Orchestra Wellington under Taddei with Adam Page triumphant in Psathas’s saxophone ‘concerto’

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei 
“Virtuoso Composer”

Mozart: Symphony No 25 in G minor, K 183
Psathas: Call of the Wild with Adam Page (saxophone), Premiere
Beethoven: Symphony No 4 in  B flat, Op 60

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 July, 7:30 pm

It was no surprise, after coming into the city on a thinly populated train, then a wet and windy wait for a bus and into a less than busy auditorium vestibule, to find the Michael Fowler Centre only about 60% full, when this orchestra’s concerts are normally sold out. There was nothing wrong with the programme.

In fact, the programme was admirable. Mozart and Beethoven are rather well-known, and both are full of energy and distinction. Nevertheless, the two symphonies in the programme are not so familiar, even though the opening of Mozart’s No 25, in G minor (which Mozart wrote in 1773 when he was only 17) was, as the programme note said, used most effectively to background Miloš Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus.

Mozart’s Symphony No 25
Taddei launched into the Mozart dramatically, with vigorous rhythm and striking dynamic contrasts which were immediately in evidence between the syncopated, opening theme and the calm, more regular rhythm and more reflective second theme. The contrasts between instruments were somewhat more distinctive than is heard in some performances: cellos and double basses contributed more noticeably than the rest of the strings; a plangent oboe sounded and, particularly interesting, there are four horns, allowing for chromatic details; four horns instead of two was uncommon till the mid 19th century. The absence of clarinets was normal till a little later: Mozart first used clarinets in his Symphony No 31, five years after No 25.

The second movement is markedly calmer and quiet, and the playing was curiously secretive, each phrase carefully expressed with charming delicacy. The third movement – the typical Menuetto and Trio in triple time – restored an emphatic quality which that the Trio highlighted by playing distinctly slower.

And the last movement, that might have lightened the mood, does no such thing, Taddei took pains to emphasise its seriousness, to illustrate Mozart’s purpose in sustaining the symphony’s emotional seriousness.

Beethoven No 4
The other classical symphony was by Beethoven, but one that was performed with such flair and conviction that an audience may well have thought deserved fame equal to that of the odd-numbered works. The admirable programme note described the circumstances of its composition interestingly.

The fourth opens with a longish, contemplative introduction that offers no hint of what’s to follow, and the orchestra exploited it mysteriously, slowly emerging into daylight in a sudden attack: the Allegro vivace. It lifted the spirit with its energy and joyousness, with a rise and fall of dynamics that inspired an optimism that was elaborated throughout the magical, development section, secretively supported by timpani.

The Adagio was taken at a deliberative pace, though slightly more brisk than I remembered in others; likewise, its main theme sounded richer and more beautiful, particularly by the clarinet’s subtle contribution. The third movement is entitled Allegro vivace rather than simply ‘Scherzo’; holding the attention through its rather mysterious first episode. The Trio followed its title, un poco meno allegro, to prepare for the spirited return of first section. The fourth movement was driven with splendid precision, adding delight with a few bars that dip momentary into the minor key. Emphatic bassoons, clarinets, oboes and flute were enlivened by racing violins.

Both symphonies were performed with sensitivity and remarkable panache, offering a splendidly polished ambience for a rather distinctive masterpiece.

John Psathas
The showpiece of the concert was the premiere of John Psathas’s Call of the Wild. Psathas is Orchestra Wellington’s Composer in Residence, for a three year period from 2020. This is not his first saxophone concerto: that was in 2000 with a work called Omnifenix and was played at a festival in Bologna in Italy.

Psathas’s own programme note described the origins of the work most illuminatingly: a vivid, programmatic work that deals with the experience of both sides of his family over the past century: the terrible population exchanges between Greece and Turkey with awful loss of life on both sides after the First World War, and then the crippling, murderous Civil War after WW2 (Communism v. Capitalism, the war conducted in proxy style by the United States and the Soviet Union). The three movements deal with the experiences and character of his mother, his father and finally Psathas’s own children ‘hearing the call of the wild’ and talking now of living abroad.

