What is enjoyable about the Princeton University Summer Concerts Series is that people tend to come as they are on a warm summer evening — anything goes with attire and the audience has an upbeat summery attitude. Apparently the Summer Concerts committee has also taken an “anything goes” attitude toward the ensembles presented, particularly stretching the imagination of the audience in last week’s performance of the Donald Sinta Quartet. Comprised of four highly-accomplished saxophone players, the Sinta Quartet took the instrument out of its more familiar jazz setting and showed that the saxophone can be just as virtuoso a classical instrument as the violin or flute. Last Wednesday night’s concert in Richardson Auditorium took a “Then and Now” approach to the repertoire presented, alternating classical works (some arranged for saxophone quartet) and newly-commissioned pieces.
The combination of four saxophones is well known in jazz, and an element of casualness carried over as Dan Graser, Zach Stern, Joe Girard, and Danny Hawthorne-Foss sauntered onto the Richardson stage with their instruments. Freed by a lack of music stands, the members of the Sinta Quartet stood tightly together and communicated well throughout the concert, especially when passing musical fragments around among the players. The opening Quartettsatz in C minor of Franz Schubert was originally composed for string quartet, and Mr. Graser carried the long melodic lines well with the soprano saxophone. This instrument could reach quite high in register, and seemed to have two distinct colors — one for the upper register and one for the lower and richer range. The sound from the four players together was most remarkable when they played softly, capturing the Viennese flavor and subtlety of Schubert’s music.
The Sinta Quartet turned again to the string repertoire with a transcription of Barber’s timeless Adagio from String Quartet, Op. 11. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Graser described the saxophone quartet as made up like a choir (with soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone instruments) with the sound of an organ. The quartet began the Adagio almost imperceptibly, as the melodic line flowed from Mr. Graser’s soprano sax. The dynamic builds in the music were all the more dramatic because there was air behind them, and the quartet could uniformly break the lines with breath. One could hear a pin drop in the house during the rests, and tenor saxophonist Joe Girard combined with Mr. Graser for a smooth melodic duet.
The “Now” portion of the concert came from several very contemporary composers, including one commissioned by the quartet through a composition competition. Natalie Moller’s Phantoms began as if from afar, with a sound so well unified the instruments easily resembled horns. A haunting melody was played by alto saxophonist Zach Stern and one could hear more of the baritone sax from Danny Hawthorne-Foss than in previous pieces. A tenor cadenza played by Mr. Girard was definitely borrowed from jazz as Ms. Moller’s piece became sharper and more cutting toward its close.
David Maslanka’s 2006 Recitation Book draws on music from old sources for each movement, in the case of movement V, the 16th-century chorale tune “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt,” set multiple times by J.S. Bach. Mr. Maslanka’s “Fanfare/Variations on the Chorale ‘Durch Adams Fall’” recalled the majestic style of Giovanni Gabrieli, with superimposed jazz precision. Bach could never have imagined the sound of a saxophone ensemble re-interpreting his music or the musical idioms which followed the 18th century as this set of variations combined more 250 years of music history. The Sinta Quartet easily handled Baroque ornamentation, passing motives among all four instruments.
The Sinta Quartet has included film music in its repertory, with transcriptions of two selections from The Piano, scored by British composer Michael Nyman. “Here to There” and “The Promise” were played with chipper and bright attention to detail and smooth melodies. Speed Metal Organum Blues, which closed the concert, was a mix of several musical styles within the span of a minute, and one could hear the medieval organum influence, while the “blues” was led by soprano and baritone saxophones. This quick survey of musical history showed all the best aspects of the instruments and the polished manner with which the Sinta players work together.
No doubt many in the audience had not heard a saxophone quartet before, and certainly not in classical repertoire. The Princeton University Summer Concert series, known for the excellent string quartets in its series, stretched its range with this foray into saxophone ensembles, and the audience clearly enjoyed the ride.
The Princeton University Summer Concerts series concludes on Monday, July 21 with the Harlem Quartet, at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Tickets are free and can be picked up at 6 p.m. the night of the performance.