Classical review: This saxophonist’s a class act

The saxophone is well known as a jazz and rock instrument. On Saturday night at Turner Recital Hall, saxophonist Brian Utley confirmed that it’s also a great solo classical instrument.

utleyA teacher at the Blair School of Music, Utley has long championed contemporary classical works for the saxophone. Not surprisingly, two of the major pieces on his 70-minute program were written specifically for him.

In Turn of Events (2011) for saxophone and piano, composer David Froom set out to write a piece that avoided obvious saxophone associations. There’s no overt jazz or rock in this work. Froom also steered clear of what he described as the “French classical 1930s sound” – think Boléro.

Arranged in one continuous movement (with five discrete sections) and lasting about 15 minutes, Turn of Events explored the saxophone’s virtuoso capabilities and wide expressive range. The piece opened with a short, glistening cadenza for solo saxophone that quickly segued into an energetic and aggressive first section. The saxophone and piano then quickly engaged in musical combat, with the two musicians tossing barbed passages back and forth. When the tension finally subsided, the music became gentle and gauzy. At times, the saxophone almost sounded like a clarinet.

In the second and fourth sections, the music was slow, wistful and ardent. The third section, in contrast, was a spiky scherzo, while the conclusion was an extroverted virtuoso romp. Utley and his pianist, Melissa Rose, gave this music a worthy Tennessee premiere. The duo played fast passages with high drama and vitality. They performed slow sections with nuance and warm expression. Froom, who heads the music department at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, was in the audience and took a bow after the performance.

Composer Stephen Lias’ Five Characters from David Copperfield (2003), which opened the concert’s second half, pushed the envelope on saxophone timbre and technique. Arranged for unaccompanied saxophone, the piece used a wide array of sound effects to create vivid images of well-known Dickens characters.

Bent notes immediately suggested the serpentine side of Uriah Heep. The sound of air rushing through the horn called to mind the orphan Emily’s childhood by the sea. The music’s gloomy modes and assertive tongue pops captured the personality of the eccentric Mister Micawber. Utley did justice to all of these characters, playing with color, imagination and a commanding technique.

mroseSaturday’s program featured two other works: Wijnand van Klaveren’s Sonate à la manière de Francis Poulenc (1998); and Pierre Sancan’s Lamento et Rondo (1973). Klaveren’s three-movement Sonate embraced the elegant, jazz-infused classicism that was popular with French composers such as Ravel and Poulenc. Rose and Utley played this piece with grace, taste and considerable polish. They were especially memorable in the slow Interlude, which they transformed into an impassioned song.

Sancan’s Lamento et Rondo was the most straightforward piece on the program. It was also the most immediate and lyrically appealing. Rose and Utley played the Lamento with just the right amount of mournful sensitivity. They spun out the Rondo’s playful fast notes with élan. It was a thoroughly satisfying performance that left no doubt about the saxophone’s rightful place in the gallery of classical instruments.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.