Sunday, January 6, 2013

Concert review - The Baroque Saxophone

Happy New Year everyone!
It has been a long time since I blogged here, but I needed a break from everything non-essential and, as much fun as it can be,  I'm afraid my blogging falls into that category.  No matter, I am turning over a new leaf and resolve to do this just a little bit more this year.

I started my new year off right by attending "The Baroque Saxophone" concert at Douglas College on January 3rd. When we got to the hall, my daughter looked at the program and said, "Dad, I didn't think they had saxophones in the 17th century." She was quite right of course, but Colin MacDonald proved convincingly that the instrument is right at home in baroque music.  Indeed, as you can see from the picture here, his cavalier-style moustache and gorgeous curling locks make it seem as though he himself would be very much at home in this era. This is Colin's everyday appearance. Yes, he always looks this good and yes, I am jealous of all that hair. Now on to the important stuff....

On this concert he was joined by cellist, Stefan Hintersteininger and Christina Hutten at the harpsichord. The program comprised 3 works of Vivaldi: Concerto in F Major (RV 455), Sonata for Cello (RV 46), and Concerto in E Minor (484), Handel's Trio  Sonata in G minor (HWW 387), and a new work by Colin, Folie à Deux.

The concert featured both soprano and baritone saxophones. I have heard a number of players tackle baroque repertoire on the soprano before. In the world of classical saxophone, it is a relatively straightforward and not uncommon leap to adapt oboe and flute repertoire to the instrument. The baritone sax, however, is another animal entirely. In MacDonald's hands, the instrument sounds like a giant bassoon; it is beautifully warm and rich and fluid with none of the edge and grit that one might expect from the jazz heritage of the horn. As both a solo voice and in the continuo role, the sound of the bari sax seemed to blend effortlessly with the ensemble, especially with the harpsichord in the largo section of Sonata IV and in playing harmonized melodies in duet with the cello in the Handel Trio Sonata.  The effortlessness was, of course, a beautiful illusion made possible by a level of virtuosity that was deeply impressive to this musician.

Having heard Stefan Hintersteininger's playing only in the context of 'new music' (we both play in Colin's Pocket Orchestra) I was very much impressed with his baroque playing, probably because his interpretation is just the way I like to hear music of this period: rhythmically driving and not too much in the way of romantic vibrato. In the continuo role, Stefan was very much the engine of the trio. He manages a spritely and light, reedy articulation very much reminiscent of a period instrument performance. Ms. Hutten's playing was completely new to me and equally enjoyable.  She has a wonderful sense of the decorative aspects of continuo playing and played a delicate and detailed foil to Stefan's relentless drive, sometimes pushing for a little space and interpretive stretching of phrase.  Best of all, she had meticulously tuned the harpsichord.  The frigid winds that swirl about the concert hall at Douglas College must have made that a tricky task! Something like tuning may sound trivial, but in fact this is a notoriously difficult thing to do well and, to my ear, often lacking in some other baroque performances I have seen recently.

For me, the real highlight of the concert was the premier of Colin's new work, Folie à Deux, a piece loosely based on the renaissance melody, La Folia. His style as a composer is very much in the tradition of minimalist and post-minimalist composers such as Nyman, Adams, and Glass, but Colin builds effectively on this tradition adding a welcome measure of melodicism, emotional expansiveness, and a more rapid development and transformation of repeated material.  The middle section of the work featured the timbral revelation of pizzicato cello, harpsichord and slap-tongued soprano saxophone.  I have heard and played a lot of music, but this was a completely new and delicious treat for my ears.  The texture and dance-like rhythms evoked the spirit of the baroque, but with completely fresh accents of odd meters and jazz-like harmonies. As someone who has worked a lot on music that attempts to blend traditions, I can testify that a true fusion of this sort is not easily achieved.  Once again Colin's meticulous musicianship and virtuosity as a player and composer made this potentially difficult mixture sound absolutely effortless and natural.

Colin is one of those musicians that really make me feel happy and privileged to live and make music in Vancouver. If you haven't heard his playing or composing yet you can read all about him and listen to his music here at his website.


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