The Blue Ridge Community College Concert Series, directed by Kevin Ayesh, presented the Dasch Saxophone Quartet for its 5th installment in the 2013-14 concert series. What would appear as a homogenous consort on the surface is in fact an ensemble capable of creating a wide range of soundscapes. Thomas Auditorium on Blue Ridge Community College's campus provided an excellent venue for this ensemble – small enough to capture the subtle nuances and variations in color created by four saxophones, yet large enough to allow all four performers to play to the highest amplitude of their dynamic range. The level of musicianship displayed by the quartet (graduate students of Taimur Sullivan at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts), coupled with the pristine acoustics was, unfortunately, experienced by a meager gathering of less than 20 people. The few who attended, however, compensated for audience volume with unanimous enthusiasm.
Only seconds upon gracing the stage, all four saxophonists launched into the riveting first movement of György Ligeti's Sechs Bagatellen. Originally scored for woodwind quintet, the first movement is a clever musical treatment of nothing more than a tetrachord, with the rhythmic interplay and distinct intervallic configurations providing an aurally electrifying jolt. The ensemble's cohesiveness was demonstrated through the players' uncompromising attention to blend, dynamic control, and coordination of rhythmic subdivisions. This was especially evident in the second movement, when tenor saxophonist Shawna Pennock and baritone saxophonist Chemie Ching seamlessly combined the interlocking ostinato into a flowing stream of sound. In the hands of even the most capable players, the constant and angular rhythmic groupings would have provided the greatest challenge, and both Penneck and Ching overcame this, creating an effortless sounding perpetual stream of pulses.
In the following arrangement of Puccini's "Crisantemi," all four performers displayed sensitive musicality, evoking a myriad of subtle timbre changes on their instruments. In the Ligeti, Alastair Wright's opening notes on the soprano saxophone were initially out of tune, the unwarranted overtones in his upper register obfuscating his otherwise passionate rendition of the soaring melody. He had solved this issue judiciously by the Puccini, his now-precise intonation and dulcet-like tone beautifully gilding the other three performer's warm and unified tone with a luminescent sheen. This performance demonstrated the smoothly connected and legato style intentions of the performers. The only balance issue arose occasionally when Ching overpowered Wright's melody, but this was largely due to poor orchestration on the arranger's part, as even the best saxophonists constantly struggle with playing softly in the lower range of the baritone saxophone.
"Mille Regretz," a beautiful Josquin chanson from 1500, was captured by the quartet with breathtaking lament and serenity. Josquin's gentle homorhythmic texture was gracefully executed with exceptional control by all four performers into a beautiful organ-like texture. This composition was a logical prelude for the following selection, David Ludwig’s Josquin Microludes, a fusion of the thematic material from Mille Regretz with contemporary colors and harmonies. The opening tone clusters in the first two movements created a paradoxically gorgeous white noise, the compact intervals and dynamic fluctuations never deterring the ensemble as they maintained a meditative atmosphere throughout. In the third movement, Lydian flourishes generated by Penneck and alto saxophonist Daniel Arocho coalesced into a breathtaking wall of sound before briefly resolving into a nostalgic rendition of the Josquin theme.
The next selection, a transcription of Dvořák's popular String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96 (the "American Quartet"), showcased the ensemble's collective sense of lyricism with its abundance of pentatonic flourishes. Each voice in the consort stood out, especially Pennock, who rendered the viola part from the original version with a rich and powerful yet lightly effervescent vibrato. The duet between Wright and Arocho in the development possessed a sweet and refined sound, a velvety dialogue that culminated in a magnificent cadence on the recapitulation. Immediately following the Dvořák, all four artists were afforded the opportunity to demonstrate their agile facility in Jean Rivier's "Presto," a staple of the saxophone quartet repertoire notorious for its titular tempo description.
The penultimate work performed for the evening, David Beidenbender's, You've Been Talking In Your Sleep, offers a musical representation of the unpredictable and visceral reactions of "sleep talking." The opening call and response of gently descending portamentos between Arocho and Penneck was abruptly interrupted by a comical pop from Ching's baritone saxophone, Beidenbender's playful musical interpretation of the erratic speech patterns uttered by a person talking in his or her sleep. Ching's ensuing cadenza transitioned into a polrhythmic dialogue, where each member of the group engaged in an aggressively syncopated argument interrupted only by rapid octatonic arpeggios. The ensemble's rhythmic acuity and attention to dynamic contrasts gave the audience a thrilling ride before Pennock unleashed a rich cadential note with expertly controlled length of sustain and assurance of pitch. Shortly thereafter, Wright and Arocho simultaneously executed the tempo change with flawless precision, while Pennock and Ching navigated the challenging off-beat syncopations with relentless accuracy.
The closing selection, a transcription of Scott Joplin's "The Cascades," provided no surprise, as ragtime piano literature is often a typical inclusion on a saxophone quartet concert. This reviewer is often underwhelmed by the translation of this solo medium to a quartet but was pleasantly surprised by the musical sensitivity every player showed towards rhythmic bounce, blend (especially in the inner voices of the harmonies), and sectional transitions. The standing ovation the ensemble received was well deserved. This quartet superbly demonstrated their versatility and musicianship, doing great justice to a wide range of musical genres spanning centuries, and left this reviewer wanting to hear more!