MACKEY Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. BOLCOM Concerto Grosso. CRESTON Saxophone Concerto (arr. R. Howland). DAHL Saxophone Concerto. D. DeBoor. CANFIELD Saxophone Concerto, “Martyrs for the Faith.” CHEETHAM Concerto Agrariana

MACKEY Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. BOLCOM Concerto Grosso • Gil Rose, cond; PRISM Quartet; Boston Modern Orchestra Project • INNOVA 731 (52:07)

MARTYRS FOR THE FAITH: American Saxophone Concertos • Kenneth Tse (alto sax); U of Iowa Symphony Band; Richard Mark Heidel, Ray Cramer, conds • MSR CLASSICS MS-1359 (78:15)
CRESTON Saxophone Concerto (arr. R. Howland). DAHL Saxophone Concerto. D. DeBoor CANFIELD Saxophone Concerto, “Martyrs for the Faith.” CHEETHAM Concerto Agrariana

DEDICATION • PRISM Quartet • INNOVA 800 (57:53)

This review addresses two releases that feature the PRISM Quartet—one of today’s most celebrated saxophone quartets—and one that highlights the artistry of Kenneth Tse, an active and highly respected saxophone virtuoso and teacher on the contemporary scene. The PRISM Quartet is represented by major works for saxophone quartet and orchestra by two of today’s most prominent composers, and by a cornucopia of tiny pieces by a wide variety of contemporary composers, each written and dedicated to the esteemed quartet (hence the disc’s title) in honor of its 20th anniversary (in 2004). The Tse program comprises two 20th-century “classics” of the repertoire and two 21st-century additions to the repertoire. Collectively the three discs illustrate—as do so many new releases—the gradual yet ever-rising standards of proficiency and artistry in virtually all instrumental categories.

As John Schaefer notes in a short accompanying essay, the PRISM Quartet seems to have modeled itself after the Kronos String Quartet, with its focus on commissioning new works, its embrace of a stylistic range that extends from traditional approaches to experimental explorations of many different kinds, but, most of all, with its truly astonishing precision of technical execution, coordination of ensemble, and subtlety of expression. Dedication features music by 23 living composers, in pieces that average less than two minutes each. One might note that, in addition to the well-intentioned congratulatory motivation that underlies this whole project, there is also the more self-serving factor that each among this varied group of composers is given the opportunity to make a favorable and memorable impression within the limited time-frame of a minute or two. The experimental pieces, such as those by Moore and Eckardt (which I found among the least appealing efforts), include multiphonics, while a group of four pieces by Oteri explore microtonality, and are fascinating, weird, and even funny; and one tiny trio of pieces, by Didkovsky, was composed via a computer program. There are also several pieces that, as might be expected with saxophone music, cross over into the world of jazz, such as those by Osby and Primosch, some that are quite severe, such as the contribution from Capanna, some that are simply pleasant, and others that leave no impression at all. Chen Yi’s contribution manages to achieve the distinction of sounding utterly unlike a saxophone quartet. But three pieces stand out as stunning, memorable, and immensely enjoyable: They are Zack Browning’s Howler Back, Jennifer Higdon’s Bop, and, perhaps most of all, Perry Goldstein’s Out of Bounds. But I must emphasize that many, if not most, of the pieces pose extraordinary difficulties in execution—e.g., playing microtonally, coordinating precise uniformity of articulation—and the quartet’s success in meeting these challenges is breathtaking.

The other PRISM CD, which features works by William Bolcom and Steven Mackey, is somewhat less rewarding, though not owing to any deficiency in the performances. William Bolcom’s four-movement Concerto Grosso, composed in 2000,is a representative example of his glib eclecticism, with much dipping into pop music styles. It is pleasant enough as a casual listening experience, but not one that inspires a deeper acquaintance. The final movement calls to mind some of the dance music from West Side Story, but the latter is edgier and more exciting—which gives you some idea of just how tepid this music is. But there is much to tax the quartet’s proficiency, and they master these difficulties with aplomb.

Less appealing than the Bolcom is Steven Mackey’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, composed in 2005. Mackey has been active in a variety of different areas, from serving on the faculty of Princeton to performing his own music for electric guitar. The piece at hand is relatively ambitious, comprising three movements that add up to more than half an hour. In composing this work, Mackey seems to have changed his mind mid-stream, beginning with the concept of skiing as an overall metaphor, but then deciding that the first movement suggested the braying of a jackass, the second movement the sound of bagpipe music, and the third an “off-kilter machine,” while at the same time proclaiming his work to be “pure music.” Talk about having it both ways! Although the work is not unpleasant to hear, and toward the end builds up a good deal of excitement, the whole concept seems contrived, and ultimately the piece seems to have very little to say and doesn’t add up to anything of enduring import. As with the Bolcom and the Dedications, the PRISM Quartet plays the Mackey piece with consummate mastery.

These two works are accompanied by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, conducted by Gil Rose. Like the PRISM Quartet, the BMOP is developing an impressive reputation for performing new music with extraordinary polish and precision. Sometimes their choice of repertoire seems misguided, and that becomes one of the factors on which the success of their ventures may be evaluated. But they do seem to approach their projects with great care and attention.

Attention is now turned to Martyrs of the Faith, the Kenneth Tse showcase that takes its name from the title of the work by David DeBoor Canfield. Just 40 years old, Tse was born in Hong Kong, but studied the saxophone at the University of Indiana and the University of Illinois. He has won many awards and numerous works have been composed especially for him. In addition to his active career of concertizing and recording, he teaches on the faculty of the University of Iowa.

