classical

Kenari Quartet: sax in the spotlight

Chamber Music Northwest concerts put a neglected classical music instrument in the forefront

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circumstance truly special is that a classical music institution like CMNW demonstrated the guts to break with outdated norms as to what constitutes classical music instrumentation/ensemble and put together a program that heavily featured the saxophone.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.

Kenari Quartet and Harold Dixon at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Photo: Jonathan Lange.

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.

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