Who needs violins, harpischords, organs, and pianos?

Aug 21

[MUSIC REVIEW] Amstel Quartet, The Clark

The Amstel Quartet
August 7, 2007

Remco Jak, soprano saxophone
Olivier Sliepen, alto saxophone
Bas Apswoude, tenor saxophone
Ties Mellema, baritone saxophone

review by SETH ROGOVOY, editor-in-chief and critic-at-large, BERKSHIRE LIVING Magazine

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., August 8, 2007) -- Who needs violins, harpischords, organs, and pianos?

For that matter, who needs a symphony orchestra?

For one night at least, that's the sensation a listener took away after being bathed in the vibrant colors and gorgeous textures of the Amsterdam-based Amstel Quartet, in a concert at The Clark.

In an artfully programmed concert that had built-in structure and symmetry among six numbers spanning the early-seventeenth to late-twentieth centuries, the quartet jumped from works by JS Bach to Philip Glass, from the Russian Alexander Glazunov to the Dutch Merlign Twaalfhoven.

The concert began with a twelve-year-old piece by American composer Michael Torke called July, a fitting choice as it emanated from the school of minimalism (and the concert program ended officially with Philip Glass's Concerto for Saxophone Quartet, written the same year) but also incorporated some lovely lyricism.

Jan P. Sweelinck's Chromatic Fantasy was a transcription of the seventeenth century Dutch composer's exercise for harpsichord. As its name implies, it relied on the simple beauty of chromatic scales and interlocking counterpoint, and the quartet was at its best in this sort of playing, where the four parts became greater than their unitary sum.

The second half of the concert opened with Gram of Time, a short piece by contemporary Dutch composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven, which seemed to come from the school of Ligeti in its abstract spontaneity and unscaled music of the spheres. It was a work of incredibly surprise and beauty, with notes and patterns emerging from nowhere and disappearing as quickly. It was as much about sound and resonance as what we normally think of as linear music, in its short run really creating its own sound universe.

The transciption of JS Bach's Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, originally written for organ or piano, was related to the earlier Chromatic Fantasy, and once again made one think why bother with a keyboard when four saxophones can shimmer with such profoundly resonant and spiritual sound, especially these four saxophones played by the young quartet of musicians who are seemingly psychically attached to each other.

The Philip Glass concerto that closed the evening was exciting, but the unlisted encore, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, was even more brilliant, as it drove home the point that a string quartet has nothing on a saxophone quartet, that the saxophone quartet has an equal or greater variety of tones, that it can shimmer with vibrato, create new colors out of blends, and be so ever more dynamic.

In the end, the Amstel Quartet's concert at The Clark was one of the highlights of the 2007 summer cultural season.