News and Observer (Raleigh, NC)
February 1, 1993
Quartet Reveals the Joy of Sax
by Nancy R. Ping-Robbins
The recent first-prize winners of the international Concert Artists Guild
Competition appeared on the campus of Barton College in Howard Chapel
Thursday night for a dazzling display of top-flight saxophone quartet
music making. The New Century Saxophone Quartet, made up of graduates
of the North Carolina School of the Arts and other state residents, is
on its way to a career of international tours, recording contracts and
concerts across the United States.
From the very first phrases, it was clear that these are superb artists
and performers: Michael Stephenson on soprano; James Boatman, alto; Stephen
Pollock, tenor; and Brad Hubbard, baritone. Every selection was
performed in appropriate style: cool, smooth contrapuntal lines of great
delicacy in a Sweelinck Fantasia; warm, finely shaded dynamic nuances
in the Caryl Florio (1857) Quartette; fierce, sharp articulation and fortitude
of sound in Genzmer’s Germanic second quartet; charming, lightly
rhythmic, almost frothy Gallic humor in Jean Françaix’s ‘Petit
quatuor pour saxophones’; and rocking American jazz touches and
sheer comedy on sound in a marvelous ‘Drastic Measures’ by
Russell Peck of Greensboro.
The ensemble has worked together since 1989; the experience shows.
The beauty of tone quality, delicacy of dynamic nuances and unbelievable
facility in rhythmic complexities are qualities one would not ordinarily
expect from an instrument that can sound like a honking beast in less
experienced hands. To put four of them together and have tiny silken
threads of sound issue forth is astounding. But the fun part is
that in the next nanosecond, huge walls of sound may very well issue forth.
The first half of the program was near perfect. Even solo lines
in the opening of the Sweelinck were carefully controlled, beautifully
colored. The alto sax entry had a slight graininess in a couple
of phrases that told us this was a saxophone quartet, not strings, but
otherwise the entire first half was a Juilliard String Quartet-level performance,
with immaculate ensemble and solo musicianship. One of the loveliest
parts of the second half came in the Cantilene movement of the Françaix,
when the three lower instruments sang a lament: smooth, exquisite solo
alto over languidly pulsating tenor and baritone. Most of the time
Stephenson’s sweet soprano sang the part of first violin, coordinating
and leading the ensemble top melody line. These musicians’
style depends on what the innovative composer asks them to do, and they
have found some very clever, highly skilled artists to write their music.
Sherwood Shaffer of the North Carolina School of the Arts, the first musician
to win the O. Max Gardner Award (1992), has written a ‘Sinfonia’
of which they played the very beautiful, but unusual ‘Lyric’
for this concert.
Saxophone quartet literature originated with the Florio Quartette, but
with this emerging group (and others in the concert mainstream) we are
bound to hear more in years to come. The instrument that previously
has been consigned primarily to jazz in this country is one of the most
versatile of all, capable of extreme dynamics on either end, with smooth
lovely tone equal to the sweetest violin song, yet equally expressive
in bizarre, comic or even tragic passages.