I’ve recently been amazed by the number of saxophone ensembles forming and working around Australia in the last couple of years. For so long Continuum Sax seemed to be more or less alone in pushing this kind of music making, but no longer! In Tasmania, Queensland, NSW and Western Australia there are new groups forming and each one is doing something different. Thankfully, nobody seems to be doing quite the same thing.

First of all, I’d like to mention 22SQ from Tasmania, a group comprising Benjamin Price, Georgina Smith, Mitchell Ellis and Nicholas Nugent. Since they formed from among the students at the Tasmanian Conservatorium, the plaudits have been many. At the start of 2011 they performed at the inaugural MONA FOMA festival and played the Philip Glass Quartet for Philip Glass. In July of 2011 they played Glass’ Concerto for saxophone quartet and orchestra with the Tasmanian Discovery Orchestra and performed the Glass Quartet (and other things) at the Australian Clarinet and Saxophone Festival. They will release their first CD in November through the Tasmanian Conservatorium, which features Quartets by Glass, Glazunov, and Singelee as well as the Kastner Sextuor (with some important friends, I believe).  The most exciting thing about looking at 22SQ is how much they’ve been able to generate excitement and opportunities within their local community. You sense that Tasmania feels like it owns this group and that they are intent on being ambassadors for everyone on their home patch.

I’ve been alerted to a new group called Just Sax from Perth. Specialising in light, tuneful, jazzy repertoire, they’ve got about eighteen clips on YouTube and are obviously working hard at getting more work together. With American style music stand covers, they look and sound like good wholesome fun, and even try to get some choreography going in their clips. Using jazz mouthpieces and not being afraid to let loose, they have that touch that audiences will immediately appreciate, something that is often difficult to develop.

In Queensland, the students at the QCGU have a wonderful saxophone ensemble and some interesting quartets forming from amidst its ranks. The QCGU Saxophone Ensemble arrange a lot of their own music, have some incredible composers in their midst and are hoping to pull it all together to go to St Andrews for the World Saxophone Congress in 2012.

The main saxophone quartet in Brisbane is currently Barega, whose current members are Chris Ball, Emma di Marco, Andrew Ball and Diana Tolmie. Their repertoire covers everything from the Tango Virtuoso by Escaich to the Ligeti’s Bagatelles. Performing major modern works to their Brisbane/Queensland audiences is an important task and Barega are relishing the challenge. The links between Barega and the Queensland Con and the QCGU Sax Ensemble make the scene in Brisbane healthy and vibrant.

In Sydney the scene is also burgeoning. Apart from Continuum Sax it’s worth mentioning three quartets, one with a long history and two which started just in 2010/11. Firstly, Nexas (Ben Carey, Andrew Smith, Nathan Henshaw and Jonathan Byrnes) have had a career that is marked by breaks when one or more of its members have been overseas. The group has specialised in contemporary modernist repertoire and new Australian works. They produced a CD for KammerKlang in 2010 with works by student composers but as yet, they haven’t recorded their primary artistic vision. Like many groups formed at University, Nexas have often seemed to be at a cross-roads where their individual careers have pulled in directions contrary to the trajectory of the group. A frustrating situation for both the members of the ensemble and their audience.

More recently, members of Nexas have diverged into other ensembles which have a very different focus. The Sax Summit is a sax quartet with drums marketing themselves to the function circuit. They play classic rock and pop from memory and choreograph their performances – almost a burlesque show. They did a lot of concerts at the Victoria Ballroom in Kings Cross as a way of fine-tuning their product and have managed to get a roll on with gigs.

Allianza Saxophone Quartet is made up of Rebecca Grubb, Joanne Carey, Carmen Nieves and Jonathan Byrnes and are programming works mainly from the canon of quartet literature. Recent performances have included the works of Pierne, Decruck and Bozza. This new group has great potential and I’m looking forward to seeing them grow in the future.

