If any classical ensemble can vie for the oddest instrument combination, it is the Ryoanji Duo, made up of guitarist Robert Nathanson and saxophonist (primarily alto) Frank Bongiorno, both from the Music Faculty of UNC-Wilmington. The name "Ryoanji" comes from the name of the famous "Dragon Temple" in Kyoto, Japan and was given them by the composer who wrote their first commissioned work after contemplating the Temple's famous rock garden.
According to the two, there are seven original compositions for this combination, of which they commissioned five, and we heard four of these in the Sights and Sounds on Sunday Series on July 8th at the N.C. Museum of Art.
The concert substantiated our frequently expressed contention that most composers after the Baroque wrote with specific instruments in mind, and that transcriptions rarely work well, especially with such unusual instruments as the sax. The Sicilienne from Gabriel Fauré's Pelleas et Melisande, originally for cello and piano, just didn't sound right; nor did the cantilena from Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, originally for wordless soprano. Part of the problem is that it is difficult for the sax to achieve a smooth legato dynamics; decrescendos, for example, seldom play out to their logical conclusion.
But the original works were different. Foremost was the world premiere of Images of China by Jing Jing Luo Haven. Its four movements are a clever and quite successful bridging of the gap between oriental modes and Western tonality. Ms. Haven demonstrated a good sense of humor, especially in the last movement, Drunken Man, in which sax and guitar perform a limping hocket (a medieval form in which the notes of a single melodic line are batted back and forth between two or more voices).
Daniel Worley's Rock Garden, also commissioned by the Duo, was less successful. It is an attempt to blend rock rhythms into a somewhat atonal framework but was not convincing on either account. But David Kechley's Driveline: A Power Walk for Guitar and Saxophone, made excellent use of the unusual instrument combination to express his sense of humor. In it, a single melody is run through many variations and permutations. The composer, who lives in Seattle on a lakefront, watches from his window as the power-walkers rush by on the path. Bongiorno's virtuosic flourish at the end was spectacular, suggesting that he is probably a fantastic jazz player.
Then came the encore, a transcription for guitar and soprano sax of the third movement, alla Turca, from Mozart's Piano Sonata in A, K.331. We suggest that the Duo scrub this piece. It was shrill and silly, with the original melodic line strangely altered in places.
The Sights and Sounds on Sunday series has been living up to expectation, providing a venue for many different and often unusual North Carolina music groups. This was surely one of the oddest and rarest to date, but well worth the listening. We hope Nathanson and Bongiorno will be able to commission many more new works, because only through works written specifically for this instrument combination will their music-making thrive.
Our readers have often asked us what happens when we disagree. Well, here's a good case. Joe liked the concert; Elizabeth [Kahn], had deep reservations and thinks the sax ought to remain a jazz instrument or an occasional source of orchestral color as in Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky.