Parisi showcased Andolina's remarkable gift for making his soprano sax sound uncommonly like a flute, oboe, clarinet and even trumpet! The Capriccio also featured some devilishly tricky ensemble rhythms handled with aplomb.

After a brief intermission, the group returned with a transcription by altoist Nascimbom of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Subjected to innumerable transcriptions by the likes of Stokowski, the Swingle Singers, and Walter Wendy Carlos, this great warhorse got a fine treatment by the players, excepting some minor fudging by the soprano and alto. But for a cake as nice as this, a little fudge is just a minor sin. Of course, I would never be so heartless a reviewer as to suggest that the reason this was the only piece with mistakes was that it was the only piece on the program I knew. A fine reading overall.

The Quartet for Saxophone, Op. 31, by Jean Absil, exploited massed trills and tremulos to great sonic effect, with some more amusing quotes. The second movement opening suggests the beginning of the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, while the third movement opening mimicked the speakeasy intro of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." I suppose this provides a nice illustration of how the motifs of nauseatingly overplayed classics can be used to introduce pieces that are totally unrelated. The piece was great fun and deserves to be heard again.

The last two segments of the program brought the saxophone back to its American jazz and ragtime roots, and neatly completed in my mind the perception of jazz and ragtime as American classical music. The "Jazz Vignettes" by Andrew White and the transcriptions of Eubie Blake's ragtimes made light of the contributions of the Count Basie big band and Lester Young, among others, who discovered whole new ways of writing for and playing the saxophone. These contributions again sounded fresh against the historical context with which the quartet contrasted them. The Amherst Saxophone Quartet has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the "yakkety sax."

At the end, having imitated the flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet and even Lawrence Wclk 's accordian, soprano saxist Andolina topped it all by mimicking the harp. I am referring, of course. to his ridiculous Harpo Marx gestures, inciting the crowd to clap and shut up by turns. And as if all of that were not enough, when Rosenthal made a mock pathetic appeal to the audience to buy the albums in the lobby, Andolina, while the baritonist played a maudlin tune, held his soprano sax to his neck like a violin and "played" with an imaginary bow. One more corny gesture like that, and the audience might well have imitated violence. An educational good time was had by all.

Quatuor pour saxophones, op. 31, Jean Absil
Introduction and Capriccio (1981), Stephen Parisi
Quatuor, op. 122 (1942), Joseph Jongen
Sevilla, Isaac Albéniz
Introduction et Scherzo (1957), Robert Clerisse
Serenade Melancolique, Robert Clérisse
Quartet's Showmanship Dazzling