The Greek civil war between the end of WW2 and 1949 was still a dominating memory when I was posted in 1964 as Vice Consul at the new New Zealand Consulate General In Athens; that war was still a divisive memory for the Greek people and it continued to influence Greek politics. Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, it was an element in the barbaric coup by the Colonels in April 1967 two months before my return to Wellington, That coup overthrew the democratic government on the pretext of possible left-wing success in approaching elections. Psathas’s reference to experiencing “normalised xenophobia, racism and religious mistreatment” when the family lived in Taumarunui and Napier, relates to my own surprise at encountering similar attitudes among, particularly, many English-speaking residents in Greece, including diplomats. For me, the three enriching years in Athens have remained a profound influence, linguistically, politically and culturally.

A considerably larger orchestra filled the stage for Psathas’s work, with many percussion players, as well as, most vividly, Adam Page’s tenor saxophone. Page led the opening passage, an arresting, rising motif that called us to order, and proclaimed the distinction of his instrument which, while still not standard in orchestras, has been imaginatively used by many composers, notably Ravel, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Milhaud, Richard Strauss, among others.

I have never heard the saxophone playing with such flamboyant confidence, employing such a wide range of techniques throughout the piece. With the accompaniment of a sharp-voiced side drum and many other percussion-driven features, suggesting civil war, there seemed little doubt to me that at least some of the music was inspired by the political strife after both World Wars. The sounds constantly announced the strong-minded inspiration that spoke clearly of disturbing events and a confident handling of them. And it was very often a partnership between saxophone and brass, along with percussion that carried it. Some of those exuberant episodes were nevertheless supported by quiet string accompaniment.

The music was always very conspicuously inspired by the sort of experiences Psathas had in mind with his parents. The second movement (He can worship it without believing it – his father) began with a sense of mystery: not a conspicuous feature of a saxophone one thinks, but it seemed to find its true character, such as when linked with sounds of marimba

The third movement, Tramontane (meaning, ‘on the other side of the mountains’), featured a frenzied orchestra, that allowed a more subdued saxophone to emerge, perhaps like the revealing of a beautiful landscape after reaching to peaks of a mountain range

This vividly individual music seemed to reinforce my long-held belief that contemporary music doesn’t flourish, or even survive, through sounds that are purposely challenging, tuneless, avant-garde, original in every possible sense. It can and should, like this successful work by Psathas, call for an opportunity to be heard again… and again. It was good to see microphones suspended above the orchestra (one recent and rewarding concert passed without being recorded at all).

This was a highly successful concert, featuring the orchestra and Marc Taddei, along with Adam Page’s saxophone, at their brilliant best.

I look forward to hearing it again – ideally another live performance. And it is noted that the place will be Christchurch, with the CSO, the Psathas piece’s joint commissioner.

Unusual trio ensemble with a highly satisfying, widely international series opens Wellington Chamber Music year

Wellington Chamber Music: first concert in 2021 season

Trio Elan
Donald Armstrong (violin)
Simon Brew (saxophone)
Sarah Watkins (piano)

Russell Peterson: Trio for alto saxophone, violin and piano
Peter Liley: Deux Images for Trio: Small Scurrying and Glimpse
Albeniz: Evocación, from Iberia (piano solo)
Barry Cockcroft: Beat Me (tenor saxophone solo)
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor
Marc Eychenne: Cantilène et Danse
Piazzolla: Otoño Porteño 
Farr: Tango: Un Verano de Passion

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 April, 3 pm

The first concert in Wellington Chamber Music’s 2021 season attracted a fairly full audience, no doubt partly a response to their deprivation in 2020. It would have appealed to chamber music aficionados on account of the three well-known musicians and the inclusion of at least one well-known work, plus a couple of others by familiar and attractive composers – Albéniz and Piazzolla, and a popular New Zealand composer – Gareth Farr. That offered the prospect that the rest might be interesting: it certainly was.

