Sax appeal on display at the Forum

NCSQBY PETER HUMMERS, OUTER BANKS SENTINEL | The New Century Saxophone Quartet demonstrated the success of Adolphe Sax‘s invention: He wanted to create the most versatile brass instrument – and the loudest.

The Outer Banks Forum stage at the First Flight High School held only four music stands and four bottles of water Saturday night. Nary an amplifier or microphone could be seen. Check, for Adolphe’s second desired attribute. The four members of the NCSQ easily proved the first.

Michael Stephenson, soprano saxophone, Chris Hemingway, alto, Stephen Pollock, tenor, and Wayne Leechford, baritone, took on composers from Johann Sebastian Bach (born 1685) to Lenny Pickett (b. 1954). The resulting concert was a revelation.

The genius of J.S. Bach, who died 91 years before the sax was invented, nonetheless embraced the curious brass woodwind that he would never see. Although his Art of Fugue was probably intended utimately for keyboard (Bach was a virtuoso organist) he composed it using open scoring, where each voice is written on its own staff. That made it perfect for a group of four instruments ranging from soprano to baritone – such as the NCSQ, who ran with it.

Contrapunctus I, II, IV and IX highlighted the range of the four instruments onstage. Each movement, or “counterpoint,” is like a “round,” where one player begins playing, one bar later the next instrument starts at the beginning, and so on. But in a fugue the subsequent parts are variations of the previous ones, which also need to mesh with them, and the NCSQ filled the hall with intricate, elegant and lively music.

The differences between the four saxes became apparent, from the high voice of the soprano to the thick foundation of the baritone. The sound was warmer than brass but stronger than other woodwinds. (The saxophone is classified as a woodwind, for its reeded mouthpiece, not as a brass instrument, though that’s usually what it’s made of.)

A happy surprise was the music of Jean-Baptiste Singelèe (b. 1812), whose very rich and melodic music seems written for the sax – because it was: Singelèe was a friend of Adolphe Sax. The NCSQ played his Premier Quatuor, Op. 53, which may have been the first music written for the new instrument.

The evening was rounded off with the music of modern composers Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Astor Piazzolla and Lenny Pickett, who used more of the modern vernacular that most saxophone players grew up with. Typically, the members of the NCSQ began playing rhythm and blues and jazz, but like other jazz players (Winton Marsalis, Chick Corea et al.) became entranced by the beauty and challenge of classical music.

Pickett, the “Saturday Night Live” musical director, wrote his modernist Saxophone Quartet No. 2 for the NCSQ using much of that vernacular. The first movement (“Moderato”) is a “low-down” blues, along the lines of Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” The minimalist “Largo” movement includes an obligatto inspired by J.S. Bach (yes, it’s an interesting piece) and the “Allegro” movement is a synthesis of the first two: African rhythms overlaid with mathematical counterpoint like that in The Art of Fugue.

When music detaches itself from its source it takes on the universality of the cosmos and becomes like the sounds of nature, but nature with a story to tell. The specific instrumentation is then almost irrelevant, be it a penny whistle or an orchestra. The brilliant music of the NCSQ flew around the auditorium, engaging and moving the audience, many of whom nodded in time to it with eyes closed, perfectly happy.

By the way, the next Outer Banks Forum concert will feature world-renowned composer and classical-music parodist Professor Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach), who has written music himself for the NCSQ. Pollock requested the audience pass along a message to the professor from them: “Tell him, ‘Hey, man.'”