At Sydney Conservatorium of Music, ensemble playing is moving along very strongly. Since arriving, Michael Duke has formed a quartet from his masters students and performed regularly at the SCM and toured to China twice. The current students at SCM are building a number of promising groups that are taking advantage of all the opportunities that SCM can provide. More will no doubt be forthcoming.

Do write and let me know about other Australian sax quartets. I’d love to hear from any that I’ve missed and hear the music that you’ve been making.

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Before I wrap up the final day of the ACSF, it seems to me that I haven’t yet said enough about the Saxophone Gala concert. Particularly I didn’t talk about the fantastic performances by Michael Duke, Barry Cockcroft and Noah Getz and there is an important reason why I should talk more about these: the Australian works they performed are of the highest artistic merit and should be investigated by Saxophonists from around the world.

Philippe Geiss was a very difficult act to follow, it must be said. His performances, some with tape, others with ensemble (including Continuum Sax in the sparkling Tanganita). He played saxes from Bass to sopranino and all in between (although I’m struggling to remember a baritone solo?), thus giving the uninitiated the full saxophone experience. I particularly liked the Bass saxophone number, Zapateo, that you can find on Philippe’s mySpace page. It’s very difficult to pick where the sound is being made or what made the sounds on the tape. I suspect it was all done with a saxophone but I could be wrong. Also, I only heard it from backstage on the intercom system – so I haven’t actually seen Philippe play it in the flesh…yet. Geiss is something of an enigma, it seems to me. His music and the way he plays the saxophone are sort of classical, sort of jazz, but definitely not either. He’s clearly capable of playing at the highest level in whatever style he chooses and always with conviction. Definitely worth checking out if you’ve not come across him before.

Anyway, the second half of the gala concert included performances by Michael Duke and Noah Getz. Firstly, Michael Duke performed Ganba by Sydney based composer Anne Boyd. For those who don’t know Boyd’s music (I recorded a transcription of one of her pieces on my 1999 CD Drive), it wears its Asian and indigenous influences very clearly. Boyd’s pieces have always possessed a clarity of style and character that marked them as very different from other contemporary classical music styles, in a similar way to her colleagues Peter Sculthorpe and Ross Edwards (I’m sure there are many other composers in Europe and America that did the same thing, these composers are the ones whose work I know best).  I won’t go into the background of Ganba as I think anyone performing or listening to it should be able to give it a fresh sheet. Duke’s performance is one that brings every nuance out of the baritone saxophone, whether voicing a mulitiphonic or bringing out an aching melody, he makes everything on the page ring truly. That being said, I think there are some flaws in the piece: I don’t enjoy watching the performer play into the piano at the beginning and end of the piece because it necessitates turning the back on the audience with very little difference to the sound in a large hall; and overall the piece is a little long and some sections seem to say the same thing too many times. That being said, the piece is definitely worth a hearing or investigation by baritone saxophonists.

I wasn’t able to see Michael Duke’s other recital at the ACSF because I got stuck in other sessions. I did get to see him play his program in Sydney earlier in the year and can recommend all of the pieces, particularly those by his Sydney Conservatorium of Music colleagues Michael Smetanin and Matthew Hindson. Smetanin has now written a number of really interesting works for saxophone and often includes saxophone parts in his operas and orchestral works. The solo alto piece ‘As stars are lit’ is a dramatic piece that exploits the saxophone really well. The ascending glissandi that Duke has perfected in his performance were quite striking, at least in performance in March this year.  In contrast, Matthew Hindson‘s ‘Repetepetition’ for soprano saxophone and piano is a sparkling showpiece – fast fingers and catchy tunes. This piece was originally written for violin and is a clever and exciting piece to end a concert.

