Concert at Sarnia Concert Association, Canada

Nov 6

Amstel Quartet Review by David Nichols

On his 199th birthday, Adolphe Sax would have been beaming like a glittering saxophone if he could have heard the Canadian premier of the Amstel Quartet. The Belgian instrument maker invented the saxophone in 1846. The instrumental concept was to create an instrument with the volume of a brass instrument and the flexibility of a woodwind instrument. The tone colour of the saxophone can be heard as a blend of the clarinet and French horn. Sax also made improvements to the bass clarinet, invented the ophicleide (a large brass instrument), and did extensive work on refining the valve systems on brass instruments.

At the beginning of the evening, some of our subscribers commented that perhaps the stage crew had forgotten to set up the music stands. During the after-concert reception, the Amstels talked about a previous concert in which one of the players had forgotten to place his music on the stand and was forced to perform (very successfully) from memory. This experience led to the tradition of performing all their concerts from memory.

The program opened with a graceful procession onto the stage while playing “Floating Clouds” by Tan Dun. It was a beautiful transition from the outside world to the concert hall.

Tan Dun was born in Hunan province in China. Despite the constraints of the Cultural Revolution, he eventually was able to leave his job as a rice planter to study at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. In 1986 he moved to New York and was strongly influenced by the music of John Cage, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. His film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won an Academy Award and a Grammy Award.

The third movement from Symphony No. 3 is one of Brahms’ most famous compositions. It is a musical tapestry of Brahms’ complex relationship with Robert and Clara Schumann. The arrangement by Remco Jak created a beautiful string orchestra texture.

The Nyman String Quartet No. 2 was commissioned for a dance based on the Indian Bharata Natyan tradition. Western classical melodies and harmonies are combined with Indian rhythm patterns. Michael Nyman is one of Britain’s most innovative and celebrated composers.

Guillermo Lago’s, Ciudades, written for the Amstel quartet demonstrated the full orchestral brilliance that can be achieved with this medium. The syncopated rhythms of Addis Ababa were strikingly together.

The second half of the program began with another processional, but this time it started at the back of the theatre. Apswoude’s arrangement of the Chromatic Fantasy created rich pipe organ sonorities and the Amstels perfectly tapered their chord endings evoking luscious cathedral acoustics. The spatial entrance gave the audience an intimate perspective of hearing what the player hears.

Ravel described his Pavane pour une infante defunte as an evocation of a pavane that might have been danced by a little princess long ago at the Spanish court. The pavane was a slow processional dance that was very popular in the courts of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The original piano version of Ravel’s Pavane was composed in 1899 and dedicated to the Princess Edmond de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer), a French-American musical patron, and the daughter of the nineteenth-century sewing-machine magnate, Isaac Singer. The orchestral arrangement by which it is known today wasn’t premiered for another eleven years.

The Amstels’ teacher at the Amsterdam Conservatory told them that Mozart was the only composer who sounds “bad” on the saxophone and that to make an arrangement of Mozart’s music for their quartet would be futile. It seems as if Mozart always gets criticism! Even Glenn Gould said that Mozart who died at the age of 35 was a composer who “died too late!!” Regardless, the arrangement by Remco Jak was very successful. The Adagio and Fugue was originally written for string orchestra, and the fugue was actually first composed for two pianos. So, it’s a composition that has really made the rounds!

After the final chord of the fugue, the audience seemed lost in the music and the applause for what they presumed would be the final selection of the program began very slowly. Perhaps it was because the ending wasn’t as dramatic as some of the earlier works on the program, or that this is an unusual style for Mozart. It didn’t take long, however, for the applause to strengthen and develop into a well-deserved standing ovation.

“We have an encore,” declared Remco, and what an encore it was! Samuel Barber (1910-1981) was one of the most celebrated 20th century composers. He was only 27 when he wrote the Adagio. “Simplice e bella” was how Toscanini, the flamboyant conductor of the NBC Orchestra described Barber’s music. Adagio for Strings began as one movement of Barber’s String Quartet No. 1 which, at its premier, excited a standing ovation right in the middle of the performance. History repeated itself with the Amstel Quartet’s second ovation of the night.

Marilyn Mason commented in her opening remarks that we were in for a Dutch treat, and we sure weren’t disappointed. The Amstel Quartet is a remarkable blend of immense talent and large-hearted expression.