Ensembled delights from the NZSM Saxophones at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series 2015
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Saxophone Orchestra

The players:
Ryan Hall, Reuben Chin (soprano sax)
Genevieve Davidson, Laura Brown (alto sax)
Giles Reid, Elizabeth Hocking, Nick Walshe (tenor sax)
Graham Hanify, Kim Hunter, Simon Brew (Baritone sax)
Director – Debbie Rawson

The music:

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA – Tango Suite for Saxophone Quartet
ROGER MAY – Sax Circus for Saxophone Orchestra
PHILIP BUTTALL – Eclogue for Saxophone Orchestra
ANTONIN DVORAK (arr. Doug. O’Connor)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

 Wednesday 27th May 2015

There’s more “classical” music written for the saxophone than you might think exists – after all the instrument has been around since 1846, and as such is more “established ” than its twentieth-century prominence in jazz might suggest. Still, there remains an “exoticism” about the instrurment’s particular sound for classically-attuned ears such as mine(!), and one which I find particularly exciting whenever I hear it, be it solo, in a chamber ensemble or in an orchestral context.

So, I found myself looking forward to the NZ School of Music’s Saxophone Orchestra presentation at St.Andrew’s. I wasn’t REALLY expecting to hear my favourite pieces for the instrument, Eric Coates’s Saxo-Rhapsody, and the opening movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, with its haunting middle  section “owned” by the instrument – both, after all, have orchestral accompaniment. But I was hoping for something comparably luscious, albeit on a smaller scale.

The concert began with Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Suite, played by a sax quartet, two movements of Latin “soul”, at the outset with lovely, distinctive timbres, particularly the lower echelons – a gentle melancholy, wistful in character, the music embroiled in what sounded like some private emotion. The players balanced everything beautifully, allowing the middle voices their easeful, engaging trajectories, the phrasings never having to be forced or over-cooked to make the music’s point.

Though hearing Debbie Rawson’s spoken introductions  was a difficulty in the venue with a microphone that was a “sometimes thing”, I did register the programmme rearrangement from what was printed – so that we got Roger May’s madcap Sax Circus next, three additional players appearing like Cheshire Cats for the performance, and immediately making their mark with a kind of jolly circus opening to the music.

Enormous fun was generated on both sides of the performer/listener divide, poking huge holes in the gauze through which the sounds galloped and romped and our appreciation (I’m sure) registered. Our popcorn was forgotten as we were regaled by a baritone sax kick-starting a rumbustious gallop, which divertingly morphed into subsidiary episodes, as far-removed as elephantine ploddings, but returned us to the energies of the opening by the end.

Philip Buttall’s Eclogue restored our sonic equilibriums with the piece’s patiently-unfolding, almost ceremonial tapestries of sound, giving the soprano sax the melody atop beautifully-balanced osmotic harmonies. Then it was the alto saxes’ turn with the tune, as the sopranos counterpointed with high-wire variants – all very beautiful and deeply-felt.

To conclude the programme came an arrangement of the Dvorak Serenade for Winds, the work of somebody called Doug O’Connor – and even more players turned up for this item! So it was a very merry company indeed, which began the work, led by Debbie Rawson, the opening Tempo di Marcia barely able to contain itself in the excitement of the occasion. Amid all the thrusting energies I did feel it all needed a bit more “Moderato”, as something of the music’s bucolic swagger was sacrificed at such an insistent tempo. With the movement’s coda came the breadth that I was hanging out for, a glow settling over the playing, the musicians given the elbow-room to voice their phrases beautifully, right to the end.

The following Minuetto had all the grace and charm necessary for the music to bloom, the ensemble creating some lovely colours, and beautifully droll accompaniments, readily evoking the dance – but wow! – at what a lick the music’s “trio” section was taken! – hats off to the players for managing their notes without falling off the musical tightrope! Exciting, but for me just a bit of a blur, more breathless than truly exhilarating – to my mind relying a little too much on sheer speed rather than rhythmic “pointing” to be truly delicious!

This arrangement having omitted the original work’s Andante con moto movement, the players went straight into the Allegro molto finale – here most thankfully not rushed off its feet, but at a tempo that gave the players time to articulate their phrases with a sense of fun, rather than sheer desperation – the main tune was jolly and rumbustiously delivered, and the “gurgling” accompaniments were a delight! I was reminded of the story I heard of a wind player’s remark about playing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, that “you just waggle your fingers and hope for the best!”. But these young players seemed to have no such fears, so exuberant and whole-hearted were their own finger-wagglings!

Dvorak’s marvellous finale has as well, of course, a delicious accelerando passage, a quasi-pompous return to the work’s opening, and an exciting coda, complete with stirring fanfares, all of which were delivered with great élan. So, it was pretty wonderful stuff from the ensemble, the student musicians having obviously, from this showing, been expertly schooled, and thus made ready to take their instruments and make a great and pleasing noise in the world.












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