Thursday, February 1, 2018

No strings attached: PRISM Quartet widens the spectrum of the Ensemble Music Society concert series

Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Taimur Sullivan, Matthew Levy.
Central as it has become in various popular genres, particularly jazz, the saxophone — a family of instruments whose tonal and expressive range is as broad as any — exists somewhat on the margins of classical music.

Its invention in the mid-19th century militated against ready adoption by composers. The symphony orchestra was already a closed club by Beethoven's time; refinements on instruments in good standing were introduced as the 1800s progressed, and the percussion section blossomed. Otherwise, it was chiefly the French who found any place for Adolphe Sax's invention in orchestral or chamber music: A staple of today's repertoire, Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, features a beautiful saxophone solo.

Yet the instrument has been subject to odd hostility over the years, partly because of its association with jazz at a time when that music was roundly scorned by the musical establishment. The eminent English pianist Gerald Moore (1899-1987), known primarily as a singers' accompanist, recalled with horror his salad days as a cinema organist in Canada. He described that organ as an "instrument of torture" comparable "for sheer horror with the saxophone, the harmonica, and the concertina."

The saxophone was bracketed with an even more marginal instrument by H.C. Colles, music critic of the London Times, in the chapter he added in 1930 to C. Hubert Parry's influential, late Victorian "Evolution of the Art of Music." Casting a jaundiced eye on musical innovations, Colles observed: "The twentieth century has the saxophone and the 'Swanee whistle' and is blowing them for all its worth. Will the year 1983 witness the publication of a literature for them comparable to that with which 1683 endowed the violin?"

At the risk of offending devotees of the Swanee (or slide) whistle, I think that by 1983, and continuing up to the present, a worthy repertoire for the saxophone has been well established. A great portion of that is due to the efforts of the PRISM Quartet, a saxophone ensemble in business for 33 years that made its first appearance under Ensemble Music Society auspices Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center.

With a network that has allowed it to take in imaginative transcriptions as well as new music, PRISM shared some of its riches with a near-capacity audience. Its members are cementing individual legacies as well as the ensemble's collective one through faculty positions at four different universities. So the health of the saxophone — over the Swanee whistle and the concertina, for sure — should be assured for the rest of the century, at least.

The youngest composer represented, Julia Wolfe, wrote "Cha" in tribute to her father, a devotee of Latin dance forms. It struck me as a high-spirited piece strongly conveying the exertions of the dancers, their captivation by a whirlwind of rhythms, and their happy exhaustion at the end. Flutter-tonguing, pitchless exhalations into the horns, and a melange of tempos conveyed the feeling.

Similarly, at the end of the concert, a work with a whiff of program music about it was more explicit about the comical aspects of its theme. Michael Daugherty's "Steamboat" incorporated a bluesy, gritty feeling from the start with a honking riff from Taimur Sullivan's baritone saxophone. A mock-mechanical vigor permeates the score. There was a juicy trilling episode focusing on Zachary Shemon's alto later on. Some call-and-response figures evoked black music of the fields and churches in the Mississippi watershed region. A brief cadenza for tenor (Matthew Levy) introduces a subdued passage for contrast, a la "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." The work ends with imitative whistle screams (Timothy McAllister's soprano) and an ensemble unison at the dock.

The panache with which the voyage was brought off was unrelenting. In a more somber study of timbre, melody and harmonic subtlety, Martin Bresnick's "Every Thing Must Go" sketched out a tribute to the composer's teacher, Gyorgy Ligeti, in three concise movements. Levy's "Above" displayed the chorale-like poise and unstrained soaring aptitude of an expert saxophone ensemble — features that were treated to more somber suggestions in Roshanne Etezady's "Keen," which opened the concert.

The receptivity of classically unconventional small groups to transcriptions was naturally addressed as well. The PRISM Quartet presented four selections from Salvatore Sciarrino's "Pagine," each of them showcasing different ways of combining the four central saxophone types. The impassioned flow of harmonies through dissonance in a Renaissance madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo balanced the restrained swing of George Gershwin's "Who Cares?"  Pieces by two baroque giants sharing a birth year (1685) completed the set: a bright, intricate J.S. Bach "fughetta" and a Domenico Scarlatti sonata with a compact host of demands, all of them neatly met: trills, syncopation, precise dynamic swells and diminutions.

Opening the second half was William Bolcom's arrangement of six brief pieces from Schumann's "Album for the Young." This selection alone offered manifold illustrations of the rapport and poise of the PRISM Quartet, as the mischievous "Knecht Ruprecht" was juxtaposed with the dreamy "Sheherazade," for instance.

PRISM's decades of working to deepen and augment the possibilities of the classical saxophone — indivisible by four, to borrow the title of the Guarneri String Quartet's book — should have made the point to anyone's satisfaction Wednesday night. The dated skepticism of Gerald Moore and H.C. Colles seems pretty cobwebby, given the saxophone's present-day pertinence in the ever-expanding realm of classical music.


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