Cleveland Duo and saxophonist make strong case for offbeat trio

By Alan Becker

Many years have passed since the saxophone became a “legitimate” instrument for inclusion on non-jazz recital programs. More composers have contributed to the instrument’s repertoire since the day Belgian instrument designer Adolphe Sax patented his design in 1846. Yet, both music and performance continue to lag behind as the public continues to resist acceptance of the instrument. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the small quantity of available music, and part is due to the mostly second-rate quality of that which exists.

The Cleveland Duo sought to rectify this situation Sunday afternoon at the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall. While the weather did not present a warm welcome for the group, the audience certainly did. The husband-and-wife team of Stephen and Carolyn Warner were joined by saxophone player James Umble in a varied program that consisted largely of transcriptions, but managed to hold one’s interest very well.

Bach’s Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Orchestra was one element removed from the original by having the orchestral part played on the piano, and a second element removed by substituting a soprano saxophone for the oboe. Surprise–it worked out very well as Umble played without much vibrato, held his tone back, and sounded like an oboe much of the time. Carolyn Warner’s pianism was beautifully refined and, except for those who must have original instruments, amply demonstrated her skills as an equal, and not dominating, partner.

Carolyn Warner also showed her skill as an arranger of Ernest Bloch’s Poems of the Sea. Her transcription, made with the permission of the composer’s heirs and the publisher, was a model of imagination in the service of music. Originally written for solo piano in 1922, and orchestrated by Bloch two years later, it is a colorful and lyrically yearning suite of three movements inspired by the sea. Far more modest than Debussy’s famous essay, it still enthralls with Bloch’s special brand of lyricism. All this was captured by the players, with Stephen Warner’s violin spot on in the colorful harmonics, and the alto saxophone blending in perfectly.

Two tangos added their characteristic flavor to the program. The first, written for these artists in 2002, by David Morgan was conservative and appealing in its lack of pretense. The second, transcribed by C. Warner, fit Piazzolla’s well-known music like a glove. In fact, almost any transcription of Piazzolla’s music works no matter what the combination of instruments.

Milhaud’s saucy Scaramouche, usually heard in its two-piano version, is a delight and loses nothing when tossed around between alto saxophone and piano. The forceful playing always managed to keep enthusiasm in check and invested the unbridled music with a subtlety that was spirited, yet French to the core.

Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin transcribed, with permission, by Warner for violin, soprano saxophone, and piano, reduced the original piano suite from six to three movements. Even Ravel himself decided not to subsequently orchestrate the Fugue and final Toccata. What was offered here was the Prelude, with the oboe figurations wisely given to the saxophone, the Menuet, repositioned as the second movement, and the Rigaudon in closing, as it does in the orchestrated suite. It was enjoyable and most respectably played, but the final return of the heartfelt theme of the Menuet should surely have been given to the saxophone instead of the violin (it’s played by the oboe in the composer’s orchestration). Warner’s transcription wisely relied heavily on the piano, which she played with loving affection.

Closing the recital was the charming, and very French, Cantilene et Danse by Algerian-born composer Marc Eychenne. Composed in 1961, the Cantilene inhabits some of the same world as Chausson, but the Danse, using a 6/4 meter takes us on a journey towards Florent Schmitt and beyond. It was a fitting close to an unusual program played by major artists conveying their enjoyment of every note being played.

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Mon Jan 11, 2010
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