Zzyzx brings the joy of sax to Symphony Space
Like the superb little restaurant no one knows about because it hasn’t yet been reviewed by the New York Times, classical music for saxophone lies beneath most New Yorkers’ radar. The Zzyzx Quartet revealed the folly of that obscurity with their July 12 concert at Symphony Space, in which they presented classical (as opposed to jazz or military) standards written for saxophone quartet, new commissions, and transcriptions of pieces written for other instruments.
The saxophone’s lack of prominence in the classical repertoire is due not to a dearth of quality but to bad timing: the saxophone was invented late in the evolution of the symphony orchestra, so it was simply not included in many of the works that are routinely presented in great concert halls. Designed by Belgian Adolphe Sax to combine the power of brass with the subtle nuance of woodwinds and the facility of strings, the saxophone first made its appearance in 1841 and was patented five years later in two versions: one for the orchestra, the other for military bands. Many well-known orchestral composers who wrote after its creation—Berlioz, Prokofiev, Puccini— included it in their works, and many contemporary composers are including it in their compositions.
The Zzyzx Quartet, comprising soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone sax, exemplifies the happy development of the instrument in the excellence of their playing, the quality of their repertoire, and their synthesis as a quartet. Watching them is like watching a well-directed string section whose bows move in unison; the members of Zzyzx breathe simultaneously, their voices swelling together or seamlessly trading over an undulating sea of sound. Their Symphony Space program began with Thierry Escaich’s haunting saxophone quartet, “Tango Virtuoso,” followed by David Maslanka’s moving “Recitation Book,” based on a collection of madrigals, including Gesualdo’s “Ecco moriro unque.” Fuminori Tanada’s “Mysterious Morning II” incorporated fluttering, descending chromatic lines that sounded like unnatural sounds from nature: you’ve never heard them, but you can’t imagine where else they might be from. The concert accompanied the release of Zzyzx’s second CD, Intersections, which includes a transcription of Rachmaninoff’s “O Gentle Light,” Florent Schmitt’s Quator, and the world premiere recording of John Mackey’s Unquiet Spirits, commissioned by Zzyzx and given its New York Premiere at Symphony Space.
While spotlighting a little-known bistro might kill its charm, spotlighting this excellent music can only deservedly augment its reach. Zzyzx Quartet is the perfect guide through this unknown but magnificent territory.
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