Russell Peterson
It opened with a trio by American saxophonist and composer, Russell Peterson. It troubled me almost at once. Though it was a vigorous, rhythmic piece, throwing violin and saxophone against each other, each delivered such individual sounds that the wide spacing of the two gave the impression that unity could be in conflict. But rhythmic unity was always conspicuous and superficially disparate sounds were clearly studied and not simply tonal antipathy.

The second movement, Adagio, was more audibly genial, occupying the space in the church more comfortably. A congenial duet between violin and saxophone might have been rather shrill but the piano’s steady pace imposed a calmer spirit. The last movement, labelled ‘moto perpetuo’, again given to repetitive rhythms and terse themes, created an excitement that might again have been taxing in the church’s acoustic. Nevertheless, the performance of this deliberate music was admirably studied, displaying the trio’s vigour and unanimity, and however the instruments were assembled in performance, there was no doubt that it was a carefully studied, meaningful interpretation.

Deux Images by young Wellington saxophonist and composer, Peter Liley, created contrasting sound pictures with darting, tremulous motifs; first by the violin, then the saxophone. Its two movements seemed to vary mainly through the music’s general pitch; a hypnotic quality pervaded both movements, creating a distinctly enchanted feeling.

It was good to hear Sarah Watkins in a solo piano piece such as one of Albéniz’s Ibéria: ‘Evocación’, the first of the twelve pieces. They are rarely played in New Zealand, as far as I can recall, and the likelihood of their being heard on Concert FM gets increasingly dim. Sarah Watkins’ playing was beautifully idiomatic, capturing both the essential Spanish spirit and her own obvious admiration for the composer’s music.

Next was a piece for solo tenor saxophone: Beat me, by Australian composer, Barry Cockroft. It was a display of the varied sounds available, including many that were unpitched, essentially non-musical; but it was driven by rhythmic, dancing or percussive sounds; a repeated bleat around bottom G or A flat offered a kind of stability. It was an intriguing experience, though I confess to being somewhat unclear about the purpose of and relationships between many of the sounds. I felt indeed that its formidable technical difficulties might take a very long time to master.

Debussy violin sonata
After the Interval, violin and piano played Debussy’s last piece, from 1917: the third of his planned six sonatas far various instruments: he died of cancer in 1918. This was an admirable performance of a piece that ends in a spirit of sheer delight; and it was an opportunity to hear both a pianist that Wellington rarely hears since she left the NZTrio, and a violinist who is conspicuous mainly at Associate concert master of the NZSO and leader of the Amici Ensemble (they give the last concert, in October, in this Wellington Chamber Music series). Their performance was multi-facetted and as near to flawless as you’d get.

Marc Eychenne is a French composer born in Algeria in 1933. In some ways, not merely because it called for the same instruments as the Peterson piece, the two seemed to have similar, or at least related characteristics, even though Eychenne’s piece was composed before Peterson was born. There was no sign of any attempt here to draw attention to the dissimilarity between violin and saxophone; in fact when the saxophone entered several bars after the violin had established itself, the two seemed to seek common elements, to find considerable homogeneity. The effect was certainly in contrast to that in the Peterson piece. The contrast between the ‘Cantilène’ and the ‘Danse’ in itself was engaging: once again, in the writing and the playing of the two movements there was a sense of unanimity as well as contrast.

It encouraged me later to look (through the inevitable YouTube) for other pieces by Eychenne; it proved a rewarding excursion. Both works were obviously composed in the post-Serialist, post extreme avant-garde era, neither seemed persuaded to employ such defeatist techniques in an attempt to emulate the influences that so alienated much music composed in the late 20th century.

