Bach to the Sax

Free-associate with me for a moment. If I say "Bach," what musical instrument comes to mind? Harpsichord? Violin, perhaps? If I say "John Philip Sousa," you think of pomp and trumpets, cymbals crashing, and things red, white and blue. But if I say "saxophone," what comes to mind? Stan Getz ... Sonny Rollins....? Or just anybody associated with the world of jazz? But would you imagine Tchaikovsky? Or Rimski-Korsakov? Definitely not. To some music lovers, "classical saxophone" is an oxymoron, because, well ... saxophone players are supposed to swing, and how can you swing to Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1?

As the classical saxophone quartet Catalyst has no doubt discovered, musical instruments can be stereotyped as easily as rock and roll musicians whom listeners know only from MTV. But this unusual ensemble -- made up of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonists studying at the University of Houston Moores School of Music -- made a believer out of me and a bunch of others who saw them at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension last Sunday afternoon.

Think about it. These musicians play an instrument that wasn't invented until the 1840s, long after the symphony orchestra, as we know it, was complete. There are relatively few orchestral pieces written with the saxophone in mind. And the few that have parts for saxophone -- Ravel's Bolero and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition -- might have a measly 12 bars for the barroom horn. "Just enough to add color," explains Catalyst coach Karen Wylie.

The opening number on Catalyst's program looked ambitious. It promised all three movements of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. Maybe an overly ambitious choice. The group seemed to struggle through the first two movements, finally picking up the distinct set of baroque voices by the concluding "Allegro." This movement is especially familiar to Garrison Keillor fans, but a little hackneyed by now from years of Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts of the opening theme to A Prairie Home Companion. They followed with Clair de Lune, a Debussy greatest hit written for piano. The piece started well but could have benefited from a little more rehearsal. The song's title means "moonlight," but it was difficult envisioning it during this rendition. It was occasionally a little distracting when a couple of the members prompted each other with nods and eye cues to remain in sync.

When the group continued with a number written specifically for a saxophone quartet, I thought I was hearing, well, a different group. They played the more dissonant and contemporary, five-movement Quatuor, by Aleksandr Glazunov. This is a huge stylistic jump from Debussy's distinctively French romantic classic. Ryan Agard's tenor and Vicky Dominguez's alto were remarkable during "Variation III -- a la Chopin," and the concluding "Scherzo" rapidly danced away all memories of the concert's lackadaisical start.

These players no longer sounded like students during Alfred Desenclos's "Poco Largo Ma Risoluto," another true sax original. The musicians and the instruments seemed to feel more at home with the melody's sad dissonance. They stepped up the pace, warming up beautifully to the number's complicated phrasing. Here, we got tastes of the distinctive sax voices. Wheeler's soprano was impressive, energizing Dominguez for her wailing, sad bars, and Jason Bird's baritone playing was solid.

The group truly cooked -- would you believe it -- for Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No. 1 and Dvorak's Czech Suite. During the first, Wheeler switched his soprano sax for an alto, which proved an effortless transition. Bird's tenor did justice to the great Russian, and that goes to show you there's no logic to relegating this instrument to strictly jazz pieces. The group did even better with the Czech Suite. All four voices effortlessly echoed one another and all were polished here, particularly the soprano.

A few nice touches really capped the performance. Returning to the stage for a couple of encores, the four retired their black suit jackets and chose to stand rather than sit. Again using two altos, tenor and baritone, they treated us to Henry Mancini's "Theme from The Pink Panther," trying to loosen up the crowd a bit. But it wasn't until they commenced an outrageous "When the Saints Go Marching In" that the audience started to relax a little. Wheeler outdid himself here, effortlessly screaming the spiritual's melodies. There was a fine buildup in the program, which started slowly but took off solidly after the second number.

The members of Catalyst are pros, by the way, paid by the Church of the Ascension for their performance. After I'd heard the full program, I wasn't surprised to learn that they have managed to snatch two highly prestigious chamber music awards from Juilliard, Eastman and Manhattan music school participants. "Classical saxophone?" No oxymoron here, not after hearing these four play Tchaikovsky.


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