by PATRICK McCULLEY
A unique and rare thing happened this year at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest summer festival: a saxophone quartet. Rare because, let’s face it, if not for the Quadraphonnes, Portland would probably never hear saxophone quartet music in any genre. Unique because the quartet in question, the Kenari Quartet, is an exemplary group of ensemble musicians the likes of which Portland rarely gets to see in classical chamber music. But what made this particular circumstance truly special is that a classical music institution like CMNW demonstrated the guts to break with outdated norms as to what constitutes classical music instrumentation/ensemble and put together a program that heavily featured the saxophone.
The CMNW audience was first introduced to the Kenari Quartet (Bob Eason on soprano sax, Kyle Baldwin on alto sax, Corey Dundee on tenor sax, and Steven Banks on baritone sax) in a flurry of metalic squawks, clicks, squeals, growls, and dissonant harmonies. It was from this veritable nightmare of sound that our hero, Adolphe Sax, played by Harold Dixon, awoke. The play, Sax Degrees of Separation by Harry Clark, is a series of exchanges between actor and saxophone quartet performed at Kenari Quartet’s June 27 showcase at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. The dialogue draws from the colorful personal history of the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, from his accident-prone childhood in Dinant, Belgium to his frustrated attempts at recognition as a first-class instrument maker in Brussels and his subsequent move to Paris to make a name for himself.
In Paris, Sax met with equal parts success and frustration. Success because of the reception the saxophone received among composers such as Hector Berlioz, the Paris marching bands, and his later appointment to the Paris Conservatory. But until the very end, Sax was pursued by various lawsuits claiming that his instruments, notably the saxophone, infringed on someone else’s copyright. Although there was never any credibility to these claims, Sax nonetheless had to declare bankruptcy on three separate occasions, owing to the expense of his legal fees, and died in poverty in 1894.
At each turn of success, Dixon acted with wide-eyed enthusiasm and glee, giving the character of Sax a self-aggrandizing air, a concept reinforced when Sax reads quotes about himself to the audience. With each dip in his fortunes, Sax came across as an altogether incredulous and possibly insane person, a device that played well with the audience, eliciting more than a few guffaws. Sax’s eccentricities took a sharp turn toward the megalomaniacal in the third act, as the inventor described in excessive detail a personal fantasy of building giant instruments on the outskirts of Paris that could be heard for miles around.
Punctuating every act was a performance by the Kenari Quartet. Their playing was immediately striking for their ability to blend timbrally and their excellent balance of articulation and dynamic. Whereas many saxophone quartets play as a group of individuals acting in concert, the Kenari Quartet’s playing lives and breathes as a single organism, as alive as any world-class chamber ensemble could hope to be.
One notable performance was the first movement, allegro non troppo, from Alfred Desenclos’ quartet for saxophones, a serpentine exchange of melodies that transforms into an melodic dance, full of wistful, yearning energy. This composition also makes an appearance on the quartet’s recent 2017 album French Saxophone Quartets.
As fantastic as the music was, though, none of it was written for the play. It was all part of the repertoire of the Kenari Quartet. So little crossover made the interplay between ensemble and actor strained. And this being a retrospective of Adolphe Sax’s life and invention of the saxophone, why couldn’t the talented quartet and performer have more of a dialogue? Perhaps if writing music specifically for the play is out of the question, then maybe more careful selection of music that an actor can speak over might be in order, or maybe some kind of improvisation that enhances and reacts to the actor’s performance. The quartet is certainly talented enough to pull something like that off.
The portrayal of Sax, which skews toward maniac, was funny, thought-provoking, and at times heartbreaking — but also tended to undermine the real genius of Sax’s legacy. His inventions were so immensely successful that not even the inventor’s death or the sale of his workshop could stop their popularity. Emphasizing Sax’s eccentricities seems to undercut the triumphs of Sax’s life and leave one wondering what Sax would have thought about the circumstances of the saxophone after his death. What would he have thought of the music it is used for in the 124 years since? What would the Dickensian version of Sax’s ghost think of his invention, if he could have a brief glimpse into the future? These are questions that the play provokes but didn’t answer.
It did, however, raise a very timely, if unintentional, theme: xenophobia. In the play as in history, the legal machinations of Sax’s enemies were largely motivated because of envy of his genius, but also his Belgian nationality. Irate members of the Parisian instrument makers guild were intent on making life hard for an immigrant who supposedly threatened their jobs, a historical irony considering the love and acceptance that the French have for the saxophone today, as well as an unsettling reminder of the dangers of our own country’s absurd abuse of immigrants. Considering the number of French persons that sax hired to work in his factory, the fact that Sax’s children sold his instrument factory to Frenchmen Henri Selmer after his death, and the host of other French musicians who would later earn their livelihoods as saxophonists, the xenophobia of Sax’s critics was unfounded. He probably created more jobs than he ended.
