Angela Allen

If you think jazz and marching-band musicians are the sole owners of the johnny-come-late instrument developed in the mid-1800s by Belgian Adolphe Sax, you’re not hearing enough saxophone music. In two of last weekend’s Chamber Music Northwest concerts, four guys with saxophones walked on stage in formal dress and set their classical music scores on the stands — and played like crazy.

The sax-only Kenari Quartet emerged the unexpected stars of the “La Musique de France” concert July 1 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall (and the night before at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium). Its members delighted and surprised the audience and further heated up the overheated hall. It was hot in there!

The quartet was arranged endearingly (and I’m sure, on chance) by height with the shortest saxman Bob Eason playing soprano, Steven Banks, the tallest, on the bari, sided by Kyle Baldwin on alto and Corey Dundee, who also composes, on tenor. These guys, who found one another in 2012 at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, are part of CMNW’s Protégé Project this summer, and boy can they swing on classical tunes— and I imagine on any other type of music.

Showing off their familiarity and finesse with French composers (their debut CD on the Naxos label is French Saxophone Quartets), Kenari began with Pierre Max Dubois’ free-spirited Quatuor pour Saxophone, written in 1956. Lively and speedily paced, with echoes of jazz, its four movements lasted more than the 10 minutes noted on the program – I’d say 15. We would have liked 20!

An 8-minute romp of sax acrobatics, Andante et Scherzo, by southern French 20th-century composer Eugene Bozza, began with spicy harmonies and overlapping melodies and ended with some hurdy-gurdy fun. Kenari Quartet illustrated how agile those wind instruments in all sizes can be, while exposing curious music lovers to rarely performed classical sax music.

The rest of the program was all strings, plus a piano in Cesar Franck’s much beloved Piano Quintet in F Minor, admired for its long, lyrical phrases punctuated by ultra-romantic and (uber-Romantic-era) exuberant moments. When Franck wrote the 35-minute piece in 1879, he had an enormous crush on his student Augusta Holmes, and some of that delight filters through.

Violinist sisters Ani and Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry (shilling his new book, A Grand Tour of Cello Techniques, at intermission and after the concert) and violist Paul Neubauer are longtime CMNW stalwarts and each is a world-class and utterly concentrated musician. They could do no wrong.

They played with pianist Gilles Vonsattel, who joined the group in place of Andre Watts, disabled by arm tendinitis and unable to make the date. CMNW artistic director David Shifrin tracked down Vonsattel in Switzerland at the last minute, and the pianist’s playing neither suffered from jet lag nor unfamiliarity with the piece. He was completely at home on the Steinway (he is a Steinway Artist and a Juilliard masters graduate where he studied with Jerome Lowenthal), and the group played magically, as if its members had been practicing together forever. The quintet wraps you in its spell, and if played at the high level it was at the concert, emerges even more beautiful. The musicians had a good time performing; Ani Kavafian flashed some subtle smiles at her fellow string players.

In the first half, violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Sherry played Maurice Ravel’s dissonant 1922 Sonata for Violin and Cello. Ravel was considered the most important French composer during the 1920s and ‘30s, but this is not my favorite piece of his by a longshot. It’s 20 minutes long (too long!) and perhaps reflected Ravel’s post-World War I sadness and confusion. “The allure of harmony is rejected,” according to the program notes by Ethan Allred, and the musicians’ skills were stretched to the max with challenging, erratic tempos. Ravel-era violinist Helene Jourdain told Ravel that he expected the musicians “to play the flute on the violin and the drums on the cello.”

Yes, this very difficult, hard-to-listen to piece demands a lot, and Sherry and Ida Kavafian played it fiercely and probably flawlessly, though this is the first time I’ve heard it performed. Musical history claims that Ravel was a better composer than pianist or conductor, and I think he wanted his musicians, especially the violinist, to suffer!

Along with the saxes, I loved this program for its spotlight on French composers. Sometimes, we’ve just had enough of the Germans! Variety is the spice of art, and CMNW does a wonderful job of exposing us to new ways of listening to music.

Old and New Sounds

CMNW’’s “Mozart and Dvorak” concert June 28 at Kaul Auditorium started out with young and prolific composer Daniel Temkin’s dreamy Time Capsule, played by the Kavafian sisters (not to be confused with the Kardashian sisters, who share Armenian heritage with musicians). CMNW is featuring Antonin Dvorak’s music this season, and the program included the Czech composer’s Terzetto in C Major, B. 148, Op. 74, where Ida Kavafian’s husband and Orion String Quartet founding member violist Steven Tenenbom joined the sisters for a less exciting piece than Temkins’s. Cellist Sherry anchored the last piece, W.A. Mozart’s 34-minute “String Quartet in G Minor, K 516.” The musicians were wonderful.

The final selections were neither earthshaking nor anything new to avid music listeners, but there must be something for everyone, the thinking goes. And Mozart goes a long way with most audiences.