News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
September 25, 2000
Two nights of great sax
By OWEN CORDLE
RALEIGH -- At the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1855, a panel of judges
praised Adolphe Sax's new invention thusly: "It is perfect whether
one considers it from the point of view of intonation and sonority or
if one examines the mechanism." The judges noted that the origin
of all other instruments was lost in history and modifications, but that
the saxophone "is the fruit of a single concept and from the first
day it has been what it will be in the future."
Sax (1814-94) saw the full acceptance of his instrument in military and
concert music during his lifetime, and he argued for the instrument's
use in symphonic music. But today, more than a century after his death,
symphony orchestras still do not employ saxophones.
It is against this background that the New Century Saxophone Quartet
performed with the North Carolina Symphony on Friday and Saturday at Memorial
Auditorium. With Gerhardt Zimmermann conducting, the groups premiered
Peter Schickele's five-part "New Century Suite (Concerto for Saxophone
Quartet and Orchestra)" to open the orchestra's classical series
for this season.
Schickele, best known for his satirical P.D.Q. Bach recordings, also
composes serious works, and in a preperformance statement from the stage
Saturday night, he allowed that he likes pieces that express both. But
the concerto is mostly serious, although not gravely so.
Hearing the saxophone family in jazz and pop music has conditioned us
to certain sonorities: the dance band saxophone section, the honking R&B
solo, the wimpy pleading of smooth jazz, the lonely-streets movie soundtrack.
Classical saxophone is a different bag altogether. At times during the
concerto, you could imagine the quartet as a mellow extension of the French
horn section or the baritone saxophone as an ersatz bassoon or the soprano
saxophone as a first violin. The point is that in Schickele's writing
and the quartet's articulation, blend and tone were consonant with symphonic
tradition. If this had been the jazz-based World Saxophone Quartet playing
the same notes -- however interesting the possibility -- the results probably
would have been immiscible.
The Winston-Salem-based New Century quartet -- Michael Stephenson (soprano),
Robert Faub (alto), Stephen Pollock (tenor), Brad Hubbard (baritone) --
played with the kind of dexterity and precision that made you want to
either sell your saxophone or hit the practice room for the next 10 years.
Several passages found the soprano peeling 16th- or 32nd-note scales in
unison with the violins. Other passages found the quartet emerging from
careening counterpoint to lush, French horn-like voicings.
Schickele's concerto is modern in the sense that there are dense harmonies
reminiscent of Stravinsky. (But then there are waltz-time passages reminiscent
of Strauss.) It's a composition that honors Sax's intention to bring a
new voice to the orchestra. After the concerto, the quartet played an
encore, "The Piggly Wiggle," tongue-in-cheek parlor music that
calls to mind an earlier era.
The symphony framed the Schickele piece with a suite from Aaron Copland's
"Appalachian Spring" and Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7 in
A Major, Opus 92." The latter is full of drama and affords lots of
emotionally bracing moments. Throughout the concert the orchestra was,
in a word, magnificent.
The entire Saturday night concert was broadcast live on UNC-TV and WCPE-FM.