Noah Getz performed Andrian Pertout’s incredibly difficult and arresting work Riesenschritte. Getz’s playing is very different to what we’ve come to know in Australia as classical saxophone. Our heritage is based firstly upon English orchestral playing and secondly upon the French influence. The friendships of Clive Amadio with Marcel Mule in the 1950s and of Peter Clinch with Jean-Marie Londiex in the 1970s-90s are a testament to this influence. There are other ways to do classical saxophone, however, and while I was well aware of the Rascher school of playing, it seems to me that Noah Getz is somewhere in between these schools. He was playing on a Buescher saxophone and mouthpiece that date from mid-twentieth century. I’m pretty sure it was made later than the parabolic bore instruments that the Rascher school uses and he wasn’t using the modern Rascher mouthpieces. And like the sound that Arno Bornkamp and Ties Mellema get on their Metropolis CD (which use 1930s instruments and mouthpieces for 1930s pieces), it is generally less clear and obviously much more difficult to control in terms of intonation and timbral unity.  Therefore, the saxophone  sounds like each note has its own character, much like, it seems to me, a large multi-percussion set up has a set of disparate sounds that get put together to form the line of the music. This effect was enhanced by the sheer speed and unpredictability of the piece and the double-tonguing that Getz brought to it. I think that Pertout’s piece is very strong and I’ve enjoyed his arrangement of it for the Queensland based ensemble Topology. I hope that it will have more advocates in the future. While the style of saxophone playing that Getz presents is so different from what we’ve come to know in Australia, Getz is an amiable guy and has established a very successful niche for himself in the US university system. He is also a really powerful advocate for new music and deserves our respect, even if one wouldn’t actually want to imitate him.

The final day of the ACSF included performances by a large number of younger players who have gained masters degrees or similar post-graduate diplomas in Australia and overseas. First up was Adrian Tully, a player originating from Brisbane but now based in Germany after studying in France. Tully’s playing of the soprano saxophone was of the highest standard. In a program that included his transcriptions of Brett Dean, Debussy and Reinecke, he demonstrated a musical and technical prowess that I’d love to hear again and again. The Dean piece is the reworking of the flute piece Demons and will be published, with accreditation to Tully,  by Boosey and Hawkes very soon. It is a very very difficult piece with some very very high soprano sax altissimo, which was played with such ease that one was fooled into thinking that maybe anyone could do it. The arrangement of Debussy’s Fetes (from the Nocturnes) was made for Arno Bornkamp and will appear on an upcoming CD of his. Effective music overall, though it struck me as quite old fashioned after hearing the Dean. The transcription of the Reinecke Sonata (best known for flute but also arranged by the composer for violin and clarinet) was compelling (although it still failed to knock the Sonata off my personal black list), and while the piece is not a favourite of mine, the playing was faultless in its clarity, intonation and direction. Tully’s sound is quite direct and forceful, particularly in comparison to the softness of the playing of Christina Leonard (that I mentioned in my last post). But that is not to say that it lacks subtlety, which it has in abundance. Just to say that it possesses an inner self-confidence that reflects the personality of the performer.

Next were three members of the Nexas Saxophone Quartet: Nathan Henshaw, Andrew Smith and Jay Byrnes. Along with Continuum Sax, these guys were flying the flag for Sydney at the ACSF. Andrew Smith kicked off with Balafon, followed by a duet for soprano saxophones by NZ composer/saxophonist Michael Jamieson with Nathan Henshaw and finishing off with Uluru, a solo for baritone sax with tape played by Jay Byrnes. Great playing from good friends of mine. Enjoyable repertoire, particularly the baritone solo, given heart-felt advocacy by the crew from Nexas.

That was just stage one of the mini Michael Jamieson festival that Wednesday morning which continued with NZ saxophonist Simon Brew. Simon first came to my awareness when he won the competition at the Melbourne International Festival of Single Reeds in 2006. Since then he’s spent time studying in the Netherlands and has developed into another awesome saxophonist. Simon’s concert was all by New Zealand composers, including the one and only Michael Jamieson. Although the music played is now a little blurry, I do remember that this was really beautiful and sensitive saxophone playing from Simon and again, that sense that these NZ composers had found a powerful advocate. Good things are happening for saxophone music when performers are raising the bar of what is considered good enough. This is so apparent in Australia and in New Zealand. More on this all soon.