Piazzolla and Farr
The same goes, of course for the last two pieces, by Piazzolla and Gareth Farr. The Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’) by Piazzolla have become very familiar and the Otoño (Autumn) movement in its attractive arrangement including saxophone was charmingly idiomatic.

It was a nice idea to link Piazzolla’s piece with a piece that Farr wrote for a TV series, The Strip. In the words of the programme note, it was “incidental music for a smouldering scene between a stripper and choreographer”; as described, it proved dreamy and seductive. A nice way to bring the wholly attractive concert to a close.

The remaining six concerts in Wellington Chamber Music’s series look most interesting: chairman David Hutton mentioned special concessions available to those attending the concert to subscribe for the rest of the year.Don’t hestitate!


Unusual trios for contrasted groups, influenced disparately by viola d’amore and the Holocaust

Music of Sorrow and Love
Archi d’amore Zelanda and the Terezin Trio

Archi d’amore Zelanda (Donald Maurice – viola d’amore, Jane Curry – guitar, Emma Goodbehere – cello)
Michael Williams: Suite per antichi archi
Boris Pigovat: Strings of Love (2016)

Terezin Trio (Katherine McIndoe – soprano, Reuben Chin – alto saxophone, Heather Easting – piano)
Ellwood Derr: I never saw another butterfly

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 18 May, 12:15 pm

This lunchtime concert combined two young chamber groups in music that touched on tragic themes and conditions of the heart, physical and emotional. Perhaps they were to be seen as metaphysically linked.

We have heard several performances by Donald Maurice’s Archi d’amore Zelanda; the last let us hear both the viola d’amore and the modern viola; in fact the last outing was just a fortnight ago, as part of an octet playing Vivaldi.

Today, they played two pieces commissioned by them and which will have their ‘world premieres’ in a forthcoming trip to Poland where they will play at the Europejskiego Centrum Muzyki Krzysztofa Pendereckiego w Lusławicach (or European Center for Music, Krzysztof Pendercki, Lusławice), a small town east of Krakow. Check it out on the Internet.

It is an important cultural centre with origins as an intellectual and artistic centre in the 17th century. It is not far from Penderecki’s birthplace, and the composer bought the old manor in 1976 and restored it to create a music centre, with a beautiful contemporary building opened in 2013.

The Trio will also give concerts in Krakow and Warsaw.

Michael Williams
Suite per antichi archi
was commissioned from Hamilton composer Michael Williams.

His piece touched on the heart, and its first movement was named for the heart condition, ‘Arrhythmia’, an obtuse reference to music with varying rhythms. For the first few minutes all three instruments were plucked, rhythmically though in varying bar-lengths; then viola d’amore and cello returned to bowing. The music might not have been too complex or academic, but it was attractive, untroubled. The second movement, Cavatina, was slower and elegiac, with much attention to the lower strings of all three instruments; there was a hint of Spanish music guitar of the 17th or 18th centuries (Hopkinson Smith’s concerts at the 2014 Festival stimulated my interest in and enjoyment of it). The third movement was a fugue, with the bowed instruments used mainly in that way, gaining speed subtly as the mood lightened and became dance-like, though remaining in an antique mode.

Boris Pigovat
Boris Pigovat and Donald Maurice have formed a partnership/friendship since the composer wrote a Holocaust Requiem in 1995, with an obbligato viola for Maurice, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazis’ atrocity, Kristallnacht. Atoll Records recorded it by the Wellington Orchestra under Taddei with Maurice as violist.

The latest fruit of that association is Pigovat’s Strings of Love.

Because I hadn’t heard very much of what the musicians said about the music, I asked Donald Maurice for some help and he gave me the following about this piece.

“Much of [Pigovat’s] music since [the Requiem] is reminiscent of those ideas [in the Requiem], in particular in his viola sonata, and in this new piece, Strings of Love, there are similar ideas to the ‘Lux Aeterna’ from the Requiem. It also includes a clear quotation of the nursery lullaby ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby, on the Tree Top’. This poem was believed to have been written by a pilgrim who travelled on the Mayflower and it was a comment on the way the American Indians rocked their babies to sleep by hanging their bassinets off tree branches. This observation about the significance of the theme in the trio is my own, not from Boris!”