Classical Sax Quartet Classics
The saxophone had a similarly rough journey to be respected as more than just a vaudevillian toy, but as an instrument capable of playing practically any genre of music. Although Berlioz may have lauded the saxophone’s unique tone in his writings in 1842, it wasn’t really until the beginning of the twentieth century that composers of classical music, thanks in large part to saxophone virtuosos Sigurd Rascher and Marcel Mule, began to write extensively for instrument. Many of these composers were French (like Debussy, Maurice, Ibert, Ruef) or expatriates in Paris (notably Glazunov).
Two of these French composers, Pierre Max Dubois and Eugene Bozza, appeared in the Kenari Quartet’s program for CMNW’s June 30 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium. Dubois’s 1956 Quatour pour Saxophones begins with the first movement Overture, an enthusiastic and syncopated romp where soprano and alto saxophones insinuate snaky melodies over a punchy baritone bassline. Doloroso, the second movement, whose mournful melody starts with the tenor and later exchanged between the the other saxophones, develops into a kind of lamenting chorale, with the original melody appearing again at the end, only changed and truncated. The next movement, Spirituoso, returns to the energy of the first movement, with playful staccato melodies. The ending Andante-Presto filled the hall with even more energy, as a playful soprano melody skated over another punchy bassline.
Euegene Bozza’s classic 1938 saxophone quartet Andante et Scherzo begins its Andante with a melody played by the tenor sax that opens like a flower and falls like a petal, only to be lifted again by the soprano. This rising and falling motion continues in various ways as the rest of the quartet joined in with lush harmonies and brilliant timbres. The cycle repeated again as the bari started his melody alone, the quartet built into a texture of flowing and billowing sound, and recapitulated before slowing and ending with a shining chord. The Scherzo unfolds much more wildly, like a frenetic game of hot potato the saxophones pass their playful melody from one to another before recombining to play a similar tutti phrase. A brief interlude comes in the form of a legato section, that bears a resemblance to the flowing section in the Andante, before returning to the original melody and ending with a flourish.
Portrait of Depression
As novel as they were on a CMNW program, Bozza and Dubois are far from the meatiest material most saxophone quartets cover. Kenari performed two such pieces at CMNW’s June 29 New at Noon concert at PSU’s Lincoln Recital Hall. John Leszczynski’s They Might Be Gods, a mechanical whirlwind of sextuplets and drunken dissonances, proved the funnest piece of the concert. The packed house loved the technical flair needed to pull this piece off and it showed in their fortissimo applause.
But it was the first performance that really stole the show. the… of my… are an… musically depicts composer and Kenari member Corey Dundee’s personal struggle with depression. According to Dundee’s description of the piece in the CMNW’s program the title is the “vague, unintelligible phrase that represents my inability to complete thoughts while suffering from a depressive episode.”
The piece begins with a subtle, uncomfortable, high, and sustained squeaking sound played by one, then added to by other saxophones. This is a sonority achieved by putting one’s teeth on the reed and attempting to play the highest note possible. As these sounds continue, the baritone saxophone joins in with muffled and seemingly improvised subtones. Brief melodic flutterings follow, singing through the instrument, and subtle, delicate blending of tones. Some passages are played together but quickly disintegrate. There is loud screaming and squealing into the instruments, fluttering, imitations of demonic didgeridoos. There is dance-like and purposely atonal swirls of melodies played in rhythmic unison. There is even a portion that sounds remarkably like a woman screaming.
All this dies down into a muffled and soft section borrowing from some techniques in the beginning, creating a texture for a truly heartbreaking and brief exchange of melody between tenor and soprano to float over. A brief and cringing climb commences as the saxophones slowly play clusters of notes higher and higher, ending the piece by playing similar squeaks that started it, only in unison this time.
Despite the the uncomfortable conglomeration of sounds played in this composition for saxophone quartet, its very arrangement and existence are brilliant. Music is such an inherently abstract art form that it makes putting a finger on the simplest emotions tricky. But to take a complex state of human existence like depression and to successfully give voice to that experience through music as Dundee has is pure genius. All the uncomfortableness, the muffled sonorities, manic explosions, brief glimpses of beauty and organization among it all, really make you feel as if you are bearing witness to a mind struggling to right itself, to heal, to make sense of the world as it reels during a crisis.
the… of my… are an… is a prime example of why the classical music world needs the saxophone. What other instrument is capable of such a complex range of sounds and emotions as to even attempt a sonic representation of depression? In every corner of the globe there are musicians struggling to drag classical music institutions kicking and screaming away from the eurocentric music of the past and into a world that needs art that represents the struggles of all people right now. No one is saying we should ignore Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms . . . but maybe we could work to make our perception of what classical music is and who it can include large enough for everyone and quit playing the same games that the Parisians played with Adolphe Sax.
In this sense the saxophone is a messenger for pluralism: invented for, but (until recently) shunned by the classical music establishment, readily accepted in every other musical genre, the saxophone manages by its very nature to be indispensable to the needs of classical music today. And in Portland, Chamber Music Northwest has heard the call and taken a step in the right direction. Who’s next?
Next up at Chamber Music Northwest, a very different quartet: The Dover Quartet plays music by Britten, Dvorak, and Bartok Friday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Tickets and info online.
Patrick McCulley is an Oregon-born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.