When most people talk about saxophones they rarely speak of them in a classical-music context. Jazz is usually on their minds, with names of players like Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Lester Young or even (shudder) Kenny G rolling off their tongues. Or perhaps they mention that funky-butt thing that Maceo Parker used to do with James Brown, or the blues riffing of A.C. Reed on sessions by Junior Wells and all those other Chicago blues cats. Claude Debussy, Alexander Glazunov and Jacques Ibert have no place in such conversations ... or do they?
Adolphe Sax did not create his instrument for jazz players; it was manufactured with classical musicians and marching bands in mind, and it was among these kinds of artists that Sax actively promoted the unique tonal qualities of his invention. Debussy, Glazunov and Ibert were some of the composers impressed with the aural possibilities of the saxophone and who wrote works specifically for it. Still, when popular music forces grabbed hold of the instrument, it seemed to disappear from the tonal palette of many composers.
In these enlightened times, the saxophone quartet is making a comeback of sorts with groups like the Prism Saxophone Quartet and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet exploring the outer limits of classical discipline and leaving the middle ground to outfits like the Amherst Saxophone Quartet. That doesn't mean that ASQ is abandoning the cutting-edge of 20th-century music to the other ensembles, but it does mean that a niche exists for musicians who wish to expose the past while exploring the future. This approach enables the ASQ to play both sides of the field.
Since their beginnings 21 years ago in western New York, the group has tailored their concerts to fit the site and the audience, working at craft shows and in malls, in addition to playing such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. Their natural rapport with audiences enables the ASQ to carry off the difficult balancing act of playing for the high brow and the blue collar without toadying to either.
Founding member Stephen Rosenthal notes that there are "over 500 pieces" in their current repertoire (and more than twice that in their library), covering a variety of styles: arrangements of Mozart classics, freshly minted works and standards of the saxophone quartet genre like Glazunov's "Quartet for Saxophones." The group also worked closely with Eubie Blake for a while and, as a result, have a lot of "Tin Pan Alley" and ragtime works in their oeuvre.
ASQ performs during the Florida International Festival in Daytona Beach, including gratis concerts on Saturday and Sunday, July 24 and 25, at various venues. (Search for all events in the Florida International Festival.) But the show to catch is Thursday, July 29, at Embry-Riddle Instructional Center. This concert features the group by themselves and with invited area saxophonists (solid amateurs with a smattering of professionals) playing ASQ pieces.
"It's an opportunity for lots and lots of people to come in and play with us," says Rosenthal, "probably making chamber music much more the way it was originally intended, where everybody will be playing for everybody else.