Experts, but best in Bernstein


Musica Viva

Griffith University Conservatorium of Music Theatre

Thursday November 24, 2022

(L to R) Guerino Bellarosa, Alan Luzar, Jacopo Taddei, Blaz Kemperle

Last visitors for the year from Musica Viva, this quartet of saxophones gave us a program totally made up of transcriptions. Just what you’d expect: the amount of music written for such an ensemble must be pretty small. Also what you might have anticipated was that some of these transplantations worked well enough while with others you had to wonder why someone had gone to the bother of doing such reframing. As a general observation, the evening’s second half satisfied a good deal more than the two works that we heard before interval but, regardless of the music performed, you couldn’t doubt the versatility and professionalism of these musicians.

Which is saying something, given that one of the Signum members wasn’t on this tour: Hayrapet Arakelyan, the usual alto player, was absent, his place taken by Jacopo Taddei. But then, the group isn’t (and won’t be) what it was; Arakelyan himself only joined up in 2018 and, according to his Facebook site, he has recently resigned from the Signum body.. Founded in 2006 while its members were all studying in Cologne, its original cast probably included Luzar (tenor) and Kemperle (soprano); but Bellarosa (baritone) joined the group in 2016. Before that, (according to Google and YouTube), in 2013 on a visit to India and at a recital in Turin, the alto was being played by Eric Nestler (the North Texas University academic?), the baritone by David Brand (untraceable). So the inferred idea that the group has been a consistent entity for 16 years, ever since their student days, doesn’t hold much water.

As I’ve said, such a varied background made it more impressive that their offerings on this night turned out to be so balanced and polished. Still, their introductory gambit, Bach’s Italian Concerto (as re-organized by Katsuki Tochio), depended over-much on Kemperle who yielded the top line only in the second half of the work’s Andante – for a while. And even the soprano was hard pressed on some thickly textured moments (if you can call anything in this piece anything less than pellucid) as in bars 53 to 64 of the Presto where I found it difficult to pick out who was playing what; and also earlier in the opening Allegro during a few whirling build-up moments as at bar 124. Nevertheless, the whole score proved to be an amiable romp, packed with buoyant good spirits and an ideal introduction to the sonorously homogeneous world of such a group.

Mind you, this was the final recital in the Signum’s Australian adventure (their first, apparently; well, certainly in this personnel format): Number Nine of nine, and that speaks of a goodly number of public performances to get themselves into fully operational mode.

Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto of 1924 followed, as arranged by our own Jessica Wells for the available instruments. So what did we miss, in terms of timbres? An awful lot, as it turns out: pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons as well as an oboe; two horns and a trumpet; double-basses, at least two of them; and a substantial battery of timpani, xylophone, triangle, cymbals, side drum and bass drum. At that time of his life, Weill wasn’t accommodating anyone and this concerto is a fierce declaration, the solo line extremely challenging and putting the score on a level with subsequent and greater achievements in the form; e.g. by Berg (1935), Schoenberg (1936), and Bartok 2 (1937/8).

The result was to blunt the original’s dynamism as all the necessary bite came from soloist Kristian Winther. His explosions of activity in the opening Andante con moto, like the merciless chain of semiquavers from bar 45 to bar 68 were accompanied by a bland support with a uniform sound-colour, even from the baritone’s bass-substitute. Later, the fiery explosion at bar 104 that climaxes at bar 112 after a striking four measures (almost) of double-stops impressed as dampened, lacking in vitality from wind choir and side-drum punctuation. But you could go on like this for a long time, regretting the necessary absence of the composer’s ‘sound’ and spiky instrumental complexity. What we were given was a version and, like Rimsky’s modifications of Boris, you can rail but eventually have to put up with the transformations, mainly for the sake of hearing this neglected work live.

