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Dr. Susan Fancher's performance had the effect of viewing Monet's garden on the first fine spring day – it was filled with color and surprise. Assisting her on this delectable enterprise were Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone and Dr. Ināra Zandmane on piano. They performed works by Maurice Ravel, J.S. Bach, Dorothy Chang and John Harbison. The recital took place in Baldwin Auditorium on the campus of Duke University.
Fancher introduced the program beginning with Ravel's Sonatine (1903-05), a composition in three movements written for piano and subsequently transcribed for oboe by S. Stusek. A piece that falls into his pre-war (WWI) works, the Sonatine is a favorite, not just because it works so well for the wind instrument, but for it's sheer beauty. The watery left hand of the piano with saxophone floating above transported me; I pictured myself in the Japanese garden. Fancher and Zandmane played with such sensitivity that the piece seemed to belong to the soprano saxophone. To my ears, it was perfect and Ravel would have surely approved. I reluctantly left my dream world. But there was more to come.
When two world-class players get together, one can expect magic. But how did a Baroque violin double concerto fit into this glorious spring garden of music? A good neighbor and colleague, Marsalis, playing soprano saxophone, joined Fancher and Zandmane for Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor – a favorite of string players. Their performance, articulate and sensuous, surpassed my musical expectations, possibly creating a new gold standard for modern performance. The treacherous twists and turns of the final movement and the problem of the endless bow in the slow movement – no problem. But what really set this reading apart was the musical grace and pure joy the players projected. I'm in love, once more, with a dusty old warhorse.
After the intermission, Fancher performed two more recently composed pieces for alto saxophone and piano: New Stories (2013) by Dorothy Chang and John Harbison's (1994) San Antonio. Neither piece belongs to the wild and crazy or Avant-garde, but they do exploit the capabilities of the instrument and test the player. Again, Fancher graciously spoke to the audience about the composers and their works.
Chang is a faculty member at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. According to Fancher, New Stories should be considered an important new addition to the saxophone repertoire. In four movements, the composition reveals many of Chang's influences, including Debussy's use of extended piles of thirds for the piano, whole tone passages borrowed from Asia and the motoric drive of American minimalism. What I loved about this piece was her sense of humor ("A Tall Tale Told"), boisterous outbursts of color, and the resonance with the piano. There were bits of extended performance technique tastefully placed into the third movement ("Reflection"); wobbly trills and multiphonics. But this work was accessible and easy to like for the listener on the first hearing. Fancher gave a splendid performance.
Faculty recitals are among my favorite musical offerings on the Duke campus. For a university where science, engineering and basketball hail such great attention, the strength of the music department might be considered a best-kept secret. Yet there is an abundance of high-level music performed here on a regular basis. Moving some of the wealth to Baldwin allows more of us to fit into the performance space; and parking, though not truly sufficient, is far better than for the Nelson Music Room. Following this fine performance, I felt now, more than ever, that I live in a neighborhood richly endowed with music, and not far from our own bountiful Sarah Duke Gardens.