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The Joys of Sax (And Other Instruments of Pleasure)

New York
Chapel, Christ Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie, New York
09/17/2011 -  
Aaron Copland: Quiet City (rearranged by Mr. Brellochs)
Leo Ornstein: Ballade for saxophone and piano
Robert Aldridge: Sound Moves Blues
Jean-Marie Depelsenaire: Dialogue
John Worley: Sonata for Alto Saxophone and piano
Lawson Lunde: Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and piano
Seymour Barab: Suite for Trumpet, Alto Saxophone and piano

Christopher Brellochs, Paul Cohen (Saxophones), Mitchell Kriegler (Clarinet), Donald Batchelder (Trumpet), Allison Brewster Franzetti (Piano)

M. Kriegler, A. Brewster Franzetti, C. Brellochs, D. Batchelder
(© Coco T. Dawg)

Following in the path of Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg etc, Aaron Copland, already highly successful in 1938, had no hesitation in writing incidental music for the theater, though was unfortunate in choosing a play about urban life, Irwin Shaw’s Quiet City. Even though a young Elia Kazan directed, it never got onto Broadway, and the music was almost forgotten.

Forgotten saxophonist Christopher Brellochs resurrected the music, made a CD, and gave its Poughkeepsie (and probably New York State) premiere last night in a 130-year-old church.

True, Quiet City was resurrected by Copland as a nine minute orchestral work. But Mr. Brellochs used the original economical orchestration (trumpet, clarinet doubling on bass clarinet, saxophone and piano), re-arranging the individual pieces to make it one work. (He also confesses to handing some of the trumpet music to the clarinet, “because even trumpet players have to breathe sometime”).

The result is hardly major Copland, but the Quiet City completion shows Copland at the beginning of his “painting” career. He had started as a serious jazz composer, ended life a reluctant atonalist, but in the middle wrote his most successful works, picturing rural and urban America.

The piece started with the familiar trumpet motto, repeated several times like a leitmotif. Forays into livelier sections encompassed more color than one would expect. Donald Batchelder’s C trumpet (achieving a penetrating sound in the excellent acoustics of the chapel), used several mutes to change the color, and clarinetist Mitchell Kriegler switched to the bass clarinet.

One missed the cor anglais of Copland’s popular work, but that was symphonic music. Obviously the original play was more atmosphere than drama (much like Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, for which Kurt Weill wrote a more substantial score), but the background music was effective enough. Like Copland’s film scores, Quiet City must have served its purpose. And Mr. Brellochs served Copland’s purpose in its revitalization.

Poughkeepsie itself has its charms as an old pre-Revolutionary town (with the friendliest people I’ve ever met). But I doubt if they can hold so many virtuosi in one sitting. Both clarinet and trumpet are players in New York’s City Opera and American Ballet Company, pianist Allison Brewster Franzetti is a frequent Grammy nominee for her CDs of contemporary music, and Christopher Brellochs himself is a famed soloist, recording artist, scholar and pedagogue.

P. Cohen (© Coco T. Dawg)

The other saxophonist, Paul Cohen, is equally renowned in American circles, and he played two splendid works. A Ballade by Leo Ornstein–a composer who simply dropped out of creation long before he died at the age of 108–was played on Mr. Cohen’s alto sax, with a lovely lyrical sense, but it was Ms. Franzetti’s accompaniment which was absolutely dazzling.

Mr. Cohen showed up later with a soprano saxophone for a work by Lawson Lunde. I had frequently heard this instrument on recordings by Sydney Bechet, but sadly had never seen it played. Its tininess gives one a jolt, as if Mr. Cohen was on a toy piano. But the fingering especially in a fireworks finale, was amazingly intricate.

Mr. Brellochs showed his greatness with the very jazzy Sound Moves Blues, and a Baroque piece with trumpet by Jean-Marie Depelsenaire, as well as the final piece, Seymore Barab’s Suite for Trumpet, Alto Saxophone and Piano, with its more than subtle hints of circuses and Stravinsky.

In a way, the program was surprising in that one does not anticipate great things with an evening of “serious” sax, yet the music was inventive, far more challenging for artists than audience. On the other hand, the saxophone does have its limits. Instinctively, one imagines either those fuzzy, wavey, oh so sensual sounds from either 52nd Street jazz (Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul, like the film Casablanca, cannot be bettered with time), or urbane Gallic music.

That seemed no problem with Mr. Brellochs or his talented friends, who had the fingers and breaths which transcended any perceived limitations, unveiling unique notes and sounds.

Harry Rolnick



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