Amstel’s sensitive dynamic control and energetic sense of ensemb

May 13

When one thinks of Yellow Springs, one thinks diversity. The 2004 Chamber Music Competition held May 2nd proved to live up to this village’s image.

This year CMYS also added an international element: one of the two finalists was the Amstel (river, beer…? yes) Quartet from Amsterdam. There are, however no strings attached to this group - the ensemble (formed in 1997) is made up entirely of saxophones. The other young, talented award-winning ensemble was the Calder Quartet from Los Angeles - a traditional fiddle variety (formed in 1998). The horns won the coin toss and stepped up to the near capacity crowd first.

This traditional saxophone ensemble (consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones) shocked and awed the audience with a wide spectrum of sounds through a brave and adventurous program. Their performance commenced with a conventional saxophone quartet sound as realised by Frenchman Jean Rivier (1896 - 1987). His Grave et Presto (1938) drew mellow sonorities from their reeds followed by jazzy pickup rhythms and lightening-fast well-coordinated septuplet passagework. This opener immediately demonstrated Amstel’s sensitive dynamic control and energetic sense of ensemble.

The works to follow would educate the audience into this instrumentation’s true capacity. Compatriot Dutch composer Peter van Onna (b. 1966) challenged the ensemble with unconventional performance techniques in The Gravity of D (1991). Based around a recurring central ‘D’ pitch, the piece explores the sonic possibilities of these instruments through a variety of performance instructions: slap tongue, slap key, rhythmic blowing and hissing, growling, un-even vibrato, humming, staccato, trilling, asymmetric meter, and a final Rhapsody in Blue-style long glissando seamlessly stretched across all four instruments (that alone would be worth the price of admission). Sonic effects ranged from eerie wind and train sounds to warbling spacey homophony.

What occurred next was truly impressive: the foursome dispensed with their music stands, stood in a semi-circle and proceeded to sway and strut to the music from memory (and I thought memory performance practice was solely bestowed on post-Liszt generation pianists)! Modern American composer Michael Torke (b. 1960) provided the saxophone quartet repertoire with an aural depiction of its title, July (1995). Although influenced by minimalist styles, this composer gleans more atmosphere out of his score through utilising a variety of interesting arpeggiated harmonies. Amstel's handling of oscillating rapid sixteenth-note passages transcended them into an audible sensation of a light summer breeze.

As if to show what just transpired was not challenging enough, the Dutch ensemble proceeded to go completely avante guarde with their performance of Greek mathematician, architect, composer Iannis Xenakis' (1922- 2001) XAS (1987). This extremely challenging work attempts to send its listeners on a roundtrip from order to chaos and back. Chaos was indeed achieved through ear-shattering screeches, bi-directional forced air, fog-horn effects and the sonic cacophony found on busy Parisian streets. While this work may not have served as a guaranteed crowd pleaser (a mild din of disdain was audible during intermission), their final selection had a better chance. Samuel Barber's (1910 - 1981) famous Adagio for Strings (1936), proved to be aural therapy for the senses. This arrangement performed by the ensemble (again from memory) displayed their ability to blend perfect homophonic textures with soaring melodies...

The Calder Quartet batted last exhibiting a more traditional repertoire with confidence and extreme technical proficiency. They came out swinging hard with the Béla Bartòk (1881 - 1945) String Quartet No. 4 (1928). All recent graduates from USC, they displayed maturity far beyond their age. Right from the opening allegro, the group exuded youthful energy, tight ensemble and impeccable intonation. The Prestissimo, con sordino second movement demonstrated marvelous sonic blend through sul tasto (over the fingerboard) and glassy sul ponticello (near the bridge) bowing effects creating at times a distant beehive-like imagery.

Cincinnati native cellist Eric Byers may well be part Hungarian. His handling of the solos in the Non troppo lento (slow) third movement showed an insightful command of the parlando rubato (Slavic speech-like style). Bartòk's night music compositional technique also shined through beautifully here simulating sounds of nature within its delicate texture.

The Bartòk pizz (vertical snapping of the string) was just one of a variety of strumming tonal techniques demonstrated in the Allegretto pizzacato fourth movement. Depending on how close to the fingerboard or bridge they plucked, a warmer or brighter sound was created (even simulating a ukulele ensemble at one point). The final movement, Allegro molto, was appropriately gruff and jaunty. Permeated with Hungarian folk tunes, asymmetrical accents, col legno bowing (percussively tapping the wood of the bow on the strings) and driving rhythm, this young ensemble adeptly brought the competition into extra innings.

Ludwig van Beethoven's (1770 - 1827) String Quartet Opus 59, No. 3 (1806) is a standard “qualifier” in the string quartet repertoire and the Calder ensemble handled it with style and grace. Passionate dynamic contrasts in the opening and third movement were sandwiched with a hypnotic elegy-like slow movement. The true “tester” arrived with the fugal final movement, Allegro molto. They took this Italian tempo indication quite seriously bringing it home at a very fast clip. Articulation and clarity were not sacrificed however - each fugue entrance raced by cleanly, voiced to perfection.

So, how is a jury to rank two fine ensembles of such differing nature - strings vs. quasi brass (apples vs. oranges)? Ensemble, musicianship and interpretation are equalising underlying factors, of course, but there are physical limitations to what each instrument can do. How is this competition truly going to support up-and-coming young ensembles of a diverse nature if they lump them all together in one category (simply assigning a tag of First and Second)? Other national chamber music competitions (The Carmel and Coleman, both of which I am a prize recipient) assign specific names to prizes in order to take into consideration the nature of instrumentation (strings vs. mixed ensemble). If this were the case here, both groups, deservingly so, would go away feeling like winners with a designated prize (regardless of insignificant differing monetary awards).

Interest in this competition is clearly growing: these two ensembles were drawn from a pool of approximately 36 applications. Clearly the level is up, and the dividing lines of excellence will draw thinner.

Mostly due to repertoire selection (well-played, lesser known works tend to yield greater rewards in competition), the Amstel Quartet walked away with first place this time. Clearly both groups were “winners” and should be proud of their accomplishments. You can “read all about it” on their web sites: and!