So there was dreamy quality in the viola and cello in the opening part, then a kind of a popular tune, with perhaps the influence of a guitar, though the viola dominated the melody. The mood lightens and the tempo increases towards the end. Both the music’s intention and its performance were of attractive clarity and should help create a nice repertoire for the innovative combination of viola d’amore, cello and guitar which, judging by the sort of music they inspire, evokes feeling that relate Renaissance or Baroque sensibility to contemporary musical values and social issues.

Ellwood Derr
I never saw another butterfly was written in 1966 around poems written by children in the terrible concentration camp at Terezin in Czechoslovakia. So it has an affinity with the much later written Third Symphony of Gorecki.

It’s composed for a trio, appropriately entitled Terezin: soprano, alto saxophone and piano. Soprano Katherine McIndoe has, in only a couple of years, established an attractive record in competitions and small opera performances, such as with Days Bay Opera. It’s a strong voice with a keen-edged vibrato that might need watching in years to come, but which showed admirable accuracy in the early quasi-atonal music and an air of electrified fear in the section so marked. Her spoken words came almost as a shock.

Reuben Chin’s contribution on the alto saxophone too, was most accomplished: twittering and bird-like (rather than simulating a butterfly) in the Prologue; while the calm, Debussyish, accepting spirit of ‘The Garden’ hardly disguised the underlying hopeless grief that is embedded in the music. Throughout, Heather Easting’s piano lent expressive and sympathetic backing, often rather dominating the scene as near the end of the fourth section, marked ‘Fear’.

I had hesitated about coming to this concert, thinking one of my colleagues was to review it, but was engrossed by both these unfamiliar trio ensembles right from the start.


An unusual trio throws fresh, sometimes questionable light on a variety of chamber pieces

Trio Amistad (Rebecca Steel – flute, Simon Brew – saxophones, Jane Curry – guitar)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

François de Fossa: Trio No 1 in A, Op 18
Piazzolla: Histoire du Tango – Café and Bordello
Sergio Assad: Winter impressions for Trio
Bach: Trio Sonata VI, BWV 530 (arranged Eric Dussault)
Debussy: Petite Suite (arr. Timothy Kain)
Falla: La vida breveDanse espagnole (arr. Owen Moriarty)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 3 May, 2:30 pm

This, just incidentally, was the third recital involving a flute within a month – see Middle C of 1 and 29 April.

The Trio by the amateur and rather obscure 19th century French composer, François de Fossa, was written originally for violin, guitar and cello (reflecting the widespread interest in the guitar in the first half of the 19th century).

I had not heard of De Fossa and have been interested to find him, of course, through Google, significant in the guitar world, responsible for bringing Boccherini’s guitar quartets to notice, arranging Haydn quartets for guitar duo, translating a guitar method from Spanish.

Since Fossa himself had arranged for the guitar, music written for other instruments, I guess there can be little objection to musicians today arranging his. The thing that struck one at once however was the dramatically different sound produced by the tenor sax, and by the end of the concert the question remained; it was the most problematic of the six pieces they played.

The original would certainly have held together sonically and the flute substitutes easily enough for the violin, but the timbre of the saxophone seemed to contribute a quality that was rather too prominent. One can understand the hesitancy of classical composers, since the invention of the saxophones, to embrace them as fully legitimate members of the family. Even without knowing its history, one can sense that the saxophone is of another time; though I wonder whether, if it had not been taken up so completely by the world of big band jazz, it would sound more comfortable in classical music.
In its style the trio shows echoes of Haydn (the occasional amusing, deliberate miss-step) or Boccherini, or perhaps George Onslow; it was very agreeable, and it was played with charm.

