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Friday, June 02, 2006
In Transit

In Transit
Timothy McAllister, saxophone; Kathryn Goodson, piano
music of Roshanne Etezady, William Albright, Milton Babbitt, Gregory Wanamaker, and Mischa Zupko

It's a little hard to think that the saxophone has been kicking around since the middle of the 19th century. Though its intended home was the European orchestra, it found a more hospitable environment in American jazz and popular music. This recording seems motivated in part by a need to show that the classical world hasn't entirely forsaken the instrument.

The program is very diverse, allowing young composers to appear alongside the works of a couple more established names. By far, the highlight of the disc is William Albright's Sonata. I knew the piece had a reputation as a major piece within the saxophone repertoire, but after hearing it, I see no reason why its status has to be qualified as "within the saxophone repertoire."

The piece is a four movement meditation on how death affects the living. Each movement uses a different historical style, but Albright's dramatic sense was strong enough to make them all cohere. I got the sense that his polystylism wasn't a case of academic posturing, but that it came from a desire to find the most appropriate means for expressing himself. Most of his compositional decisions seemed to stem from this urge for communicativeness.

The other "name" composer on the disc is Milton Babbitt, whose Accompanied Recitative is the shortest work on the program. It's charming and lively music that has something of the excitement of opening a bottle of champagne. At only 1'47", it seems to end just as quickly. The soprano sax's rich and warm timbre seems particularly suited to Babbitt's style.

Roshanne Etezady's Streetlegal is supposed to evoke the thrill of high-speed street racing. Frenetic figures are the ready-made symbol for this kind of motion, but they're not given enough of a context to sound out-of-control all the time. When everything is agitato, the effect washes out after a while. Though it would be cheesy and perhaps a little too literal, I wanted to hear the saxophone indulge in some more honky squawks.

Sonata Deus Sax Machina would've fit into the Composers Forum Discussion on punny titles (Babbitt's piece here is pretty much on the up and up, come to think of it). According to the liner notes, the composer meant to evoke the "drive and energy of mechanical motion," not the plot device that early opera was so fond of.

This title gets a thumbs down from me for being knowingly misleading, but it's better than the composer going for something along the lines of Sax Appeal. In Wanamaker's defense, the work lives up to his intentions. I wanted each of the movements to be a little longer, though. There was something abrupt about each of them. They also felt strangely isolated from one another, despite the motivic connections between them.

The album's title piece is also concerned with travel and motion. The notes describe it as a travelogue, which in musical terms translates to five character pieces. At around 25', it's the longest piece on the disc. It feels fair to make a comparison to On the Road. Mischa Zupko's music has a similar romanticism and meandering quality to it.

The performances on all the tracks are extremely committed. McAllister and Goodson obviously care a lot about this music (it's worth noting that they commissioned all three of the younger composer's pieces). Even when there are weaknesses in the writing, their playing sells the music. There's something satisfying in itself from hearing people play with this level of dedication.


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