ELYSIAN SAXOPHONE QUARTET
By ERIK STEIGHNER
It didn’t take long for the Elysian Quartet to find its footing. Soon after its founding in 2017 by graduate students at the University of Oklahoma, the ensemble won competitions hosted by the North American Saxophone Alliance and the Music Teachers National Association. Later in 2018, the ensemble followed up their successes with the release of their debut album, Red.
The quartet features Jared Waters (soprano saxophone), Damian Cheek (alto saxophone), Evan Harris (tenor saxophone), and Spiro Nicolas (baritone saxophone). Hard work and preparation shine throughout Red, which features an ambitious selection of works composed—with the exception of a Vivaldi trio sonata—during the last 16 years.
Red features crisp production that strikes an ideal balance between reverb and an immediate sound that allows both hair-raisingly fast passagework and subtle timbral shifts to be heard with clarity. The mix pans the soprano and alto rather firmly to the left speaker and the tenor and baritone to the right, which gives the impression of a front row seat to the ensemble’s performance; some listeners may find themselves wishing for a more blended sound, as though heard from the middle of a concert hall.
The album opens with a bang, as Gregory Wanamaker’s speed metal organum blues gives the quartet a chance to channel both monastic solemnity and heavy metal thrashing. Wanamaker wrote the piece to commemorate the Prism Saxophone Quartet’s 20th Anniversary concerts in 2004, joining 19 other one-minute works by various composers. With this limitation in mind, Wanamaker gets to the point, portraying “monks on speed” through power chords, blues, and multiphonic distortion. The Elysian Quartet handles the precise tuning required by the rapid-fire parallel fourths and fifths with apparent ease, and after a rhythmically dense but short-lived journey, the ensemble ends on a perfectly tuned and cathartically colorful major chord. From the beginning, the quartet’s attention to detail is apparent in their rhythmic precision, careful tuning, and uniformity of dynamic shaping.
Following this cheeky opener, the ensemble arrives at the emotional linchpin of the album. Joel Love composed his two-movement In memoriam after losing his father to cancer in 2014. According to Love, “My father’s last words to me, other than ‘I love you,’ were ‘live the life you want to live and never look back,’ and are reflected in the ethos of the [second] movement.” Following a skittish and unsettling “Threnody”, “Adieu” provides an equally intense experience. The quieter moments are often the most poignant and heart-wrenching, and the Elysian Quartet transcends the difficulties of tuning and control throughout their sensitive performance, which thrums with emotional energy.
Changing pace with the charming and accessible Ciudades (2011) by Guillermo Lago (the pseudonym of Dutch composer Willem van Merwijk), the Elysian Quartet “tours” the cities of Córdoba (Spain), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia). The first movement opens with brilliant straight-tone fanfares, seamless passing of rapid musical lines, and precise articulations across the ensemble. The second movement was inspired by the aftermath of the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s, and Lago eschews heart-on-sleeve mourning for a quieter approach. The city, resigned to its bloody past during the static first half of the movement, eventually moves forward with new resolve as the tenor and baritone provide a rhythmic motor under a gradually rising (and impeccably tuned) melody in the alto and soprano. “Addis Ababa” returns to a lighter mood with bright rhythms and an extremely juicy soprano slide by Waters at the work’s thrilling conclusion. At times, the busy rhythmic figures could have felt more carefree and less intensely focused, but the movement still provides a sense of welcome release following “Sarajevo.”
Thierry Alla’s Le Bal (2003) continues the dance-like elements of the last work, although it takes a while for these moments to emerge from the textural mire. The ensemble’s intonation, blend, and nimble fingers are in fine form as always, with Nicolas’s impressive baritone playing often taking a prominent role. The work ends with an explosion of blazing passagework that is one of the album’s highlights.
Red concludes with two idiomatic and well-executed arrangements by members of the ensemble. Arranged by Harris, Antonio Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata in D minor Op. 1, No. 12 “La Follia” (1705) gives the quartet a chance to showcase their ability to play in a more reserved style, adding tasteful ornamentation and minimizing excess vibrato. Their Baroque style never comes across as stiff, as the group uses some judicious rubato and trades off highly expressive solos, including some particularly fine tenor work by Harris. Though Cheek’s alto saxophone is often paired with the soprano in this work, he emerges near the end with some lovely solo playing as well.
Marc Mellits’s Red, which harkens back to the Baroque era with six interrelated movements, is a fitting close to the album. Cheek’s arrangement of the two-marimba work allows the quartet to render the repetitive, post-minimalist style with precision and consistency. They never let the material feel tired or lose their sense of precision; at times, though, it would be fun to hear them play with more abandon, particularly in the final movement, “fast, obsessive, bombastic, red.” However, occasionally playing things a little too well is a “challenge” most groups would love to have, and if the Elysian Quartet continues on their current trajectory, we can look forward to many more successful recordings and performances by this splendidly talented ensemble.