In the two pieces they played from Piazzolla’s Histoire du tango, Simon Brew picked up his alto sax, again, not an instrument Piazzolla had envisaged, but here it fitted the sound world with a perfect authenticity (and it made me wonder whether the alto might have made all the difference to the Fossa piece). They began with the second piece, Café 1930, which is charming and gay; there was more evidence of the true roots of the tango in the first part of the suite, Bordello 1900, as you’d expect, and the players rejoiced in the syncopated rhythms and captivating melodic shapes.

Brazilian composer Sergio Assad (using the tenor sax again, in place of the as-scored, viola) wrote his Winter Impressions in 1996. I would have doubted the existence of much of a winter in the area around São Paulo, and Jane Curry’s guitar was the only one of the trio whose music hinted at The Frozen Garden – the first movement. The flute in the second movement contributed a dreamy tune, and the distinct lines for all three instruments created a most delightful musical pattern. The last movement, Fire Place, created an air of charming sociability, with animated talk punctuated by meditative pauses. Assad struck me as a natural, gifted composer with his own voice in music that had arisen because it had to be composed and not to fulfill academic assignments or important commissions.

The 6th of Bach’s Trio Sonatas, written for his oldest son Wilhelm Friedmann, was reportedly pieced together from parts of his other works, which is the reason for their sounding familiar, though I could not name or place them. Music long familiar has a habit of sounding more substantial and, of course, memorable, and so did this. The first movement was a successful wedding of flute and alto sax, each echoing the other. As I had with the Piazzolla, I found the alto a more comfortable companion with its colleagues here, and its soft, rather beautiful tones in the Lento, middle movement, held the music together in an organic manner. It was a most successful adaptation, colourfully played.

Debussy’s Petite Suite for piano duet has been much arranged, for orchestra and a variety of chamber ensembles, which would seem to give permission for virtually anything. Here Rebecca Steel’s flute seemed utterly natural, taking, as was explained, the piano primo part while the saxophone took the secondo (bass) part, much duetting in 6ths. The effect here was for the guitar to be placed rather inconspicuously, simply accompaniment; though there was a charming duet between flute and guitar in the Menuet. Nevertheless, though I am unhappy about most amplification, it’s often necessary for the guitar and might have been useful here.

The Spanish Dance from Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve ended the programme, and here again I felt the alto sax might have been a better choice than the tenor in the mix with two lighter instruments; in its top register however, it was fine; the guitar had more prominence which was most welcome; and the piece brought this charming concert a delightful finish.


NZSM Saxophone orchestra, quintet and quartet beguile at lunchtime

New Zealand School of Music
Fugue in G minor “Great”, BWV 542 for saxophone quintet (J.S. Bach, arr N. Woods)
Cantilene  for saxophone quintet (Ida Gotkovsky)
PR Girl for saxophone quintet         (Andrew Tweed)
Saxophone Quartet (Alfred Desenclos)
Toccata and Fugue in G Minor(?) (D minor, BWV 565) (J.S.Bach, arr. Guy Lacour for saxophone orchestra)
Tango for saxophone orchestra (Stravinsky, arr. J van der Linden)
Slava! for saxophone orchestra (Bernstein, arr. J van der Linden)


Conductor: Simon Brew, Leader: Reuben Chin, Artistic direction: Debbie Rawson. 


St Andrew’s on The Terrace


Wednesday 25 May, 12.15pm


At the New Zealand School of Music, Deborah Rawson attracts a lot of students to the saxophone. And her success in getting skilled performers into the community, as well as in the periodic concerts given by students and others, such as her long-standing ensemble, Saxcess, is slowly bringing a realization of the place of the instrument(s) in the classical music sphere.


While the jazz world was almost entirely dominated by the alto and tenor saxes, with one or two notable exceptions like baritone player like Gerry Mulligan and sopranist Sidney Bechet, the classical genre has become more accustomed to the whole consort of saxes which, on the showing of this concert, numbers at least six.