Paul Creston was introduced to the saxophone as a concert instrument early in his compositional career, when he was invited to tour as accompanist for the erstwhile saxophone virtuoso Cecil Leeson. So impressed by the saxophone as an ideal concert instrument that he wrote an essay on the subject, Creston composed three works for Leeson: The first was a Suite for Saxophone and Piano (1935), and the second was the celebrated Sonata for Saxophone and Piano of 1939. Not only has this piece become the composer’s most often performed work, but it is arguably the centerpiece of the entire classical saxophone repertoire—and deservedly so! The Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra appeared in 1941. Though composed for Leeson, it was not performed until 1944, when Vincent J. Abato—America’s leading saxophone virtuoso during the 1940s through the 1960s—introduced the Concerto with the New York Philharmonic, under William Steinberg’s direction. (Creston went on to write several more works for saxophone, including a rhapsody and a saxophone quartet.) The Concerto is featured here in a 1948 transcription by Russell Howland. Interestingly, the transcription highlights the composer’s affinity with the “big band” sound that was popular at the time. This band transcription has been recorded previously; the original orchestral version never has.

Creston composed quite a few concertos, and they tend to follow a predictable pattern, in which virtuosic elements are emphasized at the expense of serious musical content. Typically they are lively, cheerful, and exuberant, with lyrical melodies and snappy, syncopated rhythms. Despite their overall similarity, the Saxophone Concerto may be identified as one of the composer’s lesser efforts in the genre. The work’s opening theme is full of bombast and bluster, somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The remaining thematic material tends toward the banal, and is developed through workmanlike application of the composer’s usual skillful, concise procedures. Tse performs the work with a great deal of finesse, and his interpretation successfully minimizes the work’s gaucherie. But at times his playing is so delicate that the endings of soft phrases don’t always “speak.”

The Concerto for Saxophone and Wind Orchestra by Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970) is the composer’s most frequently-performed work—like the Creston, something of a repertoire classic. Dahl, whose music has been described quite accurately as “a cross between Stravinsky and Hindemith,” was born in Germany, but came to the United States in 1938, joining many other expatriates in Los Angeles. He was a composer of moderate interest, much of whose music did not emerge from the shadows of his influences. Although space does not permit elaboration here, I might note that Dahl’s personal history is arguably a good deal more intriguing than his music, and those whose interest is piqued by this comment are encouraged to delve into some of the recent biographical scholarship readily accessible on the subject.

The Concerto is a moderately interesting work, its first two movements revealing some noble, arresting ideas, while the last movement provides a showcase for the soloist’s virtuosity. The work was originally composed in 1949, but the composer subjected it to several revisions, the final one completed in 1958-59. It is that version by which the work is generally known today, and the one heard on this recording. Tse’s performance is excellent, although there seems to be something “boxy” about the sound quality.

The remaining two works are the more recent additions to the repertoire. One is the Concerto Agrariana (shouldn’t that be Agrariano?) for saxophone and band, composed in 2003 by John Cheetham. Now in his mid 70s, Cheetham taught on the faculty of the University of Missouri for many years. According to the accompanying notes, his Concerto is a tribute to the determination and resourcefulness of the pioneers who settled the American Midwest, and attempts something of a musical analogue to the perspective provided by the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton. The music is pure “Americana” at its most benign—extremely ingratiating and pleasantly entertaining.

Finally we come to the Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Symphonic Winds, subtitled “Martyrs for the Faith,” composed in 2003 by David DeBoor Canfield. I think that some disclosure is called for, especially because I have learned over the years that many Fanfare readers make erroneous assumptions concerning relationships among the magazine’s staff writers. So let me state that although Dr. Canfield has been reviewing for Fanfare for several years, I have never met him or communicated with him through any medium, although I imagine that he is likely to read this review. I will also add that this is my first exposure to any of his music.

Though born to a musical family in Florida, where he was active for many years, Canfield did his graduate study at the University of Indiana, working under the guidance of John Eaton and Bernhard Heiden. Now in his early 60s, he continues to live and work in Indiana. He has devoted considerable compositional attention to the saxophone, and the Concerto at hand was initially performed at the World Saxophone Congress in Slovenia in 2006. Religious themes appear to play an important role in Canfield’s music; the Concerto’s subtitle alludes to the fact that each of its three movements commemorates a particular Christian martyr, and each is based on a hymn melody. The overall impact of the music is clearly tonal and essentially romantic in its use of the saxophone to represent each martyr as a protagonist in a kind of drama. Unexpected modernist usages appear, but without altering the work’s basically traditional character. This is one of those works whose source of inspiration is explicitly religious, but whose musical impact is not fervently spiritual. I mention as a not unreasonable parallel the Symphony No. 3, “Three Mysteries,” by Paul Creston. This is a work that is also explicitly religious, based on chant melodies, while drawing upon musical usages that were relatively contemporary at the time it was composed (1950). Nevertheless, while the symphony is hardly austere or free from moments of melodrama, the sense of religious fervor is intense and convincing.

Kenneth Tse performs all four works with great sensitivity, agility, and finesse. The accompanying role played by the University of Iowa Symphony Band is good, but not impeccable, relative to the standards set by the best of today’s college wind bands.

In closing, I come away from many of the works discussed in this review with a fundamental sense of pointlessness, as if the laissez-faire attitude regarding compositional styles characteristic of the Postmodern generations has resulted in a kind of undisciplined indifference. It’s almost as if the composers are saying, “If there are no prohibitions, then I can do anything”—and “anything” is what we get. I suppose that regardless of the severity of the dogmas dominating the field at any one time, the proportion of music of enduring value and arresting impact is consistently small.