I hope that this gives at least an impression of the creative ferment going on at the saxophone side of the Australian Clarinet and Saxophone Festival. The standard is constantly rising and the range and quality of new Australian compositions for saxophone is developing greatly.

I didn’t get to see much of the clarinet side of the ACSF.  But I did especially enjoy Carl Rosman and Richard Haines incinerating the idea that the clarinet is ‘nice’ in the clarinet gala concert. Love your work guys, you can give me Ferneyhough, Finnessy and Barrett any day.

Again, sorry for the delay in getting this up.

The Australian Clarinet and Saxophone Festival was held in Melbourne last Sunday to Wednesday and Continuum Sax was there performing as a group and as individuals. The Festival was very full, with over 80 presentations (performances, masterclasses, competitions, lectures) during the four days.

The Festival started on Sunday with a performance by the Chinese Saxophonists Ao Kun but it wasn’t until Monday that the saxophone stream really began to create some steam with performances by Barry Cockcroft and Continuum Sax leading the way.

Barry’s concert included the world premiere of the first movement of his new sonata for alto saxophone and piano as well as his solo piece Rock Me, Crazy Logic by Matthew Orlovich, and Charlotte Harding’s Voyages for soprano saxophone and piano. The virtuosity of Barry’s playing in the Melbourne Sonata in particular show just what an individual voice he has as a performer and I’m sure the piece will be widely played once it is published. More on Barry to come as he gave several other memorable performances on Tuesday too.

Also on Monday were performances by Brisbane based groups Barrega and the Queensland Conservatorium Saxophone Ensemble. I wasn’t able to see Barrega due to soundchecking for the Continuum Sax performance, but I really enjoyed the QCSE, a group of 11 undergraduate students who obviously played for each other and were building a cohesive sound and played really interesting repertoire, some of which was arranged by one of their members (if anyone can remind me of his name that would be much appreciated).

Continuum Sax played the Matthew Hindson Gameboy Music, Martin Kay‘s piece Olfieg, some new arrangements of Prokofiev, and JTV’s Heartbreakers. It was slightly trying circumstances for us being the last concert in the day. We’d been scheduled an hour to set up but that was reduced to 25 minutes due to some rescheduling earlier in the day. So sadly, our concert was perhaps the only concert to start really late in the whole week. Even so we took just 50 minutes to get ready but we would have loved the extra 10 minutes and not to have the pressure of time upon us. The audience seemed really appreciative of our presentation, especially the JTV and Hindson.

Continuum Sax perform at the ACSF

Tuesday brought many new challenges to the members of Continuum Sax. Firstly, Christina, Martin and Jim were presenting solo performances at the Festival. In between these, we had to rehearse with Philippe Geiss at the Melbourne Recital Centre for the gala concert. Not an easy morning for anyone.

Christina’s concert brought together JTV’s Garden of Love, a sonata she arranged by Boismortier, a new piece by Tim Dargaville, and the Sonate by Decruck. It was beautiful to hear Christina play the Boismortier, as this field is something that she’s taken very seriously. She has published a number of her own arrangements of baroque music (http://www.christinaleonard.com.au)and the pieces by Boismortier and Barsanti that she’s done are not nearly so well known as the typical Bach, Handel and Vivaldi sonatas that most classical sax players are familiar with. Christina plays with a very sensitive and delicate approach to the instrument. She avoids the habitual bombast that can be the bane of classical saxophone in favour of finding the delicate grain of the sound and the nuance of every phrase (yes, I’m a fan). Of course, the repertoire she’s chosen suits this approach. Garden of Love, for instance rewards a fine sensitivity to articulation and colour (it’s so different to Grab It!) and the Decruck is a work that can be interpreted in so many different ways-Christina’s approach is one that creates interest at every moment, never letting the performance become predictable.

