Listen to Intersections
An intersection can mean many different things: a crossroads, a stalemate, a conflict, or a choice to make. Our second recording project embodies the points of intersection our ensemble has encountered artistically in the last few years. We chose to include two transcriptions of pieces written for genres other than saxophone quartet, two standards of the repertoire, and two contemporary works written in the last 25 years. Such a diverse collection of music creates an interesting juncture and represents the breadth of our artistry within a variety of colors and styles. Lastly, the title Intersections pays homage to our namesake, the mysterious Zzyzx Road located in the Mojave Desert.
Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 is a multi-movement work for choir set to texts from the Russian Orthodox All-Night Vigil. More commonly and mistakenly known as Vespers, the work uses texts from the canonical hours of Vespers, Matins, and Prime from the Russian Orthodoxy. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff had no longer been attending church services when he wrote the Vigil: the austere beauty of the work thus represents the composer’s faith in a more simple, spiritual way than the traditional use of music during the Vigil might imply. O Gentle Light, or Lumen Hilare, is an ancient hymn often translated as “joyous light” that has been used in candle lighting ceremonies near twilight for centuries. The music is simple and beautiful, in part due to the hymn’s derivation from chant, but it succinctly depicts the profound scene painted by the text: the mysticism of the Trinity, and the setting sun – the intersection between night and day.
Commissioned by the Zzyzx Quartet in 2012, Unquiet Spirits is the first original, multi-movement work for saxophone quartet by celebrated American composer John Mackey. It premiered at the 36th annual Navy Band Saxophone Symposium in 2013. The piece’s title reflects the unsettled and unsettling moods evoked in the three movements. The restless first movement propels the ensemble to a climactic bout of raucous rhythmic gestures. The second movement is an off-kilter dance, featuring acrobatic counterpoint throughout the ensemble and an eerie, waltz-like middle theme. Finally, the third movement is a fiendish moto perpetuo, described by the composer as a “barn burner.” The ensemble trades incessant sixteenth-note runs and jarring syncopated rhythms in a swirl of mixed meters. The tenor saxophone tries to lure the group into a sinewy melody, but is soon swamped by the ensemble’s relentless motion.
Gabriel Pierné’s Introduction and Variations on a Popular Ronde is a delightful French standard, beginning with a calm introduction and eventually bursting into a joyful rondo. Pierné dedicated the work, published in 1938, to the Republican Garde Saxophone Quartet featuring Marcel Mule, the historically noted Professor of Saxophone at the Paris Conservatory. The variations on the theme range in affect from cheeky and playful, to capricious and deranged, to sporadic and macabre, and the piece ends jubilantly with a triumphant flair.
Sibelius wrote his only mature string quartet, Voces Intimæ or “Intimate Voices” after he was misdiagnosed with cancer. Sibelius chose the legendary key of D minor for the work, a tonality often used by composers writing near their death or on the subject matter. Some immortal works in this collection include masterpieces such as Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, K. 626 and Schubert’s song Der Tod und das Mädchen, D.531 which was the inspiration for his later String Quartet No. 14, D.810, written when Schubert realized he was dying of a severe illness. Voces Intimæ contains a quiet, introspective darkness which most likely represents Sibelius’ intimate ponderings of his own mortality when he believed he was dying. The work’s well-known title “Intimate Voices” comes from the subtitle Sibelius etched into the third movement, and – as implied by the epitaph – the quartet embodies chamber music at its finest: the writing is dense and conversational, and each voice has an active role to play in the intricate counterpoint. The fifth movement of the quartet is a rousing finale, a virtuosic tour de force that stands alone just as effectively as it summarizes and accentuates the piece as a whole. Beginning with a simple, marked Allegro, the tempo gradually increases by the urging of the composer (Allegro, to Più Allegro, to Più Allegro Energico, and finally to Presto!) while the motivic alterations and harmonic rhythm increase in intensity. This music contains a vitality that emerges equally when played by saxophones as it does by strings.
Hail, Mary, more commonly known in Latin as Ave Maria, is an immortal text that has been utilized for centuries by many great composers. Rachmaninoff’s setting, also from his All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, follows tradition by retaining a mostly homophonic texture while the serene harmonies convey a restrained, emotive sadness and reverence.
Another standard of the quartet repertoire, Florent Schmitt’s Quatuor, Op. 102 was written in 1941 and dedicated to the Republican Garde Saxophone Quartet, although Schmitt’s writing is more cerebral, dense, and chromatic than that of his colleague Pierné’s. The first movement, a fugue, immediately harkens a sense of academia with its disjointed yet logical contrapuntal interplay steeped in French fin de siècle harmonic language. The second movement is a scherzo containing a boisterous argument between the four voices: at any point in the scherzo, one voice is set against the other three in a tense, technical dialogue. The third movement is clearly the monument of the Quatuor due to its length, and it features the most decadent harmonies of the entire work and the most soloistic treatment of all four voices. The fourth movement, one of the great finales in the saxophone quartet repertoire, implies a playful gigue with latent jazz inspiration as repetitive dotted rhythms are utilized alongside surprising and unusual syncopations throughout the movement.
The title of Franco Donatoni’s Rasch is a double entendre signifying both the work’s dedication to the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet, who commissioned the piece in 1990, as well as the overall mood of the piece: in German, rasch means ‘quickly’ or as implied by its cognate, ‘rushed.’ The overarching structure of the composition includes a large-scale dialogue between sparse, jointed articulated cells and contrasting but unusual lyricism, and these fragmentary ideas eventually coalesce into a dramatic, homorhythmic texture before the end of the work which seems to dissolve away. The tightness of Donatoni’s writing style produces an unexpected haziness as the four voices have surprisingly individual parts: in essence, the aesthetic whole of Rasch is greater than the sum of the parts and for this reason we chose to include one of our favorite live performances of the piece rather than produce a studio recording.