No details of either the pieces (only composers’ names, not in order) or the players was available at the concert, which led to a guessing game, in which I scored poorly. I got marks only for Bach and Stravinsky; I obtained details later.


Two of the most successful pieces in the concert were Bach’s ‘Great’ fugue in G minor played by the quintet, and the Toccata and Fugue in D minor played by the orchestra. The latter, particularly, created a rich sound that did justice very interestingly to the character of the original. The fanfare elements in the Toccata were splendidly arresting while the differing ranks of instruments allowed the various fugal passages to be heard distinctly.


I thought it worked a little better than the Fugue, which was arranged for quintet (Reuben Chin – soprano, Emma Hayes-Smith – alto, Annelise Kreger – alto, Katherine Maciaszec – tenor, Geraint Scott – baritone). It was played fairly quickly which seemed to make it harder to achieve variety of colour; but I enjoyed the way the soprano soared above the others, and it was the one, like a soprano voice carrying an aria, that allowed touches of a humanizing rubato to surface. 


Ida Gotkovsky was born in 1933 and is Professor of Composition at the Paris Conservatoire. She has composed for all main genres, including many solo and chamber pieces for saxophone.


Her Cantilene for quintet opened in deliberate manner, led by alto then tenor in plaintive tones. A second phase developed a lighter character, with arresting ostinati from tenor and soprano saxes. I was safe to have guessed this as post-Messiaen French: I hadn’t heard of the composer.


Andrew Tweed’s PR Girl was introduced by fast didgeridoo sounds (so I suspected he might have been Australian, though I find he is a British saxophonist/composer, born 1963) on baritone sax, followed by lively, entertaining jazz strains, modulating to satisfying effect towards the end.


The major work of the concert was the saxophone quartet by Alfred Desenclos, a major figure in the saxophone world, played by the quintet members minus Annelise Kreger. Written by the 50-year-old Desenclos in 1962, it could have come from no other national school than that of Françaix and Poulenc  A website comment reads: “it is one of the very few really substantial sonatas in the saxophone repertoire… technical and artistic challenges abound.”


In three movements: Allegro non troppo, Andante poco largo, Allegro energico, it immediately created an air of expectation, as the introduction ended in a string of evanescent rising scales, and the movement continued in vivacious spirit. The second movement rose slowly from a somnolent state to a mood of peaceful dreaminess. The third movement set off with little fanfare motifs which accelerated in syncopated rhythms, and the four parts entered into a somewhat fugal episode which became quite excitable. But I was somewhat disconcerted as it approached its end to become aware of a certain tonal monotony in the patterns of the four instruments; would I have had a similar reaction to the music if it had been played by four stringed instruments? I don’t know.


Nevertheless, the performance brought it to life with a variety of thoughful expressive colourings and dynamic contrasts.


Then the saxophone orchestra emerged from the vestry: eleven of them: the quintet plus six non-students (David McGregor – sopranino, Debbie Rawson – soprano, Lauren Draper – alto, Hayden Sinclair – tenor, Will Hornabrook – tenor, Graham Hanify – bass), plus conductor Simon Brew.


Their first piece was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565.  As I remarked at the beginning it was a very striking arrangement, replicating organ sounds most convincingly. I was impressed too by the conductor’s decisive guidance and his ability to hold a lively pulse, dramatic energy and to command excellent ensemble. It was followed by Tango by Stravinsky, one of the first pieces he wrote after arriving in the United States in 1940. It proved a colouful, effective piece that the orchestra played carefully, with some fine comic gestures.


Finally came a short party piece that seemed to come out of Sousa, Ibert and Chabrier. I was surprised, on getting the complete list of music, to find it was by Bernstein, called Slava!; the name Sousa had occurred to me at the time without imagining it to be American. 


All the players did a splendid job in all phases of the concert, in persuading us of the saxophones’ legitimacy as solo, chamber music and orchestral instrument.