Australian composer Tim Dargaville’s Invisible Dances for soprano saxophone and piano proved to be a valuable new addition to the  saxophone repertoire. The three short movements (fast, slow, fast) have been drawn together from earlier works by Dargaville, although he is at pains to point out, when talking to him, that they are very different from the original incarnations. I hope that this piece will soon be widely available.

Next cab off the ranks was my short performance of solo works by Barry Cockcroft, Margery Smith and Colin Bright. These works are being prepared for a recording for ABC Classic FM in August and I was very happy to have the chance to give them a go in front of an audience and record them. I’m not sure they are ready to go on YouTube yet so you’ll have to wait to see any other versions of it.

James Nightingale performing Bo by Barry Cockcroft

Next Martin gave a free-form, semi-composed/impro performance with Oscar on Contrabassoon, Nick Russoniello on Baritone sax and Julia Starkey on violin. There were some really unusual tone colours, especially between the contrabassoon and the saxophones, and Martin brought his own inimitable je ne ce quois to proceedings. As with all of these kinds of performances, I’m afraid you had to be there.

Tuesday night was the saxophone Gala Concert featuring Philippe Geiss, Nicholas Russoniello, Michael Duke, Barry Cockcroft, Nicole Canham, and Noah Getz. Continuum Sax were involved performing one of Philippe Geiss’ compositions, Tanganita with Philippe. This was a real honour for us to work with Philippe. He is a very special musician and in many ways not anything like what you’d expect a French saxophonist to be. He composers, uses electronics and adapts other works to his own ends. Christian Lauba’s Balafon will never be the same for me again after his performance on tenor sax with his own accompaniment. It ended up being a very long concert, ending with all the performers on stage playing Philippe Geiss’ piece Sir Patrick, an Irish inspired number that was put together with very very minimal rehearsal. Very much in the spirit of the gala concert.

After that, the performances for Continuum Sax were finished and I could relax finally. Before I sign off, however, I’d like to thank Sax and Woodwind in Camperdown for their financial support of Continuum Sax and the Australian Clarinet and Saxophone Festival for having us perform in Melbourne.

In my next post I’ll talk about the final day of the festival. Until then…

Having already begun a blog on the Continuum Sax website, I decided that it might be good to start one that readers could more easily respond to. Primarily this is to make it more fun and meaningful both for anyone reading it and for me writing it.

So what has Continuum Sax been up to since my last posting (which you can find at http://continuumsax.com/page33/page33.html)? Well we did some really fun concerts with Leichhardt Espresso Chorus on the weekend. We played new pieces for choir and saxophones by David Basden and Dan Walker. These Australian composers are both very well-known in Australian choral music circles and have both written a lot for saxophone too. Dan Walker often includes saxophone in the small orchestra that LEC often uses and gives the instrument a good chance to let rip in the best possible way.

Working with LEC was really enjoyable because the organisation is such a friendly and welcoming group of people. As a community choir it really prides itself on bringing forward the musical knowledge and abilities of its members and they all just love finding out about how music works. This is reflected in the large number of newly composed works within their repertoire. This choir is a real champion of active music making in every sense: performance, creation, learning, and giving.

Continuum Sax are next off to the Australian Clarinet and Saxophone Festival. Continuum Sax are performing on the Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday Christina, Martin and myself are performing solo at various times of the day. On the Tuesday night the festival has its saxophone gala concert and Continuum Sax has the privilege of accompanying the French saxophonist Philippe Geiss and Nicholas will do a solo on baritone sax, as one of a couple of items providing some historical perspective through a performance of one of the Solo de Concours by Singelee.

Before we get to Melbourne, I’ll hopefully have time to provide an update on the Philippe Geiss and Barry Cockcroft masterclass in Sydney on Thursday (that would be tomorrow at the time of writing) being hosted by the Saxophone Academy Sydney. Until then…