Italian Saxophone Quartet

Another “funny thing happened on the way to the forum,” (the Steinbeck Forum, of course), as the Italian Saxophone Quartet played a gig for the Carmel Music Society in downtown Monterey. We had once again a “crossover” concert blending elements of classical music and jazz, but, unlike Chamber Music Monterey Bay’s presentation of Quartetto Gelato, which sold out the house last week, Saturday evening’s Carmel Music Society Concert was only about two thirds full, with approximately 200 empty seats.

Since the Carmel Music Society has a larger subscription base than Chamber Music Monterey Bay, we can only assume that two factors affected the size of the audience. The event didn’t sell a lot of single tickets and many of the Camel Music Society’s regular subscribers were not sufficiently attracted by the nature of the event to venture out of their homes and schlep to Monterey on a chilly evening.

One other factor may have influenced the size of the audience was the fact that the Italian Saxophone Quartet was a substitute concert for the Haffner Wind Quintet, originally scheduled for February 23, and thus some subscribers may have committed themselves to social events that prevented them from attending.

Well, in any case, those who were not there missed an event that was at times fascinating and at times rather uninvolving. The Italian Saxophone Quartet consists of four very talented saxophone players, Federico Mondelci on soprano, Marco Gerboni on alto, Mario Marzi on tenor, and Massimo Mazzoni on baritone. All four musicians are masters of their craft and equally at home in either classical or jazz idioms.

But, the success of such an instrumental combination ultimately comes down to how interesting a program the combo can put together. Naturally, since the saxophone is a relatively new instrument and there are few musicians parading as a saxophone quartet, there is limited repertoire for the genre. Accordingly, it was not surprising that the program contained a liberal amount of music written for other instruments and transcribed for saxophone quartet. However, the surprise was that half of the items on the program were indeed original works, and one of them was a world premiere, with the composer Joe Harnell on board for the occasion.

Mr. Harnell’s work, “Laugh It Up,” a concert paraphrase on the theme of Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up,” is a brief four-minute tribute to Jerome Kern that is idiomatically composed for the four instruments. While the theme in itself invokes a mood of warm nostalgia, Mr. Harnell’s paraphrase finds new charm in this often forgotten melody that brings it back to life with a wonderful flair for new rhythms and subtle harmonic changes. The work received a solid, rich performance from the quartet, and a warm, enthusiastic reception from the audience.

An interesting novelty on the program was the Jean Françaix Petit Quatour pour Saxophones. This work, a superb and jazzy evocation of Paris in the 1930s, succeeds on many levels, both as entertainment and as a serious work of music. Its tongue-in-cheek Gallic humor received a charming performance and seemed all too brief.

The other original works on the program were Paul Reade’s Saxophone Quartet, Paquito D’Rivera’s “New York Suite,” Pepito Ros’s “Cycles,” Pedro Iturralde’s Suite Héllenique, and Anibel Troilo’s Contrabajendo. There were some lovely highlights in these works, such as the beautiful solo by Federico Mondelci in the “Elegie” of Paul Reade’s Quartet, and the solo by Massimo Mazzoni in “Escape to Dreamland” of D’Rivera’s “New York Suite.”

As far as the transcriptions went, some were knockouts, like the Gershwin “An American in Paris” arranged by Cappuccio, the wonderful arrangement of Scott Joplin’s “Easy Winners” by Maure, and the two Piazzola works arranged by the group’s own Mario Marzi.

Two items on the program made little effect, and these were the Canzon seconda by Gabrielli and the three Scarlatti works that somehow failed to capture the essence of Scarlatti’s brilliant keyboard style.

But, on balance, this was a well conceived program, although the ear tended to tire of the constant sameness of the timbres of the saxophone quartet. Partially this was a problem of dynamics. The sound level during the evening was very loud, and I observed one concert patron putting her hands over her ears in a few painfully loud sections. There was also a noticeable absence of the quiet end of the dynamic spectrum. In fact, the only observable pianissimo passage in the whole evening was a lovely quiet stanza in the Scott Joplin “Easy Winners” and it was a most welcome moment.

Curiously, the balance of the instruments often lacked a quality of cantabile when one of the instruments had a solo, and the others didn’t bring down their sound level so as not to cover up the solo.

However, by any standard, these are very fine musicians, dedicated to their craft, who in the 19 years of their existence as a group have brought a lot of skill and dignity to their craft.

We were treated to one encore, a delicious arrangement of elements from the sound track of the film, “A Beautiful Life.”

Archived in these categories: Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Woodwinds.
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