Angela Allen

The Sinta Saxophone Quartet, alarmingly good and ravishingly charming, took the audience by surprise with its highly diverse program, American Voices, July 24 and 25 (I heard the July 25th concert at the Kaul Auditorium). Theirs was the tightest and brightest concert at the spectacularly varied Chamber Music Northwest’s five-week festival. The quartet is named for the University of Michigan classical saxophone professor, Don Sinta, with whom the Sinta members studied.

Saxes are all over jazz but scarce in classical music, yet here’s a Michigan-based quartet, dressed to the nines in Euro-chic suits, who made it clear that superbly played saxes belong on the classical stage (or the hybrid stage) as well as in jazz clubs. Their program touched on “new grass” (a version of bluegrass), funk, and jazz–plus Hungarian György Ligeti’s lively mid-century Six Bagatelles for Wind Quartet, which fell firmly into classical territory.

Let’s begin with the final blockbuster piece.

George Gershwin’s 18-minute 1924 Rhapsody in Blue, arranged deftly by 23-year-old CMNW protégé composer Alistair Coleman (read my recent profile here), packed enough power and pizazz to knock over anyone, jazz fan or not.

What Coleman did best was not to rearrange the piano part, played boldly and energetically by Gilles Vonsattel, a Swiss-born Columbia University Poly-Sci major and Juilliard masters graduate— and a virtuoso pianist who considers himself best at classical repertoire. Sure, he can play Tchaikovsky as he did at the July 28 Seasonal Rhythms concert and Debussy at the Shades of Impressionism July 30 event, but with Gershwin, he proved himself a stellar jazz musician who used the entire keyboard—and the piano is a very big instrument. He improvised little due to what he called the piece’s “perfection” — why change it up? As jazz artists say, he was killin’ it.

“Alistair was completely faithful to Gershwin’s piano part for Rhapsody!” Vonsattel wrote by email shortly after the concert. “And I think he showed good judgment there: Why mess with Gershwin’s spectacular piano writing? There are a few places in the piece in which I reserve the right to add a few small embellishments if the spirit moves me, but these are barely noticeable. I know many pianists now add entire cadenzas to the piece, which always strikes me as quite a feat when truly improvised on the spot! I adore the piece as it’s written: I think it’s perfection.”

The sax players took enthusiastic charge of the “rearranged” part, opening with Dan Graser’s stupendously long soprano sax riff that sounded like a train braking somewhere in New York.

“The saxophone sound and approach to playing brought us closer to the original band sound of Rhapsody in Blue than that of the grand orchestral version we so often hear,” Vonsattel said. “Our pulse was sharper and the interpretation was less sentimental and leaner. I always associate the piece with New York City, and particularly the subway. I think this version had more of that sound—but maybe we could use a drum set next time!”

Aside from Gershwin, former CMNW protege composer Chris Rogerson, looking as sharp as the sax players (though his footwear featured bright white tennis shoes), introduced his world premiere Meditation for Violin and Saxophone Quartet–written, in part, to showcase CMNW co-artistic director Soovin Kim’s off-the-charts violin musicianship. The piece reflected Rogerson’s two-week trek through the Afghanistan landscape, the same route Marco Polo traveled in the 13th century. The walk was peaceful and timeless, Rogerson said, not angst-inducing, despite Rogerson’s mother’s trepidation that he was doing it at all. The saxes played a lot of soothing repetitive phrases, personifying the wind, while the violin spoke out. If you have any hesitation about appreciating the violin in concert with four saxophones, this is a piece to listen to.

Kristin Kuster’s 2014 contemplative Red Pine reflected another walk, this one through the woods in Pinery Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. This was the group’s toast to quiet music, and not a lot of sax pieces cater to calmness. Kuster wrote it in response to the beloved Don Sinta’s retirement. Mark O’Connor’s 1996 ”new grass”—as in updated Bluegrass—Appalachian Waltz, and John Mackey’s 2012 funk-and-jazz-punctuated Unquiet Spirits comprised the rest of the program.

Each piece, different from the others yet completely engaging, allowed this tightly knit ensemble of impressive irrepressible sax players—Graser on soprano, Zach Stern on alto, Joe Girard on tenor, and Danny Hawthorne on baritone—to shine, star and musically converse, throwing in a few jokes here and there, and remaining aware that a classical sax quartet is not an everyday thing—but not such a tough sell.