I spent most of this second day of the 2012 Biennial Conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance in concerts of chamber music. A blow-by-blow account of all the pieces would make for very dull reading, so I’ll just hit the highlights.
One of the first pieces of the day was the world premiere of Roberto Kalb’s Three Scenes for Alto Saxophone and Piano by saxophonist Geoffrey Landman. This wonderful set is loaded with echoes of the composer’s Mexican roots–at times lyrical and sentimental, and other times muscular and energetic. The third movement is particularly engaging with an angular and vibrant opening and nice use of dance rhythms. As it grows, low motor rhythms in the piano (played by the composer) create a great sense of drama that is juxtaposed against short, lyrical gestures in the saxophone. Another favorite of the morning was Concentric Circles by Victor Marquez Barrios. I particularly liked the second movement with its charming dance-like motives and the shifts between contrasting emotions. This world premiere was performed with great finesse by tenor saxophonist Jonathan Nichol and pianist Jun Okada.
Easily my favorite quartet piece of the day was the Saxophone Quartet by Marcus Maroney performed by the Iridium Quartet (Paul Nolen, Marcos Colon, Paul Forsyth, and Eric Lau). Broken into “Act I”, “Entr’acte”, and “Act II”, this performance was incredibly visceral. It had all the qualities of an encounter with a dangerous animal. It came out of the gate snarling and then subsided into pants. After an undulating section in which an insistent figure in the soprano fights against ascending runs in the other instruments, the entire ensemble takes savage bites at the listener in the most exhilarating way. The middle section is sensitive and fragile and then transitions into a running figure that culminates in bold unison gestures. A little more biting and snarling propels the piece to a bold ending with descending runs.
At lunchtime I took a quick run through the exhibit halls which were lined with instruments, reeds, ligatures, and music publishers. It was a nice reminder of the astonishing amount of craftsmanship that is required to make musical instruments.
The afternoon had some nice surprises as well. The title of Charles Ruggiero’s set for piano, bassoon, and saxophone says it all: Chobim: Six Jazz Compositions in Honor of Frederic Chopin and Antonio Carlos Jobim. I hardly need to describe it further as you can imagine how delightful this might be. Also a world premiere, it was beautifully crafted, engaging, and exceptionally well performed by Joseph Lulloff (saxophone), Michael Kroth (bassoon), and Deborah Moriarty (piano).
The last concert of the afternoon began with a fascinating and sometimes violent electro-acoustic piece by Jesse Allison titled Critical Mass. Saxophonist Griffin Campbell, armed with computer, foot pedals, and amplification, led the audience through a crazy piece that included prerecorded voices and real-time distortion and harmonization. This world premiere required intense commitment on the part of the player and was easily the strongest piece on that concert.
My day of chamber music finished in grand style. ASU’s Katzin Concert Hall was, I’m sure, violating a few safety codes with people lining the walls and aisles from front to back. Much of the excitement was due to the first two performers on the program, both of whom are revered teachers and dynamic performers. Debra Richtmeyer began the evening with a world premiere of Stefan Milenkovich’s Surennatalia II a charming set of rags and dances. This was immediately followed by Frederick Hemke performing Gershwin with a string quartet. The nostalgia of the music clearly resonated with the audience for whom Hemke is a sort of patriarch. His lyrical and sincere playing brought some welcome balance to what had, until then, been a day filled with fairly frenetic music. The audience expressed their enthusiasm with an extended standing ovation and Hemke had to return to the stage many times.
After intermission, the music became far more technical. The Mana Quartet gave a terrific performance of Charles Wuorinen’s challenging Saxophone Quartet, and Steven Stusek, Liz Ames and Robert Spring followed up with a stunning piece by Mark Engebretson titled Sharpie for Saxophone, Clarinet, and Piano.
The last piece of the evening was a blisteringly difficult work for sax quartet and percussion ensemble title Krasch! This piece, by Swedish composer Anders Nilsson, was performed exceptionally by the XPlorium Ensemble. Full disclosure requires me to mention that I have a personal connection with this group (hence, my presence at this conference), so I should probably refrain from gushing. Suffice it to say that they provided an exciting and fitting ending to an exceptional day of concerts.
I’ve set aside some time tomorrow to recharge my brain with some hiking in the mountains north of Phoenix, but I’ll still have all day Sunday to look forward to. More soon!