Of course, certain parts worked very well, like the trumpet and soloist duets in the second movement’s Cadenza with Taddei (I think) taking up the brass line. As for Winther’s unaccompanied bursts, these were splendidly achieved with exemplary control and minimal attention-grabbing for the effort involved. And the deftness of ensemble from all in the Serenata section, particularly the woodwind and horn choir counter-weighting the soloist in the segment’s first half, pleased for its lightness of attack. I’d like to say the same about the last Allegro molto movement but here again the saxophones’ weight and timbral uniformity came across loud and clear when the score (original) asks for bounces rather than the punches we got. Winther was put through a grinding battery of technical tests, as were the Signum players and the interpretation preserved its unexpectedly bracing atonal energy to the final timpani strokes from Bellarosa.

We were then treated to an unexpected encore – Bloch’s Prayer, the first of his From Jewish Life trilogy for cello. Nice and throbbingly heartfelt, I’m sure, but . . . why? To show a more accessible Jewish music of 1924 than Weill’s strident concerto? Of all the oddities on this program, this insertion struck me as the big one, but the Conservatorium theatre audience (what there was of it) greeted its modal keening with something approaching relief.

The Signums (Signa?) greeted us after interval with their own arrangement of Gershwin’s Three Preludes for piano of 1926. As with the Bach, you found much here to admire: energy, familiarity with the idiom, a delineation of most of the rhythmic subtleties, and a reliance on Kemperle’s uppermost line (as well as his occasional over-blowing that amounted to flutter-tonguing). Some details in the first Allegro ben ritmico were flubbery round the edges, like the semiquaver triplets in bars 20 and 29, and you might have expected mor vehemence at the prelude’s bar 50 climax.

As for the bluesy Andante con moto, it was no such thing but more a slow adagio; however, it shared around the honours and you could relish each member’s vibrato in music that suited the instruments. As anticipated, the concluding Allegro worked least well of the set; put simply, there’s no replacing the piano’s percussiveness in places like the martellato demi-semiquavers at bar 49, or the spry arpeggiated chords at bar 20, or the (sometimes) penetrating brilliance of the final 8 bars. Not that any of this did Gershwin any serious damage but you missed the original’s sparks and coiled-spring ambience in the outer movements, the last in particular.

If for nothing else, we can thank the Signum ensemble for its delivery of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Once again, these weren’t the original excerpts-with-modifications as arranged by the composer: in this version by Sylvain Dedenon, some pieces survived, others were omitted and replaced by numbers from the musical. The relicts were the Prologue, Cool (but not the fugue), Mambo and Somewhere; the omissions were the Scherzo, Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Rumble and Finale; in their place appeared Something’s Coming, Tonight, America and I Feel Pretty. Even so, what the players put out succeeded without question, more than anything else heard on this occasion.

This might have been because of Bernstein’s own score – its nature and its detail – which uses saxophones and their sound colours to fine effect. But the French composer’s instrumentation also brought out the best in what was available, beginning with excellent layering work in the Prologue (complete with finger-snapping) and ending with a satisfying version of the frenetic to round out the celebration, not ending in curtain-fall depression as does the musical itself (and Bernstein’s dances). Indeed, the only problem with this last-mentioned was the inability to mimic the composer’s screeching trumpet top line in its upper register at the most vehement stage. I think most of us welcomed the introduction of Tonight, which is a feast for saxophone players at all levels of register, but I wasn’t that happy about I Feel Pretty which sticks out from the original score as contrived and dependent on strings to underpin its full mawkishness, so reminiscent of The Sound of Music. Further, without the fugue, Cool impresses as rather ordinary jazz, dated even by 1957 standards.

Michel Camilo’s Caribe was originally scheduled to end this occasion; instead, we heard Correa’s hackneyed Spain, arranged by Slovenian jazz master-musician Izidor Leitinger. After the worrying theft – sorry, reconstruction – of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez slow movement – the Signum players entered into the main (original) body of the piece with an excellent demonstration of syncopated block chords and a confident, thrusting impetus. I don’t think much of the piece itself but that’s obviously my loss because plenty of players and audiences can’t get enough of it.

One of the performers – Kemperle or Luzar – addressed us near the end and sort of promised an encore: their last work before flying home the next morning. But having already lived through my Bloch, I didn’t stick around to hear this addition. Yes, it was something like suffering from a case of surfeit – of the Signum sound, which is certainly agreable for a while but over-rich over two hours.