The performing world is rife with instrument-specific organizations that provide flutists, trombonists, percussionists, etc. to meet together annually, exchange ideas, discover new repertoire, and (most importantly), perform for one another. In this respect, the North American Saxophone Alliance (NASA) is fairly conventional. What makes it stand out, however, is the astonishingly high percentage of performances of pieces by living composers. As one of the younger instruments, the saxophone repertoire is continuing to grow and performers come to NASA with a strong desire to present new works. So although they call this the “2012 Biennial Conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance,” what they really have here is a festival of contemporary music (albeit a saxophone-centric one). After all, what else would you call a four-day music event that involves multiple venues, dozens of concerts, top-notch performances of solo, chamber, and concert music by world-class players, and no less than 76 (!) world premieres?
The 2012 NASA Conference is being hosted on the beautiful campus of Arizona State University with Timothy McAllister (ASU Professor of Saxophone and soprano player with PRISM) at the helm. As with most of these events, there are three or four spaces with lectures, coaching sessions, recitals, and competitions all going on simultaneously, and extra spaces for vendors (mostly instruments, reeds, and sheet music).
The first recital I attended began with a great performance of William Price’s Sans Titre II by Brian Utley, followed by three world premieres performed by Michael Torres on alto saxophone. These included Daniel Temkin’s Flourish, Jason Thorpe Buchanan’s First Study, and Torres’s own Voices of Contempt. All of these pieces highlighted the considerable dexterity of the performers and demonstrated an impressive command of the saxophone idiom on the part of the composers.
Later in the evening, the ASU Wind Symphony and Symphony Orchestra teamed up with conductor Gary Hill and an all-star slate of performers to present the Opening Gala Concert for the conference. It was presented in the elegant and intimate Tempe Center concert hall. Highlighting the propensity for saxophonists to program recent works, all of the pieces on the program (save the introductory work by Dvorak) were by living composers including Karel Husa, David Maslanka, and Steven Mackey.
Perhaps coincidentally, my two favorite works of the evening were by composers who were actually in attendance, Narong Prangcharoen and Hilary Tann. Prangcharoen’s piece Mantras was a compelling and honest work for soprano saxophone and wind ensemble. Working its way out from a pentatonic base, it explored cultural and musical ideas from the composer’s homeland of Thailand. The exceptional performance (from memory) by soloist Chien-Kwan Lin demonstrated a deep understanding of the music and an engaging commitment.
Following intermission, soloist Susan Fancher joined The ASU Symphony Orchestra to present Tann’s Shakkei. As with many of her pieces this work possessed an intimacy and organic quality that was simultaneously comforting and familiar (intentionally evoking Debussy’s Nuages in places), while also scrupulously precise in the nuances and subtleties with which she laces her pieces.
I took just a few moments to talk to both of these composers after the concert.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the outstanding performances by Zzyzx, David Dees, the ASU Saxophone Ensemble, and the PRISM Quartet, all of whom helped make it an exceptional evening of high-level playing. Gary Hill was a commanding and dynamic presence on the podium, and the ASU Wind Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra were uniformly strong. I’m eager to see what the next few days will hold. It certainly has begun with great promise.
Composer Stephen Lias is the Texas delegate to the International Society of Contemporary Music and serves on the editorial board of World New Music Magazine. His music is published by Conners Publications, ALRY Publications, Brassworks 4, Cimarron Music Press, and Southern Music, and his song cycle Songs of a Sourdough is available on Centaur Records.