Caprice Arts Trust present saxophones and a fine wind quintet

Altotude Saxophone Quartet: Pieces by Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Paul Pierné, Bryan James, Piazzolla.

Lucy Rainey (soprano sax), Greg Rogan (alto sax), Amity Alton-Lee (tenor sax), Bryan James (baritone sax)

Quintet X: Nielsen: Wind Quintet – first movement, Armando Ghidoni: Adagio from Badaluk – Concerto for wind quintet, Poulenc: Sextet for winds and piano

Kirsten Sharman (French horn), Rachelle Eastwood (flute), Marianna Kennedy (oboe), Lucy O’Neill (bassoon), Taleim Edwards (clarinet), Paul Romero (piano)

St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt

Tuesday 16 November, 7.30pm

The Caprice Arts Trust continues to offer chamber music with a difference, generally taking concerts to two or three venues in the Greater Wellington region. This concert, shared by two groups, was first played at St Andrew’s on The Terrace on Friday 12 November: I caught the second performance at Lower Hutt.

I had previously heard – indeed, heard of – neither ensemble. The Altotude Saxophone Quartet which, I gather, draws on a variety of players, occupied the first half. They played the pieces in an order different from that in the programme.

As is to be expected. it was the pieces written originally for saxophone quartet that came off best, though an exception was the opening piece, an arrangement of part of Gershwin’s American in Paris, which the composer scored for full symphony orchestra including all four saxophones. That achieved a fusion of a jazz sensibility with French piquancy that lent itself readily to a saxophone quartet; and its essential character survived the transition.

But the second piece, the Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s first String Quartet, was another matter. Though leader Bryan James claimed that its origin for four string instruments made it suitable for another family of four instruments, the music’s essence, so perfectly conceived for strings by a composer with an extremely refined ear, was simply lost. Almost every aspect of its articulation and dynamics, its sound world and emotion, was obliterated. Perhaps a listener who had never heard the original would not have had this reaction, but its familiarity, so rooted in the string quartet medium, excluded that possibility for me. In particular, the entry of the second theme seemed irredeemably crude.

A couple of pieces by Bryan James followed: Blue Pig and Desert Storm. In both pieces, the comfortable writing for the quartet was as successful as one might expect from a saxophonist. Blue Pig captured an idiomatic jazz feeling, in which individual instruments, starting with Amity Alton-Lee’s tenor sax, took effective solos. Desert Storm was inspired, not directly by the Gulf War, but simply by that landscape; its use of the whole tone scale was evocative but the melodic and rhythmic motifs eventually became repetitious.

The third part of Three ConversationsAnimé by Paul Pierné (1874 – 1952 – a cousin of organist and composer Gabriel Pierné), emerged a lively piece that could be judged by normal early-20th century classical music criteria, sharp bursts by the chorus followed by ejaculations by individual instruments captured the air of dispute hat apparently inspired it.

The final piece, two parts of Piazzolla’s Histoire du tango, originally for flute and guitar but in many arrangements, is in a spirit not too remote from jazz, could well have worked for saxophones; Café 1930 was a comfortable fit, but Night Club 1960 suffered through an arrangement I found uncongenial, with uncomfortable tempo changes and uneven balances.

The talented wind quintet. Quintet X,  was the creation of Caprice’s Sunniva Zoete-West, especially for use in these concerts. The initiative was a triumph, and the quintet played all three pieces with taste, energy, accuracy and excellent ensemble. They began with the first movement of Nielsen’s wonderful wind quintet which offers no place to hide for any of the instruments: all justified their places in a performance that was generally very close to professional level. The choruses by the three high woodwinds were especially beguiling; the horn’s tone was velvety and elegant and the bassoon a highly polished performance from one of the school of music’s gifted students. O for the entire work!

Another single movement followed – the Adagio from a work called Badaluk-Concerto by the contemporary French/Italian composer Armando Ghidoni, which turned out to be a highly attractive piece that has ingested all that is best in today’s music, now freeing itself from the compulsion for self-indulgent avant-gardism. That’s not to say it’s easy to play; lamenting that we could not have heard it all, I was told that if I thought this ‘slow movement’ was pretty challenging, I should have looked at the other two: the players didn’t have a spare year in which to master it. I thought too that the name Concerto didn’t suggest its character as well as a word like Sinfonietta or Sinfonia might have, reflecting better its impressive textures and evident formal structure. It was a most accomplished performance.  I had not heard of Ghidoni, but intend to follow him up: his website looks interesting.

The last piece was the entire sextet for piano and winds by Poulenc. Written in 1932, Poulenc became dissatisfied with it and rewrote it in 1939/40. Typically with Poulenc, the music is an interesting blend of certain contemporary styles such as 1920s Germany, along with his individual melodic and instrumental characteristics. Each part is scored for the instrument in its most attractive and rewarding register, where it is most at ease, and though that does not imply that it’s an easy piece, the players were conspicuously comfortable in all aspects. The opening phase, typical of the mature Poulenc, demands emphatic playing, and the piano – a fine instrument – sounded somewhat muddied in the acoustic, but was happier when the dynamics became more calm.  The first movement, the longest and most varied, moved from phase to phase with a fluency that evidenced intelligent and thorough rehearsal; and the central Divertissement movement became a particularly joyous affair.

In spite of publicity efforts however, audiences have generally remained shy for the excellent concerts that Sunniva Zoete-West and Caprice have promoted – no more than a couple of dozen were at St Mark’s – and she is threatening to abandon the undertaking. The concerts which have typically presented interesting contemporary music and music for wind instruments, of which there is a quite substantial and excellent quantity, fill a niche that other chamber music promoters tend to neglect.

It is well to remember that the Wellington Chamber Music Society’s Sunday afternoon chamber music series, now at the Ilott Theatre, began life (in the University Memorial Theatre) with the aim, in part, of employing young Wellington musicians in music that was ignored by the then Chamber Music Federation (now Chamber Music New Zealand), particularly wind ensembles such as the great Mozart wind serenades.