by Jordan VanHemert
In the realm of saxophone chamber music, the standard configuration of voices that has emerged over time is the soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophone quartet. When Eos Sextet formed in 2016 as students of Dr. Christopher Creviston at Arizona State University, they set out to standardize their instrumentation (soprano, 2 altos, 2 tenors, and baritone) in the world of saxophone chamber music. Eos sextet is comprised of Samuel Detweiler, soprano saxophone; Curren Myers, alto saxophone; Fangyi Niu, alto saxophone; Grace Chen, tenor saxophone; Andrew Lammly, tenor saxophone; and Justin Rollefson, baritone saxophone.
Released in March 2018, their initial offering, simply entitled EOS, is a snapshot of the exacting ensemble precision and rich, resonant sound that has been key in winning this sextet many honors in international and national chamber music competitions. This disc features a wide variety of compositions, and Eos performs them all stunningly.
The record opens with Gregory Wanamaker’s Counterpunch, which Wanamaker calls “an answer to his saxophone quartet piece Speed Metal Organum Blues.” Once again, Wanamaker, who has contributed countless masterpieces to the saxophone repertoire, adds yet another stunning piece to our chamber repertoire.
Like Speed Metal Organum Blues, Counterpunchcontains elements of funk and jazz with Counterpunchfeaturing a bebop soprano solo over a funky blues bass line and energetic comping in the inner voices. Eos plays these stylistic transitions beautifully and seamlessly and handles the motoric lines at the close of the piece with an exciting vigor. This piece’s inclusion and place on this album are a strong statement, and Eos’ performance of this piece starts the album firing on all cylinders.
The album continues with a stark contrast in Carl Schimmel’s Two Scenes from the Shrine of the Crossing of the Birds. The first movement is entitled “The plum rains dissolve into mists, swaddling a strawberry moon.” The second movement is entitled “Seated high upon a monstrous palanquin, a fierce warrior approaches. About these two movements, Schimmel writes, “Movement 1: The beginning of the rainy season (“plum rain”) in Tokyo, and the full moon in June (“strawberry moon”). Movement 2: The annual festival at Torigoe Shrine -- the warrior Yamato Takeru is enshrined within the massive mikoshiwhich is borne by his worshipers.”
Two Scenesopens demanding extreme control of the upper registers at soft dynamic levels, which Eos provides without issue. The ending of this movement is truly impressive, as Eos, all scored in the highest tritone of the usual range of the instrument ends the piece as subtle as it began. The second movement begins with an impressive, rhythmic use of key clicks. As the piece continues, the intensity builds with angular, chromatic lines spaced a minor second apart. The ensemble executes these in perfect lock-step, which takes place literally as the piece builds to its dramatic close.
Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Op. 11is a piece that needs no introduction. One of two string transcriptions on this album, the contrast of timbres between the Barber and the second string transcription, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, are striking. The warmth of the opening measures is a well-informed choice and subtlety that perfectly captures the somber quality of the piece. When the tone of the ensemble opens up, it creates a rather poignant climax befitting of a piece with such emotional weight.
The recording continues with Ethan Cypress’s Fickle Tone Zones. Cypress describes the piece as follows: “The themes of this piece are chaos (Zone 4) & overstimulation (Zones 1, 3 & 5) contrasted by an attempt at finding peace (Zone 2) & structure (the overarching rondo form). With the exception of Zone 2, the rest of the piece is based on 12-tone rows and resultant harmonies relating to voice-leading principles that I've been dissecting from Paul Hindemith's fugues in Ludus Tonalis.”
This piece combines echoes of bebop with the aforementioned Hindemith influence, which contributes aptly to this compelling new work. Cypress has written extremely authentic statements of bebop vocabulary and jazz harmonic language throughout the piece. The ensemble navigates these zones seamlessly, and the way in which the performers dovetail the melodic lines from one voice to another in the later zones is brilliant.
The disc closes with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70. Throughout this work, the ensemble tackles all of the challenges of playing string transcriptions such as this one, including multiple tonguing and extensive altissimo in the soprano voice. The entire group displays graceful and lightness double-tonguing. Samuel Detweiler’s covetable control of the altissimo register on the soprano saxophone is a significant asset in the group’s interpretation of this piece.
While some may not prefer the audible breaths throughout the album, I believe they add a welcome element of humanity to the disc that mimics a live performance, during which one would also hear the breaths of the ensemble. This contrasts the sterility than can sometimes be heard in studio recordings.
EOSis yet another fine example of that which moves our instrument forward -- seeing a need for the saxophone to progress in a certain direction and having the determination to overcome the obstacles to make progress. Eos Sextet has existed a relatively short time, but I close by highly recommending this offering to those interested in saxophone chamber music. I look forward to hearing more